For the actor, lessons about health and life were taught
around a kitchen table in the New York suburbs.
by Allan Richter
Steve Guttenberg got the acting bug early. When he was 16 he expressed interest in an acting career, only to be rebuffed by an agent acquaintance. “Forget being an actor,” the agent told Guttenberg. “You don’t have the look, you don’t have the talent and your name is ridiculous. You are the last guy I would pick to be a movie star.” Undaunted, Guttenberg left his home on New York’s Long Island for Hollywood two days after he graduated high school. Once there, he won parts in commercials and eventually film roles, wrangling auditions from a Paramount Studios office he snuck into by posing as the son of then-studio head Michael Eisner.
Guttenberg had only $300 in his pocket when he crossed the country to moviedom’s mecca. But he says he was equipped with a much more valuable asset—an education by his father Stanley and mother Ann in confidence, pluck and determination.
“They’ve been around all kinds of situations so they know how to handle stuff,” Guttenberg said in an interview. “They’re very calm, very unimpressed people, very happy people.” As Guttenberg writes in the dedication of his memoir, The Guttenberg Bible (Thomas Dunne), “Everything important to survive in this world I learned at your kitchen table.”
At the Guttenberg kitchen table in Massapequa, New York, Stanley and Ann Guttenberg told their children—eldest child Steven and daughters Judi and Susan—short stories with life lessons. “We would speak in parables,” Guttenberg says. “There are certain universal rules that you can use in a barn or you can use at Le Cirque in New York. Good manners. Patience. Determination and persistence. Courage. Bravery. Confidence. I learned that from them.
“They would tell me a story about a guy whose girlfriend was cheating on him, and he decided to jump off a roof. It turns out she wasn’t cheating. When you hear some news, you don’t have to react right away. You have to take your time. There were parables about politeness and concern about others. It was all about character. Your thoughts become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your character. Your character becomes your destiny.”
Guttenberg, known for “Cocoon” and the “Police Academy” and “Three Men and a Baby” films, is speaking during an interview in the garden of the Cinema Arts Centre, an independent film house in Huntington, New York, not far from the neighborhood where he was raised and where his family still lives. He is on a stop promoting his recently published memoir and the thirtieth anniversary of the Barry Levinson film “Diner,” which helped launch his career as well as those of Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern, Tim Daly and Paul Reiser (a “dream team” of actors, Guttenberg says).
Guttenberg could easily afford an expensive car, but he arrives in a silver Hyundai. Wearing beige slacks and a sky-blue polo shirt revealing arms that are toned though not chiseled, he
is lean and fit. At 54, he has retained the boyish face of his “Police Academy” days.
A Healthy start
Guttenberg’s parents, besides helping set their son’s moral compass and shaping his character, set the imprint for his physical health. Much of the influence on Guttenberg’s fitness came from his father Stanley, who shows up at the Cinema Arts Centre with Guttenberg’s sister Susan and a childhood friend who owns a pizza shop in their hometown.
Sporting red cheeks and an easy smile, Stanley Guttenberg turned 80 last month. He pops omega-3 supplements and vitamin D3 and continues to work out up to four days a week for about an hour and a half. His regimen includes 30 minutes on the treadmill, a series of pull-ups and 200 sit-ups. “I have no stomach,” he boasts, pulling his windbreaker open, lifting his striped button-down shirt and pushing his chest out. “Each day I change the routine. I do some free weights on the arms and the triceps and the quads.”
The bench-pressing in the line of Guttenberg men goes back to Stanley’s father Harry, who owned a moving company. “My father was a power lifter,” Stanley says. In turn, when Steve was 14, Stanley built his son a gym in their Massapequa basement. Susan Guttenberg recalls her brother swinging from bars that their father hung from the ceiling.
“My dad is unbelievable. He really takes care of himself. I don’t even think he knows what Entenmann’s is,” Susan says, referring to the baked goods company.
Finding the Right Diet
Steve Guttenberg’s diet wasn’t always as nourishing as his father’s. When he was hustling to jumpstart his career in the early Hollywood days, Guttenberg often survived on fast food. At the craft services table on the set of “Rollercoaster,” he stuffed his pockets with red licorice, candy and other goodies. On other movie sets, Guttenberg marveled at “tables with every sort of epicurean delight that can exist,” as he writes in his memoir.
“I always tried to keep in shape, but you know the less money you have the more difficult it is to eat healthy,” Guttenberg says in our interview.
A less-than-wholesome diet wasn’t the only challenge to Guttenberg’s health. In a kind of self-imposed jetlag, filming movies for nights on end “can play with your body, hormones, mood and health,” he writes in his memoir. “Lunch is at midnight. ‘We’re burning daylight’ becomes ‘We’re burning darklight.’”
During those periods, Guttenberg tried to pay attention to eating as healthfully as possible, drinking plenty of water and getting as much sleep as possible. “At a certain point, three, four or five nights into it, you get used to it,” he says. “You have to be aware. You’re sleeping during the day. It’s an odd existence.”
Today, Guttenberg starts the day with a bowl of oatmeal, loads up on fruit and vegetables and has chicken or fish each day. Nursing a tall cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, he is a self-described “coffee nut” who drinks up to six cups of joe daily. He supplements his diet with vitamins A, C and D, as well as glucosamine for joint support.
Despite all the coffee, Guttenberg shows no sign of the jitters. Quite the opposite. He speaks softly and methodically, with the calm demeanor of a yogi. For five years “on and off” he has been practicing Vinyasa yoga, taking it up regularly a year ago. Vinyasa, also known as flow yoga, involves a series of fast-paced, quick-changing poses.
“I do it everyday, and it’s just fantastic,” an animated Guttenberg says. “I was introduced to it by several friends. It’s a great workout, and it’s great stretching, which you never do. So you’re stretching every day. It’s also an isometric exercise. You’re using the ground. You’re really doing the most natural exercise there is. It’s just you and the floor. It’s something really good for your organs, your skin, your muscles, your blood, your brain. It’s a meditation.”
The fitness-focused actor, who lives in New York City, supports New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initiative to impose stricter restrictions on large sodas. “The bill that Bloomberg is presenting is terrific. We don’t need super-tubs of sugary water,” he says. (The New York City Council passed the measure last month.) “One of the greatest issues in this country is obesity. But obesity, I think, is mental. I mean it’s physical, but a lot of times it’s your brain. You go to the fridge and you eat. You go into the cupboard and you eat. The country really needs to concentrate some energy on it.”
Unlike some Hollywood celebrities, Guttenberg says he bypassed the trap of drugs simply because he wasn’t interested. “It’s an interesting business. Successful people are able to handle it with a great deal of dignity. That’s the hardest thing for people to muster,” Guttenberg says, “because it’s such an exciting business that the excitement sometimes overrides the dignity because the temptations are so great.”
For all his drive to make it in Hollywood, Guttenberg remained tethered to his family 3,000 miles back home on Long Island. Despite the physical distance between them, they turn up in Guttenberg’s memoir again and again like a familiar vaudeville act, often with Stanley Guttenberg beseeching his son to return to New York to complete his college education.
To be sure, just when Guttenberg started to build some momentum in his acting career, he acceded to his father’s wishes and returned home to attend college.
Is that one of those kitchen table lessons—to have the strength to let go of your dreams for awhile to do what’s right? “I’m just attracted to happiness,” Guttenberg says, “so whatever makes me happy seems like always the right choice.”