What the Hell Happened to Steve Guttenberg?
This may come as a shock to some of you. But a long time ago, this guy was a movie star. Back in the days of Reaganomics and Rubick’s Cubes, Steve “The Gute” Guttenberg was an A-list movie star. He worked with directors like Barry Levinson, Ron Howard and Curtis Hanson. And then, 1990 came and everyone forgot about him.
When Guttenberg was just getting started, he set himself up with an office at Paramount. But he didn’t have permission to do so.
“It seemed to me that sneaking onto a lot and finding an office, it wasn’t premeditated. I never thought, ‘Oh, I’m gonna go get an office at Paramount.’ I just was walking around and walking around, and I found this old building, the Lucille Ball makeup building, that nobody was using. And I just thought, “How great.” I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to do that. Why not? It was empty for 30 to 40 years. Why not use it?”
Steve Guttenberg’s first significant role was in the 1978 Nazi-themed thriller, The Boys from Brazil in which he starred opposite Gregory Peck and Lawrence Olivier. Quite an auspicious beginning, don’t you think?
After a fairly successful debut, Guttenberg considered leaving Hollywood to study dentistry.
“When I was doing Boys From Brazil, I got done with it and I was going back to school, and I got a call from CBS to come do a television series in L.A., and I guess there was a little moment where I said, ‘Gee, I’m gonna go back there and try again, take some more. Go back there and carpetbag it again. Go out there and see what I can do and then come back.’ I don’t think I ever thought I was going to keep doing it. I always thought at one point, I just wouldn’t want to be in that atmosphere my whole life. I tried to quit after the first year. “
In 1980, Guttenberg starred opposite the Village People and Bruce Jenner in the infamous Can’t Stop the Music. Can’t Stop the Music was a musical retelling of the rise of the Village People, the disco-era music group known for including a cowboy, a biker guy and an Indian who sang about the joys of staying at the YMCA.
The Gutt described the over-the-top atmosphere on the set:
“Money was no object, and it was this incredibly vulgar, exciting set to be on. Somebody wanted caviar from Japan, boom, it was flown in. Those people don’t feel good that day, boom, we’re not gonna film that day. There were allowances. I think when we made that movie, the budget was $23 million, which was one of the highest budgets ever in 1977 or ’79, and it was just fantastic to me to be in the company of the Village People—who I thought were all straight. But so did the country, right? So did everybody who bought their albums.”
Believe it or not, everyone did think the Village People were straight. Well, straight people did.
You would think a Village People musical could ride the wave of disco mania to box office success, right? It probably would have if it had been released a few years earlier. But by 1980, not only was disco no longer popular, there was a huge “disco is dead” backlash.
As a result, the 23-million-dollar musical earned a paltry 2-million dollars at the box office. The reviews were unanimously terrible.
Most telling of all, Can’t Stop the Music was the recipient of the first-ever Golden Raspberry for Worst Picture. John J.B. Wilson was inspired to create the awards for bad movies after sitting through a double feature of Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu. Yep, that’ll do it.
The next year, Guttenberg appeared in the TV hockey movie, Miracle on Ice. He returned to the big screen in style in 1982 as part of Barry Levinson’s ensemble comedy-drama, Diner.
Diner was a dream job for a young actor in the 80’s. Although it was only a modest success at the box office, critics lavished it with praise. It helped that Levinson’s script was nominated for an Oscar. And the cast was a who’s who of up-and-coming actors including Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly, Ellen Barkin and Paul Reiser. The Gute got top billing.
Although Diner was a small movie, it has had a lasting impact. In 1983, it was adapted by Levinson into a short-lived TV show. Reiser was the only returning cast member. The cast of the TV show included Michael Madsen and James Spader. Unfortunately, the show never got past the pilot stage.
Currently, Levinson is adapting Diner for Broadway with pop singer Sheryl Crow.
Diner gave Guttenberg’s career a bump. But as part of an ensemble, Guttenberg had to share the spotlight with a talented cast. In 1983, Guttenberg followed up Diner with a starring role in the invisible man comedy, The Man Who Wasn’t There.
The posted for The Man Who Wasn’t There included the tagline, “Being invisible will get you into spy rings, diplomatic circles and the girls’ locker room.” I think this tells you everything you need to know about the movie.
Oh yeah and it was in 3-D. In 1983, there was a wave of 3-D movies that included Jaws 3-D, Amityville 3-D, and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. When none of these movies proved to be hits at the box office, the short-lived 3-D fad went dormant. Although unlike the Village People, it would come back eventually.
There are two upsides to starring in The Man Who Wasn’t There. One, Guttenberg had the lead role. Two, he was invisible for much of the film.
Later that year, Guttenberg returned to TV for the ABC movie The Day After. I usually don’t spend a lot of time talking about TV movies. But The Day After scared the living crap out of me and every one I knew in 1983.
It seems quaint now. But in the 80’s Cold War America was scared silly of nuclear war and the Russians. When ABC aired The Day After it was seen as a realistic depiction of the aftermath of nuclear war which could happen without notice at any minute.
Check out what the Cold War did to the Gute:
I remember having classroom discussions about it in school. We were encouraged to watch the broadcast. And the next day every single kid in school was scared shitless. Worst recess ever.
Watch it if you dare: