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Charles Grodin still witty, and now a bit wiser

/ Source: TODAY

PrefaceI’m sure more than one person has said, "If you don’t get wiser as you get older, then you just get older."

It’s always been evident that it’s important to learn from our mistakes, since it’s inevitable we’ll all make some.

I’ve never understood people who look back on their lives and say, "I wouldn’t change a thing." I would, a lot — personally and professionally. I’ve always changed things based on past experiences, and as a result, as years go by, I’m happier — not as happy as I hope to be someday, but happier.

There are some fascinating stories on the following pages. Some, frankly, I found heartbreaking. Some made me smile, and some made me laugh, but I found all of them compelling. There are also some points of view and conclusions neither you nor I may share.

The idea for this book came from an understanding of how important it is to identify our mistakes, learn from them, and not repeat them. Of course, there can be serious consequences in not learning from our mistakes. Most of us have seen too many people who not only don’t learn from their mistakes but are unable to acknowledge they’ve even made any. It seems they feel that to do so is an admission of weakness instead of strength.

Also, when we’ve made mistakes in the past, we were unaware of making them, so I have no doubt for most of us that’s happening right now, possibly every day. Many people don’t give this concept much consideration. “If I Only Knew Then” is an effort to get them to reconsider their lack of consideration.—Charles Grodin

CHARLES GRODINCBS News CommentatorThere's a story I like about a boy who was ten years old and had never spoken. His parents just assumed he was unable to. Then one day at dinner, he tasted the spinach and said, "I don't like this." His parents were stunned.

"Bobby," they said, "you can speak! How come in all these years you've never said anything?" The boy said, "Up until now, everything's been okay."

For me everything seemed okay until I was around fourteen.

If you measure mistakes by the length of time they cause you trouble, then my biggest mistake began then, since to this day I still pay a price for it.

It started innocuously enough. When I entered high school my dad wanted me to help out in his store, where he sold supplies to cleaners, tailors, and dressmakers — things like material, linings, zippers, buttons, and hangers.

He called it the Grodin Company. A "friend" of mine in grammar school used to needle me about my dad's company's name since Dad essentially was the company. From time to time over the years he would have someone working for him, but mostly he worked alone, with the exception of my brother Jack, who was six years older than I was. Jack always helped out in the store whenever asked.

When my time came along at fourteen, I also was willing to help — but only to a degree, and that was the heart of the conflict.

I had started kindergarten at four and Hebrew school at eight, so for as long as I could remember I was in school during the day and spent a few days after school each week in religious training.

When I got into high school I had some other ideas for my after-school time, like athletics and dramatics. I joined the masque and wig club in high school, but I wasn't really available to be in a school play because my dad wanted me to work in his store.

It seemed however much I showed up to help, my dad felt it was not enough. He'd had to drop out of school at thirteen to help support his family. You were allowed to do that in those days, so my dad's idea of work was you get up very early in the morning and you work about a twelve-hour day. That's what he did seven days a week his whole life. Maybe he came home earlier on Sunday sometimes, but he worked seven days a week. Not only that, but he did it even though he was always sick.

He developed a rheumatic heart as a boy and was never in good health. The only time he wasn't at work was when he had what seemed to be regular stays in the hospital. Often he would come home from work and go right to bed so he'd be able to get up and go to work the next day. I have a vivid memory of him sitting at the dinner table, his head leaning on his left hand, exhausted.

I never fully factored in my dad's health in the amount of time I put in at the store. I was so used to seeing him ill that I got used to it. I'd never seen him any other way.

I never realized how serious his condition was. Also, while we weren't rich, I never felt the pressure of not having enough money, and I thought my dad could easily afford to hire a kid who could do what I would do for fifty cents an hour, which he often did. Still, Dad felt it should be me there more often and not some other kid.

This conflict had a couple of noticeable results. I was just about never given the family car to drive after I got my license at sixteen, and my dad eventually wanted me to put all requests for anything in writing, which I did. He would respond in writing as well, even though we lived together in a small six-room house!

He just didn't want the stress of having to deal with me in person in any situation where we had differences. In spite of all of this, though, there was never any doubt that my dad and I loved each other very much.

Later, when I was older and working at the store, more than one customer would say, "Oh, you're the one who wants to be an actor. Your dad is always talking about you." In spite of our differences, I got the feeling my dad was proud of me.

My mom later told me that Dad was shocked and so happy that it was his wayward son who as valedictorian gave the commencement speech at his high school graduation.

I remember one time when I was about ten, before all our trouble started, Dad standing at a railroad station, leaning down and kissing me on the cheek before he and my mom left for a rare vacation.

Then one day my dad suddenly died.

He was in the hospital, which, again, wasn't unusual, and I was alone in the store when I got a call from my mother to come to the hospital right away, as my dad wasn't expected to live through the day.

Astonishingly, the thought of my dad dying had never even occurred to me. I was in complete shock as I raced to the hospital. I had the car that day.

When I got to his room, he was in the then familiar oxygen tent — in those days what looked like a plastic tent was put over the patient. He was weak but conscious, and I just stood there as we looked at each other. I didn't speak, and he couldn't.

I went home and completely fell apart. Soon, I got the call. He died at five minutes to five on June 26, 1953. He was fifty-two and I was eighteen. I have never really recovered.

While I've been able to have a relatively happy life, my dad's sudden passing has haunted me. I've replayed the events and wondered how much I contributed to his early death. If I had been more cooperative, would he have lived a long life? No. Might he have lived longer? Yes. Was I wrong not to have helped more? Yes.

I always tried to make my case to myself by saying I wanted to finally have my free time after school and my dad could afford to hire another kid to help.

That's all true, except for one thing. I never really considered the emotional price he was paying for my willfulness, and if I had it to do over I would have been there at the store with him as much as he wanted. If I had it to do over, which, of course, sadly, I don't.


If you have a conflict with someone you love, really consider how he or she feels as much as you can, even if you don't agree.

You need to, first and foremost, do what you believe is right, but sometimes giving a lot of thought to what a loved one feels will significantly affect what you believe is right.

Sometimes getting your way really isn't worth it.

CAROL BURNETT, Actress, Author

“Cary Grant?”

Harvey grinned and nodded.

“CARY Grant?”

More grinning and more nodding from Harvey.

“The Cary Grant?”

Harvey’s head was bobbing up and down so hard, I thought it would fly off and go bouncing all around the rehearsal hall.

“How? When?”

We were gathered around the big table for our regular Monday morning reading of that week’s show. Vicki, Tim, Lyle, the guests (I don’t remember who), our director, Dave Powers, and I were all glued to Harvey’s story about the weekend party he had attended in Beverly Hills.

“Okay: It was Saturday night, and he was there! Naturally, he was gorgeous, charming, funny, and get this ... interested in me! He never misses watching our show. In fact, he asked the hostess if she’d mind if he disappeared for an hour when ten o’clock rolled around because we were on that night and he doesn’t like to miss our show.”

I tried catching my breath. “Omigod — you mean Cary Grant actually knows who we are?”

“He went on and on about how much he loves the show and how much we make him laugh.”

All of us were silent for a bit.

Wow. Cary Grant ... a fan. The idea was overwhelming. I remembered his movies, and my grandmother, Nanny, saying, “He’s the second most beautiful thing in the world next to Hedy Lamarr.” I thought he was beautiful too, but I also thought he was funny. He could do great “takes” and body-pounding pratfalls (in his earlier movies) ... an athlete, and a hilarious one. Charm, of course, oozed out of his pores. And now, by golly, he knew of my existence. Ain’t show biz grand?

A few weeks later my husband, Joe, and I were invited to a cocktail party at Peggy Lee’s house. She had been a guest on our show a few times and we’d grown pretty friendly. Joe and I were the first ones to show up. My fault — I never could stand being late to anything. Our coats were hung up in the hall closet, and I began making friends with the caterer. It wasn’t long before Peggy appeared, looking beautiful in an elegant hostess gown. In a few minutes the doorbell started ringing in earnest, and it wasn’t long before the place was wall-to-wall with celebrities.

I always mentally pinched myself over how lucky I was to actually know all these talented folks! The party was in full swing — Alan King keeping everyone in stitches, hors d’oeuvres being cleaned off the trays before they made it clear around the room, Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly with Me” swinging through the speakers. And then, suddenly the whole party quieted down and all heads were turned to the front door. I looked.

Cary Grant.

Peggy ran to greet him. Taking his elbow, she led him into the room, and people began to make a path so they wouldn’t have to wiggle in and around the guests. She was introducing him to those who had never had the honor. Even the biggest stars all but genuflected. He was very much at ease, laughing and shaking hands, and as they got nearer I bolted for the coat closet. Joe was at my heels:

“What’re you doing? Don’t you want to meet Cary Grant?”


My coat ... my coat. Here it was ... Please, God, get me outta here.

“Are you nuts? All you’ve been talking about is Harvey’s story, and here he is! Here’s your chance!”

I had my coat on. “Let’s go.”

“Will you please tell me what the hell’s the matter with you?”

Poor Joe. He just didn’t get it. “Poor Joe, you just don’t get it.” I had to explain: “Look, he likes me! He makes it a point to watch our show every single week! You think I want to spoil that?”

“Why would you spoil it?” I had always thought Joe was smarter than that.

“Because I wouldn’t know what to say, or how to act, and I would make a fool of myself, and he wouldn’t like me anymore! Okay? Let’s go home!”

We hadn’t yet reached the door when I felt the tap on my shoulder. I turned around and there they were: Peggy and Cary.

Peggy said, “Carol, where’re you goin’? You can’t leave yet — Cary’s dying to meet you!”

Oh, gee. I looked up into his face ... that face ... and I forced a lame smile. He took my hand and his mouth started moving. Trouble was, I couldn’t hear him! My heartbeat was so loud, I thought my ears were going to implode. Watching his lips move, I just knew what he was saying had to be the most charming sentences anyone had ever uttered, but I couldn’t hear.

He kept on and on ... holding my hand ... sometimes even squeezing it a little. I thought he ’d never stop. Oh, but then he did ... his mouth had stopped moving. Oh, God, it’s my turn now.  He’s waiting for me to say something ... anything.

Then it came out in a rush. “You’re a credit to your profession.”

Why didn’t the floor open up? Why didn’t someone distract him before I opened my mouth? Why didn’t we make it to the door in time? Why did we go to the party in the first place? Why was I born?

On the way home in the car, Joe looked at me and said, “You were right.”


Trust your instincts.

Excerpted from “If I Only Knew Then: Learning from Our Mistakes” by Charles Grodin. Copyright © 2007 Charles Grodin. Excerpted by permission of Springboard Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.