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 A-list. And then, 1990 came and took it all away.
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? Well, it’s all downhill from there…
Because 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 and introducing America to the YMCA.
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 against all things disco.
As a result, the 20-million-dollar musical earned a paltry 2-million dollars at the box office. The reviews were as bad as you would expect.
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 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.
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.
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.
I remember having classroom discussions about it in school. We were encouraged to watch the broadcast. And the next day when every single kid in school was scared shitless, we talked about it further.
In 1984, Guttenberg starred in Police Academy. Policy Academy was one of the many slob comedies released in the 80′s in the aftermath of National Lampoon’s Animal House.
Roger Ebert had this to say about Police Adacemy, “It’s really something. It’s so bad, maybe you should pool your money and draw straws and send one of the guys off to rent it so that in the future, whenever you think you’re sitting through a bad comedy, he could shake his head, and chuckle tolerantly, and explain that you don’t know what bad is”.
I think Ebert is beating up on Police Academy unfairly. Yeah, it’s dumb. It’s supposed to be dumb. And no, it’s not especially funny. But as the sequels would go on to show, you can do a whole lot worse than the first Police Academy movie.
Against all odds, Police Academy was a hit that would go on to spawn a franchise that still has life in it today. To date, there have been 7 Police Academy movies, a live action TV show and a kid’s cartoon!
Of course Warner Brothers wanted a sequel to Police Academy as soon as possible. The films were quick and easy to make. So the very next year, Guttenberg and most of the cast returned for Police Academy 2.
Critics didn’t like the sequel any better than the original. But audiences still flocked to theaters for cheap laughs.
That summer, Guttenberg also appeared in Ron Howard’s sci-fi movie, Cocoon. Cocoon tells the story of a group of senior citizens who reclaim their youthful energy after swimming in a pool filled with alien cocoons.
The cast was stocked with respected actors like Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley and Jessica Tandy. But the closest thing it had to a box office draw was Guttenberg as a ship captain who unwittingly aids the aliens in an attempt to save some of their own.
Cocoon was an extremely unlikely hit. How much credit for that belongs to Guttenberg is debatable. I doubt many people bought a ticket to Cocoon to see Guttenberg. But his amiable presence helped make a science fiction film starring senior citizens palatable to the masses.
Guttenberg finished out 1985 on a low note with the Bad Medicine. Bad Medicine attempted to do for medical students what Police Academy did for police recruits. However, without the wacky supporting cast of the Police Academy movies, Bad Medicine failed.
In 1986, Guttenberg completed the Police Academy trilogy with Police Academy 3: Back in Training which finally answered all of the burning questions from the first two Police Academy movies. Critics still hated it and audiences still didn’t care.
Later that year, Guttenberg also appeared opposite Brat Pack refugee Ally Sheedy in the sci fi comedy, Short Circuit. Short Circuit was about a robot who gains sentience in an electical storm. It was one of the many ET rip-offs from the era. But unlike Mac and Me, Short Circuit got decent reviews and was a moderate hit at the box office.
Short Circuit is significant in Guttenberg’s career. Up until this point, he had been in his share of hits and relatively few misses. But it is hard to credit Guttenberg with his success. Although he was the star of the Police Academy films, it was really the cast of crazies that made those films hits.
His other hit movies were ensemble films like Diner and Cocoon. It’s easy to forget that Guttenberg was even in them. But “The Gute” is undeniably the biggest star in Short Circuit. It’s success shows that Guttenberg could carry a film on his own.
In 1987, Guttenberg was all over the place. He started the year with the sexy thriller, Bedroom Window. Bedroom Window was basically a rip-off of Hitchcock’s classic, Rear Window. It was written and directed by Curtis Hanson who would go on to greater things like LA Confidential.
Bedroom Window got mostly positive reviews. Unfortunately, it didn’t do much at the box office. But it developed a cult following on video over the years.
Since Guttenberg’s Police Academy checks kept clearing, he starred in Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol co-starring Sharon Stone.
It’s easy to look back and criticize Guttenberg for appearing in 4 Police Academy movies. They were obviously crap. But audiences loved them and they provided Guttenberg with steady work for four straight years. Decades later, these are the films he is still best known for.
Police Academy 4 was Guttenberg’s last film in the franchise. With hits like Cocoon and Short Circuit, he no longer needed the safety net they provided.
In the fall of 1987, Guttenberg was one of many actors in the sketch comedy, Amazon Women on the Moon. He also appeared opposite Sally Field and Michael Caine in Surrender. Neither film made much of an impact with critics or audiences.
Guttenberg ended 1987 on a high note with Three Men and a Baby. Three Men and a Baby was a remake of the French farce, Trois hommes et un couffin. Guttenberg starred opposite Tom Selleck and Ted Danson as three bachelors whose lives are turned upside down by a baby.
This is the kind of movie Guttenberg was born to do. For a guy who made his name in comedies, Guttenberg was never especially funny himself. But he was extremely likable. He could flash his big, goofy grin as the baby wet her diapers or threw up on Tom Selleck. Or he could make sad eyes when it looked like the baby might be taken away from them.
The reviews were mostly positive for Three Men and a Baby. But more importantly, it was a monster hit. It did so well, that it established Leonard Nimoy as a legitimate film director outside of the Star Trek franchise.
Seeing as how Guttenberg made 4 Police Academy movies, you can hardly blame him for appearing in the 1988 Cocoon sequel, Cocoon 2: The Return. Just about the entire cast of the original film returned for the sequel. Unfortunately, director Ron Howard did not.
Cocoon 2 received negative reviews and disappointed at the box office.
Guttenberg ended 1988 with the supernatural comedy, High Spirits opposite Peter O’Toole and Darryl Hannah. High Spirits was written and directed by Neil Jordan. It also co-starred a pre-fame Liam Neeson. But the ghostly romantic comedy was a miss with critics and audiences.
Short Circuit 2 also came out in 1988. And somehow, Guttenberg wasn’t in it.
Guttenberg entered the 90′s with a mullet in the romantic comedy, Don’t Tell Her It’s Me opposite Shelley Long and Jami Gertz. I am going to let the picture speak for itself on this one.
Since Three Men and a Baby was such a run-away hit, it’s no surprise they attempted a sequel with 1990′s Three Men and a Little Lady. And since Guttenberg can’t say “no” to a sequel until the fifth film in the franchise, it’s no surprise that Guttenberg returned for it.
As it turns out, a sequel to Three Men and a Baby completely misses the point. That movie was all about seeing men in over their heads trying to take care of a baby. It hinged on diaper humor. Since the baby has now grown into a “little lady” the sequel lacked the main selling point of the original. In other words, no one peed on Tom Selleck this time.
Amazingly, there is talk of a third film in the franchise!
After 1990, “The Gute” just disappeared. After working steadily throughout the 1980′s, Guttenberg wouldn’t make another movie for 5 years!
There aren’t a lot of reasons given for Guttenberg’s disappearance. Although Guttenberg himself admits that he let fame go to his head. In his autobiography, The Guttenberg Bible, Guttenberg admits to bedding hundreds of women and generally not being a very nice person.
I think most people are less surprised by Guttenberg’s disappearance than the idea that Guttenberg was ever a star to begin with. The thing Guttenberg had going for him was that he was non-threatening. He was just a goofy, somewhat handsome guy. Men didn’t want to be him and although women apparently wanted to be with him, they’d have rather been with Tom Selleck.
In 1995, Guttenberg came roaring back out of nowhere. He starred in the dolphin/dog family film, Zeus and Roxanne, the soccer comedy, The Big Green and Jodie Foster’s comedy-drama, Home for the Holidays. None of these films sparked a comeback for “The Gute”.
Guttenberg also starred opposite Kirstie Alley and the Olsen twins in It Takes Two. I am singling this one out only because I was surprised to learn that it was not a direct-to-video release as I had always assumed. It Takes Two was actually shown in theaters.
Guttenberg’s descent into straight-to-video hell would have to wait until 1997′s Casper sequel, Casper: A Spirited Beginning. Casper 2 answers the question, “Who do you call when Bill Pullman won’t come back for a sequel?” The answer: Steve Guttenberg. Since they stopped making sequels to movies he appeared in, he apparently started making sequels to other people’s movies.
Not surprisingly, Casper 2 also has a Full House connection in the form of co-star Lori Loughlin.
That same year, Guttenberg also starred opposite a young Kirsten Dusnt in the TV movie Tower of Terror based on the Disney theme park attraction. The ride it is based on is themed to the Twilight Zone TV show. The TV movie is basically just a commercial for the ride. The ride is incredibly awesome. The TV movie, not so much.
In 2002, Guttenberg directed and starred in PS Your Cat Is Dead which was based on a novel and play of the same name.
And in 2005, he appeared in a TV-remake of The Poseidon Adventure.
In 2008, Guttenberg finally bottomed out appearing in the Private Benjamin rip-off, Major Movie Star. One can only hope the title was intended to be ironic. It is also known as Private Valentine: Blonde and Dangerous.
With most of the subjects I have written about, it’s easy to forget just how big of a star they used to be. But with Guttenberg, it has gotten to the point where people forget he was ever a star at all.
Oh well. At least we’ll always have the Village People.
Kim Basinger Thora Birch Matthew Broderick Nicolas Cage Chevy Chase Kevin Costner Geena Davis Bridget Fonda Brendan Fraser Mel Gibson Cuba Gooding Jr. Heather Graham Melanie Griffith Steve Guttenberg Daryl Hannah Helen Hunt Michael Keaton Nicole Kidman Val Kilmer Jude Law Jennifer Jason Leigh Penelope Ann Miller Demi Moore Rick Moranis Eddie Murphy Mike Myers Michelle Pfeiffer Molly Ringwald Meg Ryan Winona Ryder Arnold Schwarzenegger Steven Seagal Elisabeth Shue Alicia Silverstone Christian Slater Mira Sorvino Wesley Snipes Sharon Stone Mena Suvari Uma Thurman John Travolta Kathleen Turner Robin Williams Debra Winger Sean Young Renee Zellweger