If Hollywood menschdom has a name, it might be Steve Guttenberg. For years, audiences have identified Guttenberg as a nice Jewish mensch in films such as "Cocoon" and "Three Men and a Baby." But in his new film, "P.S. Your Cat Is Dead," which opens Jan. 24, Guttenberg trades in his image -- for 90 minutes, anyway -- for a much darker persona.
In "P.S.," the 44-year-old actor plays Jimmy Zoole, a down-on-his-luck writer whose life takes a dark turn one fateful New Year's Eve when he captures a gay burglar in the process of robbing his apartment. The black comedy not only signals a stretch for the actor but also marks Guttenberg's directorial debut, in which he faced a number of challenges in adapting James Kirkwood's 1969 play and book into a film.
Guttenberg said his biggest responsibility was to keep to the theme. "It's one that's universal: No matter how bad it gets, if you hang on, it's going to turn around."
Those who know Guttenberg insist that in real life, the single actor deserves his success, as he hems closely to the friendly, engaging persona on which he built his celebrity.
"That likeable and engaging personality you've seen up on the screen -- that's him," said childhood friend Richard Klein, who attended Baldwin Drive Elementary and Plainedge High School in North Massapequa, N.Y., with Guttenberg.
"He's just really a nice guy," said Guttenberg's co-writer, Jeff Korn. "People say that all the time, but he's very nice."
Off screen, Guttenberg's good nature has lent itself to charity work. Long an ambassador for children's causes, he started The Guttenhouse, a place that supports young adults leaving foster care. He also spearheads Sight for Students, a $7 million initiative to provide eyeglasses for 50,000 underprivileged youngsters. Guttenberg credited his sense of tikkun olam (heal the world) to his Jewish upbringing.
"It's the Talmud," said the once-married actor, who has no children. "It's a rule when you tithe the fields, you leave 10 percent for the people to eat."
The well-liked Pacific Palisades resident is the honorary mayor of his affluent community.
Asked what Jewish organizations he is involved with, Guttenberg replied with a straight face: "The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.... I've been to the Friar's Club."
The "Diner" star won't kiss and tell about the great Guttenberg movies that got away. Instead, he starts reeling off a bunch of fictitious sequels he declined: "'Police Academy on the Moon'; 'Three Men and Granny From the Beverly Hillbillies'; 'Short Circuit,' but not a robot, a beeper ..., 'CocClooney,' about George Clooney...."
Korn observed that Guttenberg is "very family oriented. He brought his mother and father into the movie." Guttenberg's father plays a deranged old man in the film's opening scene, while the his mother makes a quick walk in the house of Guttenberg's aunt in the film.
Guttenberg's parents sent the young Steven to Hillel Hebrew School, a synagogue housed in a converted home, where Guttenberg had his bar mitzvah. Following his graduation from Plainedge in 1976, Guttenberg went to Hollywood.
As a struggling actor, Guttenberg had his surname to contend with. Even in the late '70s and early '80s, the impulse among actors with a Jewish-sounding name was to change it to something that sounded less ethnic.
"I considered it," Guttenberg said. "Many of my agents wanted to change my name."
However, Guttenberg resisted, because to change one's name "was a lifetime choice" that he did not feel comfortable making.
As a budding actor, Guttenberg led a rather charmed life. Early in his career, Guttenberg had roles in "The Boys From Brazil," directed by Franklin J. SchaffnerÂ and starring Gregory Peck, Sir Laurence Olivier and James Mason. Following a nuanced turn in Barry Levinson's "Diner," Guttenberg played leading roles in four top-grossing film franchises of the 1980s: "Three Men and a Baby," "Cocoon," "Police Academy" and "Short Circuit."
"It's fantastic," Guttenberg said, noting that he'd like to continue directing and acting. "It's just the most blessed job one can have. I'm so blessed that so many people like what I do and what I stand for."
"P.S. Your Cat Is Dead" debuts today at Laemmle Sunset 5. For more information visitÂ www.psyourcatisdead.com .