Steve Guttenberg Takes on Rear Ends, Leonard Maltin, And Directing
by Brandon Judell
Who hasn’t adored Steve Guttenberg at some time or other? From “Diner” to “Cocoon,” from all those “Police Academy” features to playing the Olsen twins’ dad in “It Takes Two,” Guttenberg has certainly captured to perfection a certain rough kind of Americana that the baseball cap was certainly designed for.
Now this star, who even appeared in a Michael Jackson video, has taken up directing, and his first feature, “P.S. Your Cat is Dead” (TLA Releasing) is not your most obvious choice for a Guttenberg project. Based on James (“A Chorus Line”) Kirkwood’s controversial 1972 novel, the story is about Jimmy Zoole, a down-and-out writer, who captures a gay burglar who has been robbing him regularly. It’s New Year’s Eve, by the way, and Zoole, who’s just been dumped by his girlfriend, ties the thief stomach down over a sink and cuts his pants off. Of course, the two eventually become the best of friends.
Although “P.S.” has lost much of its shock value in 30 years, Guttenberg, who also plays Jimmy here, has made an amiable first feature out of the material. To find out about his process, we chatted pleasantly in two bicoastal phone calls, one which took place while Steve was on a train.
indieWIRE: You financed this film yourself. What gave you enough courage to do that?
Steve Guttenberg: Oh, I believe in myself, and I believe in the piece, and I believe in the theme of the piece, which is no matter where you are in life, no matter how bad it gets, you can always fight and win, and always come back. A great example is the San Francisco game last night.
iW: That’s true. How did you find this property, “P.S. Your Cat is Dead”?
Guttenberg: I saw it off-Broadway when I was a teenager. It’d been optioned by all the studios over the last 30 years, and I had the opportunity to get it when there was a window of time in October of ’99 that it wasn’t owned. I just snapped it up.
iW: Did you ever get to meet James Kirkwood yourself?
Guttenberg: No. He was just a prolific writer, somebody whom I admire so much. His books: “There Must Be A Pony,” “Somewhere a Rainbow,” and of course his great book, “Diary of a Mad Playwright.” I just knew his work so well, and his play “Legends!” “P.S. Your Cat is Dead” is his most personal piece.
iW: When this book came out in the ’70s, it was controversial. The same with the Broadway adaptation. The idea then that a gay man and a straight man could be friends was almost avant-garde. Do you still think the notion is considered jolting to some?
Guttenberg: Less and less. Because when it first came out in the ’70s, the gay culture was really such a taboo, but today you have shows like “Will and Grace,” “Six Feet Under,” “Queer as Folk,” movies like “The Birdcage” which really show a bit more of the gay culture. Some are a little bit too stereotypical but the fact is that underneath all the skin, we’re all the same.
iW: Were you nervous putting on the director’s hat? You’ve worked with so many greats (Franklin J. Schaffner, Barry Levinson, Neil Jordan), have you absorbed your helming abilities from them?
Guttenberg: I wasn’t nervous. I was really more excited. But you can’t help but be a little nerve-wracked. It is another step in my career in which I’m going to be somewhat judged so obviously one wants to perform well. But at the same time, I was doing it for myself and because it was a really good piece that needed to be shown, and the fact is that a gay man can be friends with a straight man. That can happen.
iW: Did you work with storyboards? Was it hard hiring the right cinematographer? There are so many steps to go through.
Guttenberg: Right. The first thing I did was I went to the American Film Institute. There I knew I could find super talented people who were not going to be super-expensive. I found David Armstrong who’s a brilliant cinematographer who won the Eastman Kodak Award and Derek Vaughn, a brilliant editor who won the Student Academy Award for editing a film called “John.” And I just went from there. Everybody was at that level.
iW: What shows how fine a director you are is how you made the truly untalented, consistently obnoxious A.J. Benza. look great. This is the first time I ever liked him.
Guttenberg: He’s a great guy actually.
iW: I guess when you only know a guy from watching him on the E! channel or listening to him on radio or reading his columns, you do get a limited idea of his skills. And the guy who plays the gay thief?
Guttenberg: Lombardo Boyar.
iW: He’s terrific. How did you discover him?
Guttenberg: My casting director Kim Coleman brought him in. It was an audition, a reading.
iW: Would you have hired someone for the part if they had a saggy behind since that’s so much on display? That could have destroyed the whole film.
Guttenberg: Well, you know, most behinds are probably nice. I’d have to really think about it.
iW: You have to go to some of the beach club locker rooms I’ve been to in my youth. You’re wrong about behinds. Switching gears for a second, when making “Can’t Stop the Music,” could you tell which way it was going to go? Or was being with the Village People and Bruce Jenner so much fun?
Guttenberg: I might have smelled a rat during it. I might have thought that it wasn’t going to go as great as I thought it was going to go. But the musical numbers were so incredible, and it did have Alan Carr who was really on his game, and the Village People were very, very popular. I don’t know. I couldn’t tell really.
iW: It seems like it was a fun film to make.
Guttenberg: You know it depends on your attitude for every film. Every film can be fun even if it’s a terror because you’re making a movie. It’s a great gift that the universe gives you as opposed to working at a desk crunching numbers somewhere. Or helping a lady into size 7-1/2 when she’s really a 9. I look at filmmaking as “you’re really lucky if you’re doing anything in the process of it and making a living.”
iW: But can you ever know how a film will go? When you were making “Cocoon” or “Three Men and a Baby,” you had no idea they’d be international successes, or did you?
Guttenberg: Yes, I did. I knew “Cocoon” was. I knew “Police Academy” was. I knew “Three Men” was. I know “Short Circuit” was going to be. I knew “Diner” was going to be. I knew “It Takes Two,” this little one I did with Andy Tennant, I knew it was going to be great.
iW: So you can tell just from the screenplay or do you have to wait until you’re on the set?
Guttenberg: Well, it grows. If you read a screenplay, you go, “Oh, boy!” So it grows. Then you meet the cast, and then you start filming, and it starts to grow. But you can tell. You can tell when you’re in a hit.
iW: Directing one’s first film is hard. But to direct yourself in your first film seems to up the “hardness” degree a lot. Was it difficult?
Guttenberg: Well, I was lucky because I had a very long rehearsal process. I got to rehearse basically for about two months before the film. So I got to stage everything, which really gave me a big leg up, and my actors were great. They came in for lots and lots of rehearsal. I really needed rehearsal for this picture. So basically I was well prepared when we started shooting. Just going back and forth between the camera and the set felt very natural. I didn’t get to spend any time lollygagging or reading a book in my trailer. It was extremely exciting. I’d do it again in a second.
iW: You still seem to have time to be the Honorary Mayor of the City of Pacific Palisades. Did your directing cut into your duties?
Guttenberg: No, I’m the mayor. The mayor is very, very involved in the town, and the mayor loves the town. The mayor is very, very happy with his mayorship.
iW: Did Sir Anthony Hopkins, the former honorary mayor, help you with the transfer of title?
Guttenberg: Sure. Tony, with all seriousness, is a tremendous guy: impeccable manners and a real family man. Loves his family. He was so great to my mom and dad, my sisters and my family. He’s a tremendous guy as well being infinitely famous and talented. He’s such a delight as a person. A real gentleman.
iW: I interviewed Richard Dreyfus a few years ago and he was saying that with his look, he could only play certain parts. For example, he could never be in costume dramas. He’s a modern type. I know Leonard Maltin called you the “youthful-looking everyman.”
Guttenberg: You know Leonard was so remarkably rude in that IMDB listing. We tried to change it to my real bio which is on my web site (steveguttenberg.com and psyourcatisdead.com). But Leonard was completely rude. If I sat and looked at Leonard’s work and thought about how I was going to disrespect him, I wouldn’t nearly go to the lengths that he did with me. It was really disrespectful what he wrote about me, and I’m really surprised coming from such an intelligent, well-read, well-educated guy who’s involved in the world and teaches at USC, I just don’t deserve what he said because I’m somebody who’s really contributed to culture. Popular culture. No matter if anybody wants to take a shot at me, I’ve been in more Super Bowls than a lot of guys walking around.
iW: That’s for certain.
Guttenberg: And I’ve made a lot of people a lot of money, and I’ve made a lot of people really happy. And I’ve entertained millions and millions of people. And I’m going to continue doing it. But there are those gadflies that just don’t like me. I don’t know why.
iW: Do you think Leonard has the time to write all these bios himself?
Guttenberg: (mishearing the question) I don’t know why. I think that when people are nasty, we all know what it does. It gets everybody’s attention, and it gives them a name, and I can understand people doing it. Yet I think I’m somebody who really deserves to be supported and encouraged to continue my work because I think I’m somebody who really has a lot to give and a lot to offer, and has given and offered a lot as an artist. So when guys put me down, it doesn’t affect me emotionally but professionally.
iW: You have another film coming up, “Jackson.” What’s that?
Guttenberg: It’s a really interesting piece I did for J.F. Lawton, who’s a fantastic guy. He wrote “Pretty Woman” and “Under Siege.” It’s a film that he did about homeless people, and that’s something I’m very involved with, too. It deals with a $20 bill, so the name “Jackson.” I’m a businessman who gives a $20 bill to a homeless man which creates the beginning of the plotting of the film, and I come in and out of the picture. I didn’t have a big role, but it was fun to work on it. Lawton did it all in High Def so that was really cool.
iW: Will your agent now be pitching you both as an actor and a director? Will you do cable? Is there a TV show in your future?
Guttenberg: I don’t know about television. But I think this definitely will define me in a different way. And that’s what I want to do: define myself in a different way.
iW: Well, I can’t wait to see the ad campaign. I found the film enjoyable.
Guttenberg: That means so much to me. Obviously, you’re an educated guy. You’re the person I made the movie for.
iW: By the way, before we hang up, do you want to share any personal information. I have no idea if you’re single or married?
Guttenberg: Just single.
iW: Single and available?
Guttenberg: I don’t really talk about it.
iW: I don’t really talk about it either but that’s because no one asks. Do you have a pet at least?
Guttenberg: I do. Bucky, a little boy. A little golden retriever.
Guttenberg: He’s blonde, oh yeah!