Steve Guttenberg has starred in such blockbuster movies as "Three Men and a Baby," "Cocoon" and "The Boys from Brazil," but his greatest performance came as a teenager when he conned his way into Hollywood.
The Long Island native caught the acting bug from his godfather Michael Bell, a successful Hollywood voiceover actor who always showed up in a flashy car with a starlet on his arm. When Bell offered to put him up and let him try his wings in Hollywood, Guttenberg flew west with $300 and a dream.
In short order, Guttenberg passed himself off as studio head Michael Eisner's son to gain entry to the Paramount lot, claimed an abandoned office as his own, wandered onto sets at will and was soon bluffing his way onscreen and off while he absorbed the tips and tricks of the acting craft from such seasoned pros as Richard Widmark and David Janssen.
Agents didn't like his chances but casting directors admired his chutzpah and soon Guttenberg's irrepressible charm was lighting up the big screen alongside Laurence Olivier, James Mason and Michael Caine.
In his new memoir, "The Guttenberg Bible," the actor revisits his early years with the I-told-you-so swagger of a guy who called Hollywood's bluff and socked away a fortune by betting on himself.
Debt? Forget about it. As for investments, let's just say Guttenberg has some strong words for Wall Street and President Obama.
CreditCards.com: Your parents weren't thrilled with your career choice.
Steve Guttenberg: When my parents heard I wanted to be an actor it was like me saying I wanted to become homeless. I'm sure it was the same thing when Picasso said to his father, "I want to be a painter." It was, "Yeah, and what are you going to do for money?"
CreditCards.com: But you didn't even know the basic actor's lingo: "cut," "take," "wrap," etc.
Guttenberg: No, absolutely not. But that's the great part of ignorance, not knowing that there are any rules. I think ignorance is overlooked as a very, very powerful tool. It's like Mr. Magoo walking through a minefield. Sometimes it's great being Mr. Magoo.
A friend once told me it really isn't what you know; it's who you are. Because most things can be taught. I had some friends in high school who were just pure idiots who became doctors. You can learn to be a doctor. The most important part of a person is their character, not their skill. A skill set can be learned but character can't. Character has to be honed.
CreditCards.com: What about learning to act?
Guttenberg: You can't learn film acting in a class. You can learn acting, but you can't learn film acting. It's like learning to be a soldier; you can't really learn how to shoot a gun until you're in a firefight. It's easy to shoot a gun on a range, but try shooting a gun when someone's shooting at you. It's a whole different ballgame.
CreditCards.com: Did you struggle with money during your salad years?
Guttenberg: I went through the Top Ramen years; the tomato soup, hot water and ketchup years. But I've always been a thrifty guy, even when I was just starting out. Because I was a waiter, I was always able to pay my $300 a month rent. I never lived big. It's not hard; you can afford a tuna sandwich and a bowl of oatmeal in the morning and spaghetti at night. That's not expensive.
CreditCards.com: You were fortunate to acquire a skilled business manager early on.
Guttenberg: I was very lucky. Michael Bell's business manager was Howard Borris. I met him when I was 14, and I started working with him when I was 20. He taught me about equities and annuities and percentages and mortgages and saving your money and making it grow and having faith in certain systems. He's still my go-to guy.
CreditCards.com: Did you turn your financial affairs over to him or were you more involved?
Guttenberg: Oh no, I am still very, very involved with my investments. We always have played it very safe. I was in fixed annuities, which is something I got very involved with, and then variable annuities, which I'm not a big fan of but I have a few of those. I have a few properties that I lease out and then I own a few properties that I use as my residences. Howard says to this day that I'm the most involved client he has. I mean, if the bank is off $5, I always call and ask what it's for.
CreditCards.com: Do you remember your first credit card?
Guttenberg: I was probably 19 or 20, I suppose. People didn't use them in those days; people paid cash or used checks.
CreditCards.com: Ever run your balance up?
Guttenberg: No, never. No way. I'm always paid up to the minute every month. I've never paid on installments. No debt, no debt, no debt. Zero debt.
CreditCards.com: Including real estate? Surely you've had a mortgage or two.
Guttenberg: Let's see … only for a little while. I've always paid off my homes. If I had debt, it was like for six months and then I'd pay it off.
CreditCards.com: You've been fortunate to be involved with three successful film franchises, "Police Academy," "Three Men and a Baby" and "Cocoon." But you've also expressed frustration that you were typecast at times, especially by the "Police Academy" series.
Guttenberg: That was just my ego talking. The four "Police Academy" movies have made almost $1 billion. I mean, if you really think about it, is there anything to complain about? Uh, no. But because I'm an artist, my artist complains. But my practical person doesn't complain.
CreditCards.com: Which film is your favorite?
Guttenberg: Probably the one that made the most money! (laughs) You always like the one that makes the most money. But no, I like them all the same. It takes just as much effort to make a good movie as it does to make a bad movie. You've still got to get up early, you still have to trip over cables, you still have to deal with all kinds of personalities.
CreditCards.com: How are you invested today?
Guttenberg: I've lost my belief in the system, bro. I'm in cash, that's it. I mean, the CEO of Yahoo! lies on his resume. The head honchos at J.P. Morgan lose $2 billion. No, no thank you, I'm fine right now, you know? The system has lost me and everybody else. .
CreditCards.com: Do you think Washington can rein in the misbehavior?
Guttenberg: It's hard to believe in the presidency anymore. I voted for Obama, I love Obama, but I don't want to see Obama on "The View," I don't want to see him playing Frisbee, I don't want to know that it's $40,000 a plate at George Clooney's house, and I adore George Clooney. Hey man, I've got a friend of mine who's got a $7 an hour job at Dunkin Donuts and he can't get a $9 an hour job over at the country club because there are so many people in front of him. I believe that the president should be his desk all day. I don't want to see him on vacation, I don't want to see him at Martha's Vineyard, I don't want to see Mrs. Obama in Spain. No, no, I do not want to see that because everybody's struggling. These CEOs shouldn't be taking all this money. No Rolls Royces. No private planes.
CreditCards.com: How would you change things?
Guttenberg: Here's my big point: The government should start allowing people to take their 401(k)s and invest in things other than the market. Let us invest our money in real estate, and instead of buying more shares of some inane stock, let me buy an apartment for my retirement and rent it out, and then when I'm 65, I can sell the apartment. What is this bulls--- that we're only allowed to invest in equities? It's ruining the country. Let us invest in other things instead of the market. Enough already.
CreditCards.com: Any choices you regret?
Guttenberg: No. I'm a very lucky guy; all of my regrets are regrets I'm glad I have. I don't have any regrets that haunt me. Some of my regrets are, "Maybe I should have stayed out later that night." I was at a friend of mine's house and he said, "Oh, after you left it went crazy!"
CreditCards.com: What's next for you? Is the third installment, "Three Men and a Bride," a go?
Guttenberg: Oh yeah, that's coming up. Next, we might take Woody Allen's play ("Relatively Speaking") that I did on Broadway this year to Los Angeles. Maybe I'll write another book. I've got a screenplay that's getting a little attention that I might be able to get made. And having fun, doing my laundry and folding towels. Stuff like that. Living the high life making sure my socks match!
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- Steve Guttenberg
- Steve Guttenberg