One Sunday morning in his early twenties, after a particularly wild night of partying, Steve Guttenberg woke up in a full suit on a Marina del Rey beach at about 11:30 in the morning.
"It was family day at the beach, packed with kids, and I'm lying there like a scene in Breaking Bad,” he recalls today. “I get up and I'm, like, hungover as hell and a kid is making sandcastles next to me, and a mother is eating tuna fish sandwiches and screaming, and the lifeguards are yelling. It was insanity. People were looking at me like, 'What the fuck?'"
It sounds rather like the end of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, I say. “Yes,” Guttenberg says laughing. “Except I wasn't dancing. And the police didn't pick me up."
The 59-year-old actor tells this story as an example of the rare times he has strayed “too far from the boat,” as he puts it.
If that image of the wholesome Guttenberg seems strange, it is also strange to see the actor—most famous for playing the happy, cute cop in Police Academy, the happy, cute would-be dad in Three Men and a Baby and its sequel, and the happy, cute good guy Jack in Cocoon and its sequel—play bad. It's almost like a squishy puppy who’s suddenly sprouted blood-soaked fangs.
But at 10 PM on Sunday, Guttenberg makes his debut on HBO's amiable pro-football drama Ballers, starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as a football agent hustling for his clients having retired from the game. Think Entourage-meets-Jerry Maguire, but gentler.
In season three of the show, Guttenberg plays a Las Vegas casino magnate, Wayne Hastings Jr., with all the same mellowness as cute cop and cute dad, but also with an undercurrent of menace.
“A pretentious, self-involved, self-important fellow who was born on third base and think he hit a triple,” Guttenberg says of his character, the vain and vainglorious template of whom he places on a lineage with the villains of Shakespeare and Molière, with “the shadow of the father” hanging over them. They are, he says, mixtures of loyalty and integrity, self-loathing, and self-righteousness. He is happy to have graduated from playing the cute hero to the older, more ambiguous villain.
Guttenberg and I meet in his agent’s midtown Manhattan office. He is wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, and looks extremely handsome and fit. Has he had plastic surgery or Botox? “No, I’m trying to get a discount,” he shoots back, joshingly. “I went to a few guys, but the prices were crazy.”
He doesn’t feel any pressure to smooth lines. “I want to get older. I want to be the dad, the grandpa, those are great roles. I want to be the older guy. I am the older guy. But if you’ve got a guy at a good price. If can get a facelift for under 150 bucks, total, I’m all in. If it’s like 150 dollars, except this extra $10,000, forget it.”
Guttenberg seems cheerful. He's also intense, and talks at a gallop. He is fiercely into living, as he puts it more than once, his “best” life, and being there for his loved ones (including his fiancée Emily Smith, a CBS reporter 20 years his junior), and “being a good person.” He says this loudly and determinedly a number of times. Doing his best, doing good by and for others: these things preoccupy him—and also getting back “into the A-game,” as he puts it. His dream roles are Willy Loman and King Lear. He mentions these two in particular more than once: casting directors, take note.
Dangers of The High Life
Johnson was a “big-hearted, generous” co-star, Guttenberg says, although—despite the wild times on screen—he says for him he it was “straight from the set to the hotel and room service” when they filmed Ballers in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
“You get to a point when there’s not much to see out there,” Guttenberg says of hedonism. “The names change but the faces stay the same. You have to realize what is important to you, and the illusion of being a film actor or a star is that you get to head into corridors that the average guy doesn't go down.
“That might be true, but at one point you realize you’re not going down those corridors any more, because you’re mature and other things become more important. People in your life become more important, family life becomes more important. Being an actor especially in a set location is a very slippery slope. The land is littered with bodies so you have to be smart.
"This profession is like being a jockey on a racehorse. You can easily get killed. You can easily get your brain crushed. You have to be very smart about how you live life with the adulation and artificial accolades you get.”
A sensible celebrity recognizes that the “screen is just a sheet with light on it,” he says gravely.
Guttenberg realized this—seeing acting simply as a job and a craft—about fifteen years ago. Yes, his stardom has been life-changing in what he earns, he accepts, but he has also accepted that leading a celebrity lifestyle doesn’t work for him. Instead, he looks for investment opportunities.
He has met presidents and heroes like Laurence Olivier, Jason Robards, and Gregory Peck, but consciously embracing stardom “doesn't work for my authenticity.”
“I had string of very successful commercial films,” says. “I’ve had a great deal of notoriety and hubris left as packages on my doorstep. I’m very careful to only open a bottle and not drink the whole gallon. It’s very dangerous to a person like me who grew up in the advertising age, believing that Sean Connery was James Bond and the Beatles really lived as they did in A Hard Day’s Night.
"I have to stay on my job, which is to be a good actor, to listen, to tell the truth, to remember my lines, to be easy to work with, and to grow.”
All this self-flagellation before the fact suggests a fear of the demons that would come screaming into the air should Guttenberg open that package, I say.
“Yeah, sure, absolutely, still am,” he says. “I’m very aware of the temptations. And they’re all around. And I want to be better than that. I’ll see a piece of candy but I’m not eating it. I understand what it is but it’s not for me.”
‘Put Your Pride On The Shelf’
Guttenberg was born in Brooklyn, and raised in Flushing, Queens, and Massapequa, Long Island. He grew up dabbling with the idea of being a dentist, started acting at twelve, and then at seventeen went to L.A. for a year for his first dip into the film industry. He writes about it, very well, in his 2012 memoir, The Guttenberg Bible.
“I hated it. It was all about whoever was the hottest and most popular in the room,” Guttenberg tells me. “If you had a hit movie you were able to be the loudest at the party. I don’t measure people by their success. I measure them by their manners.
"I was driven out of the film and television business after a year because their manners in 1976 to me were abysmal. I couldn't do it. I couldn't take the culture, it wasn't for me. It still isn’t. I don't see the outside, I see the inside. I just think it’s a miracle for any actor to make a living.”
It’s nice to get the best table in a restaurant, he accepts, but it’s also important “to share a message about how you think people should behave.”
The young Guttenberg attended Albany State University for a year, then returned to acting. He tells a story about getting his first big commercial, for Kentucky Fried Chicken. “This beautiful man next to me, this angel, said, ‘Put your pride on the shelf.’” Guttenberg did as advised, smiled and smiled, and got the gig. He was on his way.
Guttenberg's first big role was in the camp and much-scorned 1980 movie Can't Stop The Music, made for $20 million then, he says, “so now that would be about $200 million.”
It is memorable not just for the terrible critical response it received, but also for also starring the Village People, and for the sight of Guttenberg in tight-green polo and white pants rollerskating through the streets of Manhattan, having excitedly announced: “My time is now!"
Guttenberg didn't know the Village People were gay until someone told him, and this came as a huge surprise, he laughs. Caitlyn Jenner also stars, and came to Guttenberg's 21st birthday party, “although we haven't seen each other in forever."
Life as a young actor was tough: “Eating top ramen every night, driving all over, making sure you look great each time, getting turned down—it's crazy making."
He recites the rejections he received: “You're too short, too tall, too Jewish, too Italian, too New York, not New York enough, too Jewish, not Jewish enough, too slim, too fat, too ugly, too good-looking.' I heard everything.
"It fucks you up. But you have to have a healthy mind about it, and you also have to worry about how you're going to eat next week, your rent and all. One day our acting class went to the zoo, and someone pointed out a rhinoceros and said we needed the hide of that."
Guttenberg drove a taxi and was a waiter, and is proud he hasn't been a waiter since he was eighteen. The rhino skin he only acquired fifteen years ago, he says, after he had been a household name. “I handled it pretty casually” he says of fame. “I was younger, the bullets didn't bounce off so easily. They bounce off easier now."
Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, his Cocoon co-stars, once sat him down to offer some advice. Guttenberg was expecting them to say to study the classics, learn to write. But it was, “Save your money."
Gregory Peck told him to be bold. Karl Malden advised never to allow gag pictures of him to be taken. Alfred Drake told him to improve his acting so he could play the heavy. And his Ballers co-star Johnson quoted George Burns: “Stay booked."
The advice that has really stuck came via Lionel Richie in an Oprah Winfrey 'Master Class', “who said,” says Guttenberg, “that OK, you're a big movie star or singing star, you've got all the girls, all the money, all the drugs, all the booze. Can you handle it?"
Guttenberg pauses and says emphatically, “'Cause that's the game bro.' Can you handle it? It's big. You want all the girls? You've got all the girls. You want all the money? You've got all the money. You want all the booze? You've got all the booze. OK, now what are you going to do? There you go."
A silence descends. Did he have all that, then?
"I still have it. I have it every day. Can you handle it? Can you say no to the booze, drugs, girls, parties, accolades, false idol worship? Can you handle it every day? Yeah. And I can handle it 'cause I get it."
Guttenberg's moments of going “too far from the boat"—like waking up on that beach in Marina del Rey—happened in his early twenties. “I don't go far from the boat any more.” It was mainly booze: “I'd drink as many Screwdrivers as I could. That's the only drink I knew how to order."
And not drugs? “I dabbled of course but it was never something that was part of my life. I like to drink and imbibe, but it’s never been an issue. I'm a red-blooded American male. I like to have a good time. But thank God no, I didn't have that. I'm sure I fell asleep at a party or two, or woke up in morning and said, 'Where did I park my car?' because I'd taken a taxi home when certain things happened."
He is still handsome, and back then he was young and very handsome, and famous. Did he have lots of sex?
"Umm, how do I put this,” says Guttenberg cautiously. “I regard sex as a very healthy activity, and a primal need and a psychological need. So I've been lucky with sex in that it's always been pretty healthy for me, and the dark part of that world has never been something I've been attracted to.
"Ever since I started to explore women, I've always been healthy-minded about sex. But I must say being monogamous, and where I am right now in my relationship, is the healthiest sex I've ever had and the best sex I've ever had.
"I've always been aware of the power and seduction of fame. And I've been aware that it’s not fair to overwhelm and take what isn’t yours. And women are very powerful. And you have to be careful when you're dealing with that dynamite. Women are more powerful than men will ever be. They're not like you and me. They're eons above us. I have sisters and a mother, so I really respect women. Sure, when you become a little more successful you become a little more attractive to women, for sure, absolutely. But it's a weapon in the battle of the sexes that you have to be very careful with because it's a double-edged sword."
The Uneasy Fame Game
Even when he was household-name famous in the 1980s, Guttenberg was aware of how fleeting it could be; that he only ever needed a “pair of pants and a T-shirt.” The extra stuff, “the box seats,” was nice, “but it was never a way of life.” He felt uncomfortable with fame from the get-go, he insists, he knew it wasn't “real."
He remembers bars suddenly being closed suddenly being open, coffee shop owners forcing free cups in his hand. “This poor woman baking for three days with my name on all these cupcakes she's made.” All of it sounds lovely, but it made Guttenberg uncomfortable.
Sitting opposite him, I can report this isn't faux-humility, or grand-scale humblebragging: he means it. In the cut-price theatre ticket line, or when he is getting an ice cream at a van, the startled question is the same, he says.
"Oh my god, Steve Guttenberg, what are you doing here?” he is asked, as if he shouldn't have to buy his own theater tickets, or that he has “a Mister Softee van of my own” parked at home. “I'm doing what you're doing,” Guttenberg says.
But it doesn't compute: people have their fixed ideas of celebrities, he says, and part of it is the idea that they occupy a different part of the stratosphere.
It frustrates him, but he is also proud that “every stitch of clothing I have comes from showbusiness, everything I have ever owned comes from showbusiness. I have friends who have bought up their families on showbusiness. You know how rare that is? It's like drilling for oil. Rarer."
What does he think of the Police Academy movies now? “I'm grateful for them. Oh my gosh, it was my first big commercial hit, the first movie I was an owner in. They gave me a piece of it. I'm so lucky. I don't watch the movies now, but they changed my life and the lives of my loved ones and friends."
Yet he didn't star in the fifth one? “They just didn't come with the money,” Guttenberg says laughing. “We were supposed to meet in a darkened alley and trade suitcases.” He laughs, conjuring the image.
“I was going to give them my talent they were going to give me my money. And we got there. I handed over my talent, and the money was a little light. I said, 'What is this?' They said, 'That's all we got.' I said, 'Really? The series made a billion dollars.'” He sighs, and laughs. “That's OK. It was negotiation. That's why it didn't work out."
He is, or was, something of a gay pin-up, especially to anyone who saw his pert ass in The Man Who Wasn't There.
"I know, I'm very proud of that,” he says of the appreciation. He has never had sex with men? “Never,” he says apologetically. “I like the other ice cream. But it's nice to have someone saying hello, getting a little attention."
He recalls his friendship with Gary Kalkin, a top Disney executive who died of AIDS, aged 44, in 1995. They would go out and have a great time, and then Kalkin and his friends would head off to the gay bars, and they would not allow Guttenberg, despite his requests, to join them.
"First of all, you don't fit in,” they told him. “And also you'll fuck it up for us. You're too straight.” Guttenberg laughs. “It's true, whenever I walk into a gay party, it's like a needle of the record player goes 'eeecchhh.' (This is self-deprecating nonsense: Guttenberg's good looks would likely be welcome at any gay bar or party, especially back then.)
Cocoon and Three Men and a Baby bought Guttenberg more fame and more money. But after that his career seemed to fall away. “No, I never panicked. I just wanted to be an actor doing great jobs. I can always do something else. I'm happy watching paint dry. I want to be happy with me, and what I have got.
"To people I don't know, I don't care what they think. To people who really love me they want me to keep working. I'm from that Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn school. 'Save your money,' that's what it's all about.
"I would have absolute moments and small periods of 'No-one is coming to the store, why isn’t anyone coming to the store? But I never let it become too much of me because I have other things to deal with. I have parents, sisters, friends, people I care about and love."
Self-administered tough love also helps. 'OK they didn't choose you for this role, so pass the broccoli.' 'You can't put your shoes on.' Oh shut the fuck up.'"
He lived within his means and seams, as he puts it. “Do I want more? Have I always been ambitious? Have there been times of 'Damn, what the hell's going on?' Yeah, 'cos we have great stuff in the store, but I know there's always the part of the night when I am going to leave that store and go home, which is where I want to be."
The way to get out of those dark moments is to realize “no one is getting you out of there,” says Guttenberg. “A friend said you can peer over the hole, but once you jump into that hole you have to get yourself out of it. No one else can, and you become pain in the ass to everybody moping around."
He looks around him, sees what he has (with Smith at the forefront), and thinks, “Oh my god bro', what the fuck is wrong with you? You didn't notice who you woke up with? Well I'm going to hit you on the fucking head."
And so Guttenberg sees “the wall,” and he doesn't lean against it, and shuffle down on his knees, but jumps over it. For anyone else feeling cast down, he recommends reading “Tony Robbins, Plato, Socrates, Theodore Roosevelt, Thoreau. Start reading inspirational plays, go to the movies, go see art. Start feeding yourself."
He won't make any overtly political statements, but says, “I am as upset as anybody with the contention all around us right now. We need to start teaching values. And we need to put money in education, science technology, math, and engineering. There needs to be money and a focus on education. That's who is going to be running the country.
"Let us all be healthy, and all live together and live happy lives. Everybody, every type of person in the world: every religion, every nationality, every sexual preference, every hair and eye color. At this point we've got to live together. Everything will be okay."
Living With The Devil
Guttenberg says he always tries to say something nice, do something nice (like give money to the homeless), “because every morning I am fighting the devil. Every morning that devil comes in and he is trying to tell me how things are not working out. Then I hear my mom and dad (who now live in Arizona, and who he visits as regularly as he can) saying that things are pretty good, to enjoy life, and be happy.”
They’re right. He has a pretty great life, so what’s the problem, I ask, with this recurring devil. Is Guttenberg naturally depressive?
“I think I am naturally extremely sensitive, to not only my own life but other people’s lives too. I’m at my happiest connecting. Sometimes I connect with the stuff that’s not the right thing for me to connect with, that could bring me down. I have those moments in my head.”
He has therapy, and reads, and talks to people he admires: “I just have to push myself over that wall. There are times when I have been really depressed. Years ago when I was getting divorced [from first wife Denise Bixler, to whom he was married from 1988 to 1992], times I haven’t been working.”
It’s important to remember, he says, that depression is “what is happening to you, not who you are. You have to separate yourself from your circumstances and look at what you have inside—not what is before you or behind you, it’s what’s inside you. It's a truthful thing.”
He brightens, and says again how “better” he wants to be. The prospect of turning 60 next year he heartily embraces, because, he says, all his dreams have come true and he has become everything he wants to be, and is “in a great place” with everyone important to him. “I just want to freeze time right now.”
The jollity isn't forced, but, he says, “I work hard at it. I don't take it for granted. I wake up and tell Emily how much I love her and I get up and say ‘Today’s going to be a happy day.’ If my mood changes (to something darker) I say, ‘I don't want to be that way. I want to stay this way.’ I don't want to give into the devil, I’m fighting him all the time. I’m fighting the enemy all the time.” He sighs. “He never wins any more which is great.”
Meaning 'the devil' used to win?
“Oh yeah. I’m Jewish, and I haven't had many sins to confess on Yom Kippur for a while, but there was a time before where I’d go to temple for a straight three days trying to get over what I did.” He laughs.
What was he atoning for?
“I don't think I’ve done anything terrible. I think I made dubious choices.”
He doesn’t specify what he means beyond behaving a little excessively, giving “a false impression” to others and wasting other people’s time. He hasn’t been as thoughtful as he could have been, he says. He’s “shirked” some things.
This doesn’t sound dreadful in and of itself. Is Guttenberg hard on himself?
Yes, he says. As a boy, his parents were disciplinarian. He recalls a battery of their admonitions: “Don't do that, what are you going there, you don't need to be with that person, what are doing with that guy?”
Their big, recurring question, “What are you doing?” was met with Guttenberg saying “Nothing,” which was met by their response: “Well, go do something.”
Ever since, Guttenberg says he has to be busy doing something.
Would he like to be a father himself?
“Yeah. It's a big thing to say yes to, but yeah I would. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
Guttenberg hasn’t wanted children before. “No, this is the first time. I’ve had wonderful relationships with some wonderful women, but I’ve never felt the way I do as I do about Emily. She’s the real deal.”
They met through a friend, started dating, and got along. “She wakes up in the morning the same way she goes to sleep: solid, balanced. I don't want to give these things a jinx, but she makes me a better person which I really like. I have to up my game around her. She’s a very classy lady. She creates a wonderful home, her value system is terrific, and her character and integrity, and sense of humor… she’s a really nice lady.”
What about the age gap? Guttenberg is 59, and Smith 39. He turns the enquiry joshingly on its head, and says he aims to get as many good years out of her as he possibly can.
“You attract who you attract,” he says. “You fall in love.” He puts the stroke of good fortune of meeting her down to God: “I think I got lucky and helped me. I got an angel around, knock on wood.”
Guttenberg laughs that he plans to live till he’s 150. He just dropped 20 pounds thanks to a new vegetable diet. “I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’m a lot wiser than I used to be. I’m really good at getting older.”
Smith helps him be his best: “Not your uncomfortable best or an anxiety-fueled best, but your best.” They live near Lincoln Center, got engaged last December, and will “likely” marry in the spring, but no date has been set.
Bring On The A-Game
As content as he is, Guttenberg is also fired up. A return to the screen in an HBO show like Ballers, and the prestige that comes with, makes him “want to do Willy Loman [the iconic embattled paterfamilias in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman]. One of these says I'll do a Willy Loman and it will blow everyone's minds. I'll do it.
"I want to do Lear. I want to be in the game more. I want to be with the A-actors, the A-directors. Paul Thomas Anderson. And I want to be around Spielberg. I want to work with Judd Apatow and Paul Feig.” In such an arena, Guttenberg says, “The fields are better, the balls go further, the lighting is better, the people are nicer. You're going to get seen, an audience comes. I want to work more and I want to work with great people. I want do good work. I want to become a better actor every day. I want to be Gene Hackman-ish."
Guttenberg's enthusiasm and determination are heartfelt. But he ends our hour together as he began it, and as our conversation has been studded with, with declarations about the importance of love and being the best person he can be.
His parents told him when he was young, and still tell him, to enjoy life and be happy; that any time he wanted to quit acting that was fine; to just get his stuff and come home.
Guttenberg takes a little stone out of his pocket. It has “Love” carved on it. His mom and one of his sisters gave it to him years ago, and he carries it around “to remind me that I got this, I'm set.” Guttenberg pauses and looks at the stone a few seconds, then says quietly, “I've got people who love me. I'm in good shape."
Season 3 of Ballers begins on HBO tonight, Sunday, 10pm