What the Hell Happened to 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.
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.
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:
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. “
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.
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