What the Hell Happened to Steve Guttenberg?

Steve Guttenberg

Steve Guttenberg

In the 80’s Steve Guttenberg was a top-grossing movie star.  His movies from the decade grossed over $500 million dollars.  That’s over half a billion dollars not adjusted for inflation.  Guttenberg could do it all; comedy, drama, talking robot movies.  But something happened as the eighties came to an end.  When the nineties rolled in, a lot of actors who were best-known for their work in the 80’s suddenly found themselves struggling.  Just a few years after the biggest hit of his career, Guttenberg became irrelevant.  Or worse, a punchline.

What the hell happened?

When Guttenberg was just getting started, he began sneaking on to the Paramount lot.  In his autobiography, The Guttenberg Bible, Guttenberg says that when he was stopped by a security guard, he claimed to be the step-son of then-chairman, Michael Eisner.  Once he learned how to get on the lot, Guttenberg found an abandoned building and set up an office for himself.  He even requisitioned furniture from the prop shop by filling out a false requisition slip for the TV show Happy Days.

“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?”

Guttenberg’s first job was a commercial for Kentucky Fried Chicken featuring Colonel Sanders himself.  Guttenberg said he learned the secret to being cast in commercials was to smile.  Armed with that knowledge, he landed a lot of commercials including this one for the Welcome Back Kotter board game:

Guttenberg’s John Travolta impression got him cast as a look-a-like.  When he told his parents he got a job on a commercial for the Welcome Back Kotter board game, they thought he was cast on the actual TV show.

Steve Guttenberg - Rollercoaster - 1977

Steve Guttenberg – Rollercoaster – 1977

Guttenberg got his first film role in the disaster movie, Rollercoaster.  In an uncredited role, Guttenberg played a messenger who delivers plans for a rollercoaster to George Segal and Richard Widmark.  He only had one line to deliver, but Guttenberg’s nerves and inexperience got the better of him.  He was very nearly fired from his first movie, but Widmark intervened.  Just as James Goldstein was preparing to have Guttenberg removed from the set, Widmark protested:  “The kid will be banged up for life.  Lose his confidence.  Can’t fire him, Jimmy, not here, not in front of me.”

Goldstein said the crew needed to break for lunch or else they would face union penalties, so Widmark got the shop foreman to agree to waive the fee to give Guttenberg another chance.  About fifteen minutes later, Guttenberg finally delivered his line correctly.

Steve Guttenberg - The Chicken Chronicles - 1977

Steve Guttenberg – The Chicken Chronicles – 1977

Guttenberg’s first starring role was in a teen sex comedy called The Chicken Chronicles.  Guttenberg played a high school student trying to impress a cheerleader played by Lisa Reeves.  The story is set in 1969, so he is also worried about being sent to Vietnam should he flunk out of school.  The title comes from the fact that his character works in a fast food chicken joint.

Scenes from the movie were shot in the childhood home of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.  According to Weiner, the film company “ripped his parents off”.  He says the production destroyed his families furniture and lied to them.

Early on in Guttenberg’s career, he was landing commercials left and right.  Thanks to the 21st century magic of YouTube, several of these have been preserved for our enjoyment.  Here is a commercial for Stanley Tools from 1977:

guttenberg - boys from brazil

Steve Guttenberg – The Boys From Brazil – 1978

In 1978, Guttenberg appeared 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. “

guttenberg - can't stop the music

Steve Guttenberg – Can’t Stop the Music – 1980

In 1980, Guttenberg starred opposite the Village People and Bruce Jenner in the infamous Can’t Stop the MusicCan’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.

guttenberg - diner

Steve Guttenberg – Diner – 1982

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.

Next: Police Academy

Posted on August 18, 2012, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actor and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 127 Comments.

  1. Steve Guttenberg on Police Academy, Party Down, and turning down Sharknado:

    The actor: Steve Guttenberg got his start in acting in the late ’70s. While his early forays into primetime fare were short-lived, the ’80s was unquestionably Guttenberg’s decade to shine on the big screen, thanks to such box-office successes as Police Academy, Diner, Cocoon, Short Circuit, and 3 Men And A Baby. The ’90s found Guttenberg in more family-friendly fare. By the start of the new millennium, he was flying relatively low on the pop-culture radar, but he began to experience a resurgence with the help of Rob Thomas, who brought him onto both Veronica Mars and Party Down. Guttenberg can currently be seen in the new Syfy “creature feature” Lavalantula, which reunites him with his former Police Academy franchise co-stars Michael Winslow, Leslie Easterbrook, and Marion Ramsey.

    Lavalantula (2015)—“Colton West”

    Steve Guttenberg: I actually got offered Sharknado a few years ago, and I, uh, turned it down. And, you know, it obviously didn’t go anywhere. [Laughs.] No, of course, they were right. So when they called me again and said, “Hey, we’d like to do another movie that’s going to be a similar sort of send-up of B-movies, but we want to do it about giant spiders,” I said, “Sure! Sounds good! Let’s do it!”

    A.V. Club: So who is your character, Colton West?

    SG: Colton West is an action star who is having a little trouble at home with his wife; his career is in a tailspin. All of a sudden Los Angeles is attacked by giant spiders, and he has the opportunity to redeem himself. It really is a story of redemption: He takes what is an illusion—he’s an actor, an action star—and puts it into a real-life scenario so that he’s able to give himself some self-respect and, at the same time, save Los Angeles, his family, and probably the world.

    AVC: At what point in the process did they decide that they wanted to include other Police Academy alumni in the cast?

    SG: It actually came from me! Interestingly enough, the producers were kind enough to ask, “Well, how do you want to make this movie? Would you like to help cast it?” So I said, “Let’s hire some people that I’ve worked with before that are my friends.” So I was able to bring in some of the Police Academy cast, and also Patrick Renna, who was in The Big Green, and that was just terrific. Oh, and Nia Peeples, too, who was in Tower Of Terror.

    AVC: There’s been a lot of promotion about how Ian Ziering turns up in a cameo to offer a passing of the chainsaw, as it were, to Lavalantula. Having seen the Sharknado phenomenon unfold, are you happy with this film?

    SG: You know, Lavalantula’s pretty good. The director’s a young guy named Mike Mendez, a talented guy, and they did a pretty good job on it. I mean, it is what it is. It’s spoofy, a bit of a parody, and it has some weight to it, but it’s a creature feature. It’s no different, really, than Ant-Man or Iron Man—well, there’s a million of ’em. Clash Of [The] Titans, Captain America, they’re all creature features in their way. It all depends on the execution.

    AVC: Mendez also directed Big Ass Spider!, so it’s being executed by someone who’s got giant-spider street cred.

    SG: He’s just a really smart fella. He really knows his stuff, he’s got a great point of view, he knows tone and character really well, and he’s also got a good handle on pacing. I really enjoyed working with him.

    Rollercoaster (1977)—“Messenger” (uncredited)

    AVC: It looks like your first non-commercial on-camera role was in Rollercoaster.

    SG: It was, yeah!

    AVC: How did you find your way into the film?

    SG: Rollercoaster came through my godfather, a guy named Michael Bell, who’s an actor. He had a role in the film, and he was able to convince them—and they literally did require convincing—to give me one line.

    AVC: They filmed Rollercoaster in several parks. Where did you actually film your scene?

    SG: At Magic Mountain. [Abruptly.] Oh, no, wait, I’m sorry: It was at a stage at Universal! [Laughs.]

    AVC: So what led you into a career in acting in the first place?

    SG: Again, it was through my godfather. He was a a classically trained and a super-talented actor, so when I was young, I admired him. And when I was about 12, I joined a teen theater company and got right into that and started doing classics, I started taking classes in the city, and before I knew it, I was hooked.

    Henry IV, Pt. 1 (onstage, 2015)—“Henry Percy”

    AVC: Speaking of doing classics, several readers made note of your recent outdoor Shakespeare performance in New York. You actually studied under John Houseman.

    SG: I did, yeah! And I’m so glad that people knew about the show. Henry IV, Pt. 1 was one of the best professional experiences of my life. The play is done outside, al fresco, and that is such a joy to do. It’s so exciting to work under the stars. I just really loved every second of it. It was terrific. And everybody I worked with was a Shakespearean scholar. I just couldn’t have had a better time.

    AVC: And what was it like to learn from John Houseman as a young student at Juilliard?

    SG: Well, you know, I took the summer classes with him, and he was extraordinarily adept at knowing what you are not good at. [Laughs.] But then improving it and making it your strength!

    The Bedroom Window (1987)—“Terry Lambert”

    SG: Yeah! It was a fantastic experience, with the great director Curtis Hanson, and it was pre- any of his bigger hits. The experience of working with Isabelle Huppert; she’s probably one of the—or maybe the greatest—actress who’s working today in France, and maybe in the world. It was extraordinary. I had such a great time. And Elizabeth McGovern was just a magnificent lady. I don’t know if you’ve seen her recently on her television work now [on Downton Abbey], but she really has grown in leaps and bounds, and I’m so happy to be a person who has worked with her. She’s just a class act all the way.

    AVC: That film was definitely an anomaly as far as what you were doing at the time on-screen. Was that a conscious effort to show people, “Look, I’m more than just the pratfalls and the comedy”?

    SG: I don’t believe in having to show anybody anything. I just do my work. You know, making a living as an actor is such a rarity on earth. It’s like making a living as a painter. So I look at different opportunities in the same way as Jack Nicholson, who said once, “Keep popping up in different holes. That’s what you want to do: Just keep popping up in different holes.” That made a lot of sense to me.

    P.S. Your Cat Is Dead! (2002)—“Jimmy Zoole,” director, producer, writer

    SG: Well, I directed that picture, so it means a lot to me. James Kirkwood wrote a wonderful play which I was able to direct with my friend Jeff Korn, and I thought it came out terrific. He was an anxious, out-of-work actor, and I really was able to get inside his skin.

    AVC: Had you been actively searching for an opportunity to direct?

    SG: Yeah! Absolutely. I still am!

    AVC: How hard was it for you to wear all of those hats? Because not only were you the star and the director, but you co-adapted the screenplay and you were a producer as well.

    SG: You know, I think hard is working two jobs, one at night and one during the day, and having to deal with a sick relative. That’s hard. I think most of show business is just challenging to navigate the waters and get things done. So I thought that directing and acting and writing was just a great opportunity.

    The Big Green (1995)—“Sheriff Tom Palmer”

    It Takes Two (1995)—“Roger Callaway”

    SG: Oh, I had a ball on The Big Green! It was in Austin, Texas. Holly Goldberg Sloan, who’s a terrific novelist now, wrote it and directed it, and it was so much fun. Just out-of-this-world fun.

    AVC: That was the same year you did It Takes Two, right?

    SG: Yeah, exactly! It Takes Two was by Andy Tennant, who’s a very talented director. And, of course, the girls—Mary-Kate and Ashley [Olsen]—were very young, but they had a lot of grace and a lot of maturity for such little kids. And Kirstie Alley was a ball. Really a nice lady.

    Casper: A Spirited Beginning (1997)—“Tim Carson”

    Zeus And Roxanne (1997)—“Terry Barnett”

    Tower Of Terror (1997)—“Buzzy Crocker”

    AVC: You were doing quite a bit of family fare at the time: you did Casper: A Spirited Beginning, Zeus And Roxanne, and Tower Of Terror all within a few years. Was that a conscious effort on your part?

    SG: No, no, I just sort fell into a great wave of family films. I mean, sometimes it happens. Genres come along, and they just make you sort of jump on. It’s weird.

    Party Down (2010) / The Mysteries Of Laura (2015)—himself

    SG: Oh, [Party Down showrunner] Rob Thomas, such an extraordinarily talented guy. Just amazing. And the cast was primo all the way. They just were so good at what they did. So I just sort of walked right into it and really had a good time.

    AVC: Was it challenging to play yourself?

    SG: [Laughs.] No, because you’re never really playing yourself. You’re always acting. It’s an illusion that you’re really playing yourself. The only time I’m playing myself is when I’m at home!

    AVC: You also ended up playing yourself more recently, on an episode of The Mysteries Of Laura.

    SG: Yeah, exactly. With the great Debra Messing. I had a good time on that.

    Veronica Mars (2005-06)—“Woody Goodman”

    AVC: Having brought up Party Down, it’s a must to jump back and ask you about your stint on Veronica Mars.

    SG: Right! There’s, uh, nothing like playing a pedophile, I’ll tell you that. [Laughs.] Good times, man. Good times.

    AVC: You hadn’t done a stint on TV in quite some time prior to that.

    SG: Well, I’d never actually done a recurring role before, but it’s all pretty much the same: a director, a cast, a crew, and a camera. So I didn’t find much really different about the experience.

    AVC: Regarding Woody Goodman being a pedophile, what was your reaction when you first spotted that particular character attribute?

    SG: Well, Rob [Thomas] told me. He said, “I’ve got something really interesting for you.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “I want you to play a child molester.” So I said, “When do I start?” [Laughs.] I mean, you know, every character is interesting, because every person is different and interesting, but this absolutely had some qualities of character that I’d never played before. I mean, he was despised. So that was really cool, actually, to play someone who I’d despise.

    Billy (1979)—“Billy Fisher”

    No Soap, Radio (1982)—“Roger”

    AVC: Early in your TV career, you starred in two short-lived series, one of which—No Soap, Radio—is, even now, one of the oddest things I’ve ever seen on primetime.

    SG: I know. It’s strange! Mort Lachman was the producer of No Soap and wanted to just go way outside the box. Way outside the planet! [Laughs.] So I was along for the ride. But it actually was a really good time. I’d just finished Diner, and my agents at the time had no belief in Diner, or anything. They just said, “You’ve got to keep working.” So I jumped on and started doing that.

    AVC: Billy was a few years before that, and it looks from the credits like it was a Walter Mitty-esque series.

    SG: Yeah! That’s exactly what it was: a take on The Life Of Walter Mitty. It was really fun, and John Rich was a powerful, great director, so I had a great time with him. A really great time.

    Diner (1982)—“Edward ‘Eddie’ Simmons”

    AVC: How was it working with the ensemble on Diner? You were all still a bunch of up-and-comers at the time, but it’s a remarkable cast of actors.

    SG: It was terrific, because you’ve got… [Hesitates.] Actors were starving to death, and it’s incredibly competitive. So I just found myself in a situation that I was reminded of when I did a Woody Allen play [Relatively Speaking] at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in New York: Everybody was throwing fastballs. Everybody was in great form, and it was just this side of dirty ball-playing, because everybody wanted to shine. But as I say, it was this side of it. There was no dirty ball-playing. But there was a certain amount of scene-stealing. [Laughs.] But, hey, whoever can do a dunk, they do a dunk! It was pretty fun.

    AVC: One of Tim Daly’s favorite memories about making the movie was coming back to the hotel after filming and sending random food and drink orders over to complete strangers.

    SG: [Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. That’s right, we did. We had a lot of fun. I got to know Tim very well. I really like him. Such a great guy.

    AVC: Do any other off-the-set anecdotes leap to mind? It seems like there was a lot of camaraderie between you guys.

    SG: Yeah, we spent every night together. And I think that’s good for film actors to do. You get to know each other better and better as the film goes on. So I really enjoyed myself. I had such a great time.

    Cocoon (1985) / Cocoon: The Return (1988)—“Jack Bonner”

    SG: Nectar. Nectar of the gods. [Laughs.] Top of the world, buddy. I’ve seen inside the honeycomb. Top. Of. The World. Try to beat Cocoon. Just try!

    AVC: Even though you’d been around the block a few times by that point, you must’ve been at least a little in awe of some of the folks in that cast.

    SG: Oh, my God, yeah. That was the top.

    AVC: Did anyone in particular impress you the most?

    SG: Gwen Verdon, baby. [Laughs.] Gwen Verdon, definitely.

    AVC: And how was Wilford Brimley?

    SG: Oh, man, he was a hoot. Terrific guy, smart, and opinionated. Great guy. I loved him.

    AVC: It seems like everything you see on-screen is him in real life.

    SG: Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] He’s the real deal.

    Short Circuit (1986)—“Newton Crosby”

    SG: John Badham, John Badham, John Badham. That is all. [Laughs.] I mean, the guy directed Saturday Night Fever, you know? What else is there? Nothing!

    AVC: Had you ever been in talks to do Short Circuit 2?

    SG: Yeah. I was, absolutely. But, uh, no money. They didn’t pay the money.

    AVC: Fair enough.

    SG: Yeah. They’ve got to pay the money! [Laughs.]

    Can’t Stop The Music (1980)—“Jack Morell”

    SG: Well, you know, that was insanity. Just complete insanity. It made no sense at all. The movie was crazy. I really enjoyed being around Bruce Jenner and Valerie Perrine and Village People. Allan Carr was a hoot. But I have no idea what was going on. [Laughs.]

    AVC: In an interview a few years ago, Jenner said that Valerie Perrine was kind of diva-esque on that film, complaining about everything under the sun, but that in retrospect Perrine was right to complain.

    SG: Oh, you know, films are hard. The truth is, it’s really hard to make a good movie. And you can’t blame people, you know? Everybody’s trying to do a good job.

    AVC: True. And it was Nancy Walker’s first time directing a feature film, so it was a trial by fire.

    SG: Yeah. And she did okay. Everybody tried their best. Nobody intentionally tries to make a bad movie.

    Police Academy (1984) / Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985) / Police Academy 3: Back in Training (1986) / Police Academy 4: Citizens On Patrol (1987)—“Carey Mahoney”

    AVC: How did you score the role of Mahoney in the first place?

    SG: Just an audition. My agent put me up for the part. I’d just gotten done doing The Man Who Wasn’t There, which was an invisible-man movie, and I went from there right into Police Academy. I got the part from doing a screen test, and that movie was terrific because of Hugh Wilson and Paul Maslansky, the director and producer, respectively. God, they were just brilliant, brilliant, brilliant comedy guys. Just out-of-this-world brilliant.

    AVC: How much of Mahoney was on the page, and how much were you able to bring to the role? Was improv allowed at all?

    SG: A little bit. Hugh was pretty specific about the comedy, because he’s so good at it, so he kept us pretty much on book, but we were able to devise a couple of different lines here and there, and a lot of little moments that worked. I’d say that most films are on book. At certain times, though, directors will let you improv, which is always pretty terrific.

    AVC: So was there a certain point when you just decided, “I’ve had enough Police Academy”?

    SG: No, they just decided they’d had enough of paying me. [Laughs.] It was one of those deals: they just didn’t want to pay me any more.

    AVC: That’s unfortunate. Certainly most people would agree that you were a predominant draw for the franchise.

    SG: I think so. And I hope that they make some more and stick me in there.

    AVC: So you’d be up for that?

    SG: Yeah! Absolutely!

    AVC: Is there a project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

    SG: You know, I’d say… [Long pause.] I’d say no. I think everything legitimately got the attention it should’ve gotten. I do, think, though, that Lavalantula is coming up fast, and I would like to see that getting more attention, I’ll tell you that! [Laughs.]


  2. Musical Hell: Can’t Stop the Music

    With a title like that, you’re asking for trouble.


  3. Hey, “The Big Green” is on the Laff channel this month. I thought that was worth a mention since Olivia D’Abo also stars, and she just went through a recent smackdown with her cousin last week. Basically, the picture is the soccer version of “The Mighty Ducks”, except I believe Lane Smith is pretty formidable as the rival coach in “The Mighty Ducks”, while Jay O. Sanders just doesn’t bring that same type of authority to the same sort of character in “The Big Green”.


  4. Nostalgia Critic: Zeus and Roxanne (1997)


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