A recent article in Canada's National Post on actor Jake Gyllenhall's shooting a film in Toronto opened like so: "Will Jake Gyllenhaal eventually turn out like Ted Danson, Tom Selleck or, goodness, Steve Guttenberg?" It breathlessly recalled the shooting of 1980s hit "Three Men and a Baby" in Toronto, summing up the careers of its three leading men. Danson overcame "his himbo status, enjoying steady small-screen success, while Selleck also proves to be a survivor. Guttenberg, though? He did ‘Dancing with the Stars' a few years ago."
Why has Steve Guttenberg become the poster child for '80s stars turned where-are-they-nows? Hard to say, but whatever one's thoughts on the actor's spot in the pantheon of '80s icons (somewhere between Judd Nelson and Rob Lowe, I'd say), one thing is certain — he's come up with the best memoir title of the year: "The Guttenberg Bible" is, fittingly, a droll, brisk romp through a career marked with major successes.
Few actors can claim to have starred in more Reagan-era hits. In addition to the "Police Academy" franchise and "Three Men and a Baby," there was "Short Circuit," and Ron Howard's "Cocoon," and the influential cult classic that is "Diner."
But post-1987 … Outside of a prominent name-check on "The Simpsons," it's pretty grim. He took a five-year break,
had bit parts, a stint on "Veronica Mars," some interesting stage work, and the aforementioned dancing.
But the affable star is not keen on spending too much time on these years. "The Guttenberg Bible" is above all else a tale of success, and the actor knows just how lucky he was. Not leading man handsome or character-actor cool, he instead brought a goofy charm to the big screen. It's easy to forget how likable he could be.
That likability shines through as he begins his journey, by sneaking onto the Paramount lot. It is the mid-'70s, and security was a bit lax:
"In those days, there was one guard at each gate. For two days, I stood outside watching the people go in and out. … I mustered up my nerve. I had prepared by wearing my only sport coat, a corduroy number that I thought made me look older. I carried my father's briefcase and walked across Melrose Avenue with a handful of ‘co-workers.' "
Guttenberg makes it to the "Happy Days" set and soon — seriously — he had his own office. (It's a great story.)
For the next 100 pages or so, the actor begins to build a resume, but his big break comes in Franklin Schaffner's "Boys from Brazil," a project stacked with heavy-hitters: Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, James Mason. One would expect Guttenberg, like so many memoirists before him, to offer up a literary smackdown of Olivier. But here's what we get: "I've heard it said that the bigger the star, the nicer. Not always true, but it sure was this time."
That example sums up Guttenberg, and his book. It is not a mean-spirited dish-fest. And that's fine, especially when the resume includes something as wacky as "Can't Stop the Music."
Yes, Steve Guttenberg was the lead in producer Allan Carr's notorious Village People musical, the abomination that brought together such random talents as Valerie Perrine and a post-Olympics, pre-facelift, pre-Kardashian-ized Bruce Jenner. "It was a spectacle every day," Guttenberg says of the film's production, which is a bit like saying " ‘The Exorcist' was kind of dark" or "Sam Peckinpah may have had some issues with women."
The film opens, and, in another understatement, was "a lemon."
But Guttenberg moved on, and was redeemed by Barry Levinson's "Diner." No film fan could ever get bored reading about the making of this Baltimore classic; how could it be, with Mickey Rourke on set at his most beautiful?
But from here on, "The Guttenberg Bible" loses some steam. "Police Academy," "Cocoon," "Short Circuit," and "Three Men and a Baby" simply are not as interesting, and the stories or their creation fail to compel.
Even so, Guttenberg offers some gems. My favorite: "It had to happen. ‘Police Academy 4.' The vulgarity of it all. We knew it was coming. We didn't know when, but it was coming. We would joke about it, like an impending doom."
That Guttenberg ends on an agreeable note is fitting. "Can't Stop the Music" short-shorts notwithstanding, Steve Guttenberg has nothing to be ashamed of. I don't think "turning out like" the actor would be such an awful thing.
Christopher Schobert is an editor with Buffalo Spree magazine and a frequent contributing News film and book critic.
The Guttenberg Bible
By Steve Guttenberg
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press352 pages, $25.99