When Steve Guttenberg was 16, he went to see an agent about starting his acting career.
That agent told him: "You are the last guy I would pick to be a movie star."
Guttenberg decided to become an actor anyway.
The summer before he was supposed to start the University of Albany, he moved from Long Island to Los Angeles to try his luck. Once there, he tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz, he snuck onto the Paramount Studios lot, set up his own office, and started making phone calls to agents and producers.
Soon, he began landing auditions, which led to breakthrough roles in films such as The Boys from Brazil, Diner and Police Academy.
Guttenberg's unorthodox acting career is chronicled in his new memoir, The Guttenberg Bible.
On starting his career by sneaking into studios
"I started staking out Paramount Studios and 20th [Century Fox] and Universal. And in those days, there was no computer, there were no cell phones. There was just a guard with a telephone. So I just started walking by the time-punch machine and I punched a blank card, like everyone else was punching their cards and I started sneaking onto the lot and I found myself an office in the old Lucille Ball makeup building. I went to the prop department and said 'I need tables, chairs, a desk, for Happy Days.' He asked me a couple of questions and I said 'Look, Garry Marshall needs them right now. If you want to call Garry Marshal's office, great.' And he said, 'You know, I don't want to call Garry Marshall's office. I just want to give you this furniture.' So I brought it up to my office and I had my phone and I started making my own phone calls."
On working with major actors for the first time in The Boys From Brazil
"I remembered a dinner I had with [Laurence] Olivier, Greg Peck, [James] Mason and Frank Schaffner, the director. They were all talking about the script and I had one thing to say — 'Excuse me, Mr. Schaffner, but there's this one part here where Larry [Olivier] has this sort of monologue and I don't think the point really will come across.' ... And Schaffner looked at me and said, 'Young man, the greatest living actor in the world — excuse me boys — is saying those words. The point will come across.' And I just shut my yap for the entire dinner. And you know, I always find the more successful the actor, the nicer they are, the sweeter they are, the more understanding they are. These three guys — these monsters — were just fantastic to me."
On the success of the Police Academy series
"The film was this huge success. [But] I remember sitting with my manager watching the screening. He turned to me and said, 'This is the biggest piece of junk I've ever seen.' And then Police Academy came out and I remember the producer called me that next morning and said, 'I'm a millionaire, I'm a millionaire!' I didn't know what a box office was, I didn't know what grosses were, but I sure did learn pretty quickly that that's a very, very important part of Hollywood — making money and making money for a lot of other people. I was very lucky to be in that movie and others that have made money and bought a lot of beach houses for a lot of producers."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. When Steve Guttenberg was 16, he went to see an agent about starting an acting career. The agent told him: You are the last guy I would pick to be a movie star. But despite that, Steve Guttenberg still decided to become an actor. And he's written about his journey in a new book. It's called - what else - "The Guttenberg Bible." And it starts like this: The summer before Guttenberg was supposed to head off to college, he moved from Long Island to L.A. to try his luck at acting.
STEVE GUTTENBERG: And within a few days, I started staking out Paramount Studios and 20th and Universal. And in those days, there was no computer, there were no cell phones, and there was just a guard with a telephone. So I started walking by the time punch machine, and I punched a blank card like everybody else was punching their cards, and I started sneaking onto the lot. And I found myself an office, and I went to the prep department, and I said: I need tables, chairs, a desk for "Happy Days."
And he asked me a couple of questions. I said: Look, Garry Marshall needs them right now. If you want to call Garry Marshall's office, great. And he said: You know what? I don't want to call Garry Marshall's office. I just want to give you this furniture. So I brought it up to my office, and I had my phone, and I started making my own phone calls.
RAZ: That's unbelievable. And nobody suspected this?
GUTTENBERG: No. It was actually an empty building. I had the office for two years. And my real angel was a very, very important casting director named Hoyt Bowers. I would call his assistant, his secretary, and say that "Mork & Mindy" needs something. And she would run out, and the office would be empty, and I'd walk into Mr. Bowers' office, and I'd say: Hi. I'm the Gucci of young actors. But I'm stuck on a shelf in a drugstore, and I can't get anywhere.
And I did that three or four, five, six times, and finally, he said: Look, if you promise me you'll never come back - I actually was on top of his desk tap dancing - he said: If you never come back, I will give you five minutes. He ended up giving me about a half an hour. He called a wonderful casting director named Fran Bascom over at MTM. He sent me over there, and I got my first television movie, which was called "Something for Joey."
But I had a bunch of people in Hollywood that had a big heart. And they understood what it was like to be a beginner and gave me a little bit of a leg up. And God bless Hoyt Bowers for not throwing me out that seventh time.
RAZ: The first film I remember seeing you in was "The Boys from Brazil." You had a pretty significant role. You die early on in the film, but you're this kid in Paraguay who discovers Nazi war criminals. In that film, you worked alongside Lawrence Olivier and Gregory Peck. And here you are, this kid, barely, you know, barely out of high school. What was that like?
GUTTENBERG: And also, there was James Mason.
RAZ: James Mason, indeed. Yeah.
GUTTENBERG: It was fantastic. It was my first trip overseas. It was my first trip on a big-time airplane, first time I had stayed in a hotel. It was just incredible. And I remember in a dinner I had with Olivier, Greg Peck, Mason and Frank Schaffner, the director, who did one of my favorite movies - it was "Planet of the Apes" - they were all talking about the script, and I had one thing to say. And I said: Excuse me, Mr. Schaffner, but there's this one part here where Larry - Olivier, everybody called him Larry - I said: Well, Larry has this sort of monologue, and I don't think the point, really, will come across.
And the table got quiet. And Mason smiled, and Peck smiled, and Olivier was just so self-effacing, he didn't say anything. And Schaffner looked at me and said: Young man, the greatest living actor in the world is saying those words. The point will come across. And I just shut my yap for the entire dinner.
GUTTENBERG: And, you know, I always find the more successful the actor, the nicer they are, the sweeter they are. And these three guys, these monsters were just fantastic to me.
RAZ: Your first, sort of, huge breakout role, of course, was in "Diner," the 1982 film by Barry Levinson. That movie, of course, set in Baltimore in the late '50s, it launches the careers - it launches your career, Mickey Rourke, Paul Reiser, Kevin Bacon, many other actors. What do you remember about working on that film?
GUTTENBERG: Well, I remember our first meeting in a hotel room in a Holiday Inn where all the cast was waiting for the last guy to come in, who was Mickey. And Mickey came in with a white silk scarf. And we all looked at each other and said: What the heck is this guy doing? And Mickey and I became good friends. And actually, one time, Mickey and I wanted to do a scene together. We came to Barry, asked him - because we were the only guys who didn't have a scene together. And Barry went away for about 10 minutes and wrote the technically-I'm-a-virgin scene.
And about 20 minutes later, we went and shot it. I had a great time. Everybody was so hungry and competitive and generous at the same time. And Ellen Barkin and Kevin Bacon and...
RAZ: Ellen Barkin, of course, yeah.
GUTTENBERG: ...Paul Reiser, Tim Daley and Danny Stern, Mickey. I got so lucky to be in that film, just so lucky.
RAZ: You became quite well-known for a recurring role as Cadet Carey Mahoney in "Police Academy." That franchise became a huge hit, the sixth - I did not realize this until I read the book - the sixth biggest grossing film in the U.S. that year, 1984, $146 million, even went to the Cannes Film Festival. That movie must have changed your life and your career.
GUTTENBERG: The film was this huge success. And I remember sitting with my manager watching the screening. He turned to me and said: This is the biggest piece of junk I've ever seen. And we're putting you in television series tomorrow. And then "Police Academy" came out. And I remember the producer called me that next morning and said: I'm a millionaire. I'm a millionaire.
GUTTENBERG: And I didn't know what a box office was. I didn't know what grosses were, but I sure did learn pretty quickly that that's a very, very important part of Hollywood is making money. And I was very lucky to be in that movie and others that have made money and bought a lot of beach houses for a lot of producers.
RAZ: Your career, obviously, as you made clear in this book, has had its high periods and its low periods. But your name has always seemed to stay in the spotlight.
GUTTENBERG: Yes. I've been very, very fortunate that, first of all, all the movies that I've made always play on television or on cable. So the public gets to see me often. And that's very, very important for an actor to keep a bit of visibility because the chances of becoming a film actor are one in a zillion. And I've been very, very fortunate.
RAZ: That's Steve Guttenberg. He's best known for his roles in "Diner," "Three Men and a Baby," and the "Police Academy" series. His new memoir is called "The Guttenberg Bible." Steve Guttenberg, it was great having you on. Thank you.
GUTTENBERG: Oh, thank you. This has been a great pleasure, and one of my dreams come true, really, to be on NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.