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The Fretts on Film Interview: Art Garfunkel and Charles Grodin

February 7, 2013

Mike Nichols is the Yoko Ono of Simon & Garfunkel. That’s the headline that came out of my Q&A with Art Garfunkel and Charles Grodin after The Paley Center for Media‘s screening of S&G’s controversial, rarely seen 1969 TV special Songs of America (which Grodin wrote and directed) last night. Costars Garfunkel and Grodin met on the set of Nichols’ WWII satire Catch-22 and became fast friends, but little did they know that comic-turned-filmmaker Nichols—for whom Simon and Garfunkel had scored The Graduate—would drive a wedge between the hugely successful and beloved musical duo.

Turns out Nichols had cast both Simon and Garfunkel in roles, then promptly cut Simon’s part, leading to jealousy—and the composition of the classic song “The Only Living Boy in New York,” where Simon was stuck writing tunes while Garfunkel continued shooting the movie (which ended up getting crushed at the box office by another military spoof, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H) for months in Mexico and Rome. “You don’t do that to Simon and Garfunkel,” Grodin said.

And Simon wasn’t the only one Nichols fired. Grodin recounted how the esteemed Stacy Keach was summarily dismissed by the director from the role of Col. Cathcart because Nichols didn’t feel he was commanding enough. Grodin briefly assumed the part, then was fired himself after his girlfriend, whom Nichols had unsuccessfully tried to woo, came to visit the set. Grodin returned to his original, preferred role as Capt. Aarfy Aardvark. (Martin Balsam ended up playing Cathcart).

Meanwhile, Garfunkel was feeling intimidated by the stellar cast that had been assembled around him, including Orson Welles, Jon Voight, Alan Arkin, Anthony Perkins and Martin Sheen. “I felt like this faker, a singer who was trying to act around all of these real actors,” he recalled. He needn’t have worried: Garfunkel acquitted himself well in the role and went on to costar in Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge, earning a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor.

Grodin’s tangles with Nichols (who had once considered him for the role of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate) were far from over, however. The actor recounted how he sent a script to the director in recent years and was rejected because, Nichols said, “You turned me down for Primary Colors.” In fact, Grodin’s acting roles have been few and far between over the last two decades, though he recently did a guest shot on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. But don’t expect him to return to acting full-time. Grodin reported that one of his SVU shooting days, he was picked up at 6:30 am and didn’t get home until 1:30 am the next day. “I can’t keep those kinds of hours,” he quipped to me backstage. “I recently turned 40.” (Actually, he’s 78 and looks great.)

As for Garfunkel, he declared himself “a fan” of Simon and Garfunkel and expressed hope that he and his old pal Paul could put their differences aside and get back to making music together sometime soon, especially now that his voice is returning after battling throat problems for the past few years. If they do come together again, I’ve got a suggestion for who could direct their reunion special: Mike Nichols. Hey, it’s the least he could do…

Are you a Simon and Garfunkel (and Grodin) fan? Post a comment!

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