Charles Grodin first achieved fame as an actor, appearing in such films as Catch-22, Midnight Run and Beethoven, which led to regular appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and a career as a TV host and political commentator. Out of the spotlight Grodin has spearheaded efforts to defend the poor and to reform the criminal justice system, among them playing a key role in the repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws in New York State.
City & State Managing Editor Jon Lentz spoke with Grodin about homelessness in New York City, the legalization of casino gambling in New York and his opinion of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The following is an edited transcript.
CITY & STATE: In a recent commentary for WCBS, you stated your opposition to gambling, which is set to expand in New York after the passage of a state constitutional amendment. What are your concerns?
CHARLES GRODIN: My personal experience is that it can be—I’m not saying just because it happened to me, it would happen to everyone—but when I went away to college at the University of Miami, I discovered dog racing. And I spent a lot of time at the dog track, and when I came home I owed—at that time it seemed like a lot of money—$140, and I promised my mother if she’d give me the money I’d pay back whoever I owed it to, and I’d never do it again. And I didn’t, until 1987, many years later. I was making Midnight Run in Las Vegas, and I promised my wife that I would lose $1,000 and then I would stop. First thing I did is I won $5,000, and I remember having $5,000 in my hand, walking around showing it to [Robert] De Niro and everyone. Most people have never had $5,000 in their hand. And then I lost it all, plus $1,000, and then as promised, I quit. I think there’s enough people like me—I don’t gamble at all—but I think it’s a dangerous way to raise money. If you can quit while you’re ahead, God bless you, but most people can’t. I would like to see the state raise money other ways, even to raise taxes on people of a certain income. That would be fine with me.
C&S: That’s something that Bill de Blasio, the mayor-elect of New York City, has called for with his proposal to tax the wealthy to fund universal prekindergarten.
CG: The other thing—because of the tax situation, we ship so many jobs overseas, and we lose a lot of tax money because the wages are obviously a lot less overseas. I think there should be taxes on that. I’m not saying that the companies should have to pay whatever it costs to have the services performed here, but we shouldn’t lose that much money when wealthy corporations can just ship their jobs to the countries where the wage level is very modest compared to what it is in America.
C&S: What do you think about de Blasio?
CG: I was very struck. I’ve lived in New York over 55 years, and the idea of having a mayor who’s married to a black woman with a young black son with a big Afro, and they do, like, some kind of dance at his first press conference, it’s just amazing to me how times have changed. I knew them all, going back to Mayor Lindsay, and then I was friends with Mayor Koch, and I am friends now with Mayor Dinkins. I never met Mayor Bloomberg. Parenthetically, I’d like to see Mayor Bloomberg use some of his money to— instead of creating more bike lanes in Manhattan, if you drive the side streets in the 40s and 50s, particularly in Manhattan, the potholes are unbelievable. I’d like to see him rectify that. And also, I really do have a problem with setting up tables in Times Square. You can’t turn left, you can’t turn right. It’s a beautiful setting, but to inhale all those fumes—I don’t think it’s the best idea.
C&S: Do you think de Blasio will be a good mayor?
CG: You always wait to see. People have always identified me as this left-wing liberal, and I always say, “Well, what is it that you think I’m for, if you’re a conservative, that you would be against? What is so left-wing about me?” I don’t think we should allow, which we do in New York, for people to sleep in doorways on Fifth Avenue, and other places, under bridges—not in sleeping bags, and some have frozen to death. Anybody who’s doing that clearly has mental issues, and should just be taken to an indoor shelter. Of course, a lot of people don’t want to be taken to indoor shelters because [then] they’re sleeping in dormitories and they don’t know who’s sleeping next to them, so the shelters should be patrolled so people are not frightened to go indoors to sleep, rather than a doorway in the middle of wintertime. I’m also aware that we waste billions of dollars in government spending, which is a conservative position.
C&S: Gov. Andrew Cuomo has positioned himself as something of a centrist. What do you think of him?
CG: I’ve known him since he was 20 years old, and I’m very friendly with the family. Way back in ’94, before I became a commentator—I don’t do this any more—I campaigned for [Mario Cuomo’s] re-election. In fact, I say to him sometimes I think that’s the reason he lost. Ironically, he was defeated by George Pataki, who reformed the Rockefeller drug laws in 2004, and I think my biggest accomplishment in life, they reformed the laws based on a case of a woman for whom I gained clemency. There were other people involved in this, but he cited the case of Elaine Bartlett at the press conference when he reformed the Rockefeller drug laws. You no longer can go to prison for 15 to 20 years for delivering a packet of cocaine. Those penalties have been greatly reduced. The case was a welfare mother of four small children in Harlem—the youngest was months old and the oldest was 6. She was set up by a white drug dealer—this was a black woman—hoping to get a break on his drug charges, which he did. And she delivered a packet of cocaine, was arrested and was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. One of her sons, when he was a teenager, immediately took to the streets and sold drugs, and he went to prison. Another son … was a young man named Apache, and he became a nationally known [Amateur Athletic Association] girls’ coach. He would go into the inner cities and recruit young black girls who had a talent for basketball—some of them are actually in the WNBA—and he passed away while in his 30s from cancer and a heart attack. He was the most touching young man in my entire life. I interviewed him when he was 23, and sent that [tape] to Joe Bruno [who passed it] on to Gov. Pataki, I assume. Ironically, I’ve been in touch with the then Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno to help him, because he’s indicted on charges. … Joe Bruno, who I went to in the mid-90s for help with these women, has now been bankrupted by the government, as they’re pursuing him on charges which I’m unable to even grasp what they are. Funny how life takes strange turns. Joe Bruno can’t believe that I’m trying to help him, because he too saw me as left-wing. Anybody who tries to help anybody, you’re identified as a left-wing nut.