George Segal in the 1970s and After

The Daily — Mar 25, 2021
George Segal and Barbra Streisand in Herbert Ross’s The Owl and the Pussycat (1970)

When George Segal passed away on Tuesday at the age of eighty-seven, Mark Harris, who had interviewed him for his acclaimed biography of Mike Nichols, noted on Twitter that if you were to “watch all of Segal’s movies from 1961 to 1974 (there are twenty-five, plus a lot of TV!), you’d get a one-man history of the transition from old-style studio pieces to director-driven New Hollywood films.” Harris added that you’d be seeing films directed by Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Sidney Lumet (Bye Bye Braverman), Robert Altman (California Split), Paul Mazursky (Blume in Love), and Roger Corman (The St. Valentine's Day Massacre), and he could have added Stanley Kramer (Ship of Fools), Carl Reiner (Where’s Poppa?), Ivan Passer (Born to Win), and Peter Yates (The Hot Rock).

But when we think of the leading men of the New Hollywood, the first names to leap to mind are Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, or of course, Jack Nicholson. They played men who, win or lose, for better or worse, were take-control guys. Segal, who was every bit as busy and just as loved and admired—see, for example, the tweeted tributes from fellow actors Ed Asner and Michael McKean, from critics David Fear and Jessica Kiang, from filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie—portrayed men to whom things happened. In the 1970s, Segal played the “go-getters, the losers, the sexually frustrated,” as Dan Callahan writes at RogerEbert.com.

As a prime example, Callahan offers Herbert Ross’s The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), with Barbra Streisand as Doris, a model turning tricks on the side who is forced to move in with Segal’s Felix, a book clerk trying to write a novel. “Segal was maybe the strongest scene partner that Barbra Streisand ever had,” writes Callahan, “and he does not shy away from all of the hard edges of the lofty and failed man he is playing. That was the rare magic of Segal at this time in movies: that he could reveal so many unattractive and defensive things about his characters without ever losing our sympathy, and without ever losing sight of the niceness in them that has been crushed.”

For the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “the apotheosis of the Segal’s career and the veritable definition of his brand, came with A Touch of Class in 1973, in which he played a jet-setting married American businessman who comes to London and is entranced by the haughtily gorgeous Glenda Jackson . . . They had what everyone agreed was chemistry, and the title was ironic and yet not ironic. The characters’ chaotic and wisecrackingly absurd (and extramarital) affair was anything but classy—yet there was real love there, with the blue-blood Brit conferring class on Segal, whose essential decency conferred it right back.”

Segal grew up on Long Island, the son of a malt and hops dealer and the grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants. As Bruce Weber notes in the New York Times, when he began landing his first roles Off Broadway and “prying open doors to the movies and television,” Segal was encouraged to change his name and “fix” his nose. “I didn’t change my name because I don’t think George Segal is an unwieldy name,” he told the NYT in 1971. “It’s a Jewish name, but not unwieldy. Nor do I think my nose is unwieldy. I think a nose job is unwieldy.”

His face was already a recognizable one by 1966 when he landed his breakthrough role, Nick, the young biology professor who takes his wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis), to the home of George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) for middle-of-the-night drinks in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? His performance scored him his only Oscar nomination, and in fact, all four leads were nominated and Taylor and Dennis won. After his career streaked through the 1970s, it petered out a little in the 1980s and was somewhat revived in the 1990s when he took supporting roles in films such as David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster (1996) and Ben Stiller’s The Cable Guy (1996). A third wind came with his turn as Albert “Pops” Solomon in The Goldbergs, a sitcom that’s still running on ABC after eight seasons.

In 2014, Kim Morgan brought Segal, Elliott Gould, and Joseph Walsh together at the Telluride Film Festival to mark the fortieth anniversary of California Split. The four of them met up again a few weeks later in Los Angeles, and this second relaxed ramble of a conversation makes for a great rollicking read. Walsh had written the screenplay based on the many long nights he and Gould had spent gambling. As Charlie Waters, Gould was more or less playing Walsh, while Segal had to be convinced to take on the role of Bill Denny, a stand-in for Gould. His agent “had to talk and talk and talk to get me to do it,” recalled Segal. “I didn’t gamble and I wasn’t interested. It would be like putting me in a hockey film.”

But once he was initiated into the world of gambling, something clicked. Last month, Tim Grierson and Will Leitch put California Split at the top of their list at Vulture of the twenty-five best movies ever about gambling, noting that “the two men’s rakish charm, in one of the high watermarks of ’70s hangout cinema, makes this not just a great buddy movie but a beautiful exploration of boys-will-be-boys friendship.” Gould, Walsh, and Segal traded a lot of juicy stories during their afternoon with Morgan at Canter’s Deli, and at one point, Segal grew a bit reflective. “It was fun to come in every day,” he said. “It was like a party. It was so civilized back then. There were no long hours. It was relaxed. That’s why those movies from the ’70s were so good. We were all relaxed and enjoying what we were doing.”

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