Judging from the reaction of the crowd at New York’s Museum of Modern Art this evening, Griffin Dunne is the most admired work-in-progress in the place. Among the celebrities toasting the premiere of Martin Scorsese’s black comedy After Hours, only Dunne wins more compliments than the movie. “He reminds me of Chaplin,” says Rosanna Arquette. “He’s got this great comic side like Charlie Chaplin and this street quality about him like James Dean.” Observes Brooke Adams, a former girlfriend, “He’s funny, cute, witty and he makes me laugh. What else can I say? He’s got great legs.” Even a blond bystander volunteers her opinion. “He’s known as Mr. Fun,” she says. The object of such adulation returns the compliments with an axiom of modern romance: ‘I’m friends with every one of my ex-girlfriends,” he insists.
Onscreen and off, Dunne has been heralded as the downtown Dudley Moore, but his credentials make him more than an unlikely sex symbol. As the star of After Hours, Dunne, 30, has won rave reviews for his portrayal of a hassled New Yorker whose night in SoHo turns nightmarish. As co-producer of After Hours (with ex-girlfriend Amy Robinson) as well as Baby It’s You and Chilly Scenes of Winter, he has shepherded to the screen his third critical hit in six years. As the son of best-selling novelist Dominick (The Two Mrs. Grenvilles) Dunne, and the nephew of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, Griffin isn’t fazed by fame or fortune. And compared with other hipster Renaissance men, Dunne is funnier than John Malkovich and funkier than Sam Shepard.
Indeed, like his addled alter ego in After Hours, he possesses a fine appreciation for the ironies of urban life. “Keys are my curse,” says Dunne. “I just moved into this sublet this week and I’ve already had to buy new keys for the building. I went to the owners and said, ‘I live on the top floor and my keys are out in the street.’ They said, ‘Nice to meet you, that will be $200.’ ”
Making After Hours took a toll on Dunne. Shot entirely at night with Griffin in every scene, the filming required a radical adjustment of the actor’s body clock. He worked from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. for nine weeks, and he slept all day. At home, Dunne blacked out his windows. He turned off the phone so it wouldn’t ring during the day. Even on weekends he stayed up late. “I found out there is a whole subculture out there that has nothing to do with sunlight,” he says. “Insomniacs can live really well in New York.”
Dunne developed his affection for life’s weirdnesses during his California childhood. In the Beverly Hills household of father Dominick, and mother Ellen, he proved a free spirit early and often. “I’ve always done what I want to do from a very young age,” says Dunne. Adds Dominick, “More than anything else, Griffin has always wanted to get on with it.” Catholicism in particular irked him. “I found church incredibly dull and threw tantrums every Sunday,” he recalls. But the high drama of High Mass appealed to the performer in him. “I’d look at the priest and think I could do a better job. I was sure he could get a laugh somewhere.” And as an altar boy, Dunne did. “I’d always bring the priest the wrong testament or the wrong plate and he’d always send me back. I was the Lucille Ball of altar boys.”
In high school Dunne was equally less than angelic. Just six months before graduation, he was caught smoking marijuana and expelled. But not before he was introduced to acting. Arriving in New York to act at 19, Dunne skipped college and found himself performing a series of part-time jobs instead. But his natural curiosity made the odd jobs even odder. At Radio City Music Hall, where he worked as a popcorn concessionnaire, he befriended the camels in the annual Christmas nativity scene and “fed them a lot of popcorn.”
Producing movies was a moonlighting move when acting work proved erratic. But ironically, producing prompted unexpected fringe benefits: a series of acting assignments in An American Werewolf in London, Johnny Dangerously and Almost You. “If you ever want to get a job in acting, put down a $5,000 deposit for a world cruise and as you’re on your way to the airport, the phone is going to ring with the job you’ve always wanted.”
Although literary fame runs in the family, the Dunnes have also been in the news for the tragedy that touched their lives: the 1982 strangulation killing of Griffin’s younger sister, Dominique, by John Thomas Sweeney, an L.A. cook who was her former boyfriend. That subject turns the cheerful Griffin suddenly somber. His gaze goes to the floor. “I just don’t want to talk about it. I don’t feel comfortable about that,” he says. Observes his father, who lives only two blocks from Griffin’s Greenwich Village apartment, “We are an extremely close family. Griffin was very close to his sister. Once something like that happens, it’s part of your life forever.”
Until After Hours, perhaps Griffin’s most consistent success has been with leading ladies. Before Brooke Adams, he lived with Carrie Fisher for about a year. His current girlfriend is actress Ellen Barkin, although girlfriend isn’t an appellation he likes. “It just puts a strain on us to read about it,” he says. “We’d prefer not to be coupled in print.” According to Amy Robinson, “No question about it, women do love Griffin. I think it’s because he’s sexy but not threatening. He doesn’t have a lot of macho posing going on.” She pauses before mentioning another talent: “Griffin is a good flirt.”
Tabling that gift might have constituted the hardest part of After Hours for Dunne. At the premiere party, as he skittered from Teri Garr to Michelle Pfeiffer, Cher offered her own assessment. “I was at a symposium with Marty Scorsese and he said, ‘I really had to be hard on Griffin for this part. I said, no sex, no going out, none of it.’ It must have worked. He’s so good at being frustrated.’ ”