Elliott Gould and George Segal are both Octogenarians and still busy actors, playing fathers and grandfathers in situation comedies. If you were alive in the 1970’s, you have to remember these guys. They both started acting in television and films in the early 1960’s, after stints on Broadway, and used the decade to climb to stardom.
Gould and Segal were huge stars in the 1970’s, headlining big films and working with the hottest directors and top leading ladies. Back then, playing grandfathers was something in a far away galaxy; these were hip, wise-ass males often on the make, who often played characters fast and loose with the rules and social convention. They were players.
Films in 1969 and beyond, embraced changing social morals and more artistic freedom on the screen for language, nudity and adult subject matter. Both Gould and Segal were in their 30’s when stardom arrived and rode the new wave in Hollywood cinema. But both saw their stars vastly dimmed by 1980. Don’t feel sorry for them, both have well over 100 acting credits and found great supporting roles in television and film as they drifted into their later years.
Let’s take a look at their early careers and then what went wrong.
George Segal began appearing onstage and landed on Broadway in 1961, the same year as he signed his first film contract. Through the mid 1960’s he worked in television and film, mostly in small roles but graduated to larger roles in Ship of Fools and then a starring role in King Rat, both in 1965. He appeared in other films before striking it big in Who’s Afraid of Viginia Woolf (1967), opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He was nominated for both an Academy Award and Golden Globe.
The next decade was Segal’s high water mark, starring or co-starring in a string of hits and disappointments.
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), Bye Bye Braverman (1968), No Way to Treat a Lady (1968), The Girl Who Couldn’t Say No (1968), The Bridge at Remagen (1969), The Southern Star (1969), Loving (1970), Where’s Poppa? (1970), The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), Born to Win (1971), The Hot Rock (1972), Blume in Love (1973), A Touch of Class (1973), The Terminal Man (1974), California Split (1974), Russian Roulette (1975), The Black Bird (1975), The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976), Fun with Dick and Jane (1977), Rollercoaster (1977), Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978).
You might have heard of a few of these films.
Segal was offered some edgy films that didn’t always find a big audience but became cult films, worthy of the era. Bye, Bye Braverman, Where’s Poppa and Blume in Love are examples of films that aimed for for particular comedic themes, that mass audiences could not connect with, but what wasn’t way they were made. These films kept Segal on the A List though and led to films with Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Glenda Jackson, Goldie Hawn and Jacqueline Bisset. Segal tended to specialize in films with physical comedy or absurd comedies
A Touch of Class won Glenda Jackson an Academy Award for Best Actress. It is the story of a doomed love affair between two very different people who rarely connect. It was a biting comedy with fine reviews but failed to be a huge hit. The Black Bird, a satire on The Maltese Falcon with Segal as Sam Spade, Jr. The film is an 11 on the 10 point absurdity scale, but I found it very funny. However, audiences stayed away. The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox is a bawdy Western comedy, this time with Goldie Hawn, that did nothing to further Segal’s career. Fun With Dick and Jane was a comedy with Jane Fonda about a struggling middle class couple who take to crime to sustain their standard of living. These were all comedies with good writers and directors, and fine co-stars for Segal to play off of, since interacting with others in absurd situations is Segal’s strength. Unfortunately, his comedies were not finding audiences and that diminished the films he was now offered.
Segal appeared many times on The Tonight Show, usually with his banjo and some amusing stories.
In 1980, Segal made a significant career mistake by turning down the lead in 10, the film that made Dudley Moore a leading man and Bo Derek a star. Segal never really recovered, but he continued making films but not the quality of films he had been starring in, and was offered more co-starring roles, and he ventured into television.
Elliott Gould began working on Broadway in the late 1950’s, gaining better part through the decade, as he also accepted small roles in feature films. Success on Broadway led to a part in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, an adult film about spouse swapping, directed by Paul Mazursky. Gould signed a multi-film contract, the first of which was M*A*S*H, playing Trapper John McIntyre, and we know what happened with that the success of that film.
Gould would dabble in producing his own films, but he started cashing in on many offers coming his way for offbeat and trendy material.
Getting Straight (1970), Move (1970) I Love My Wife (1970) Little Murders (1971), The Touch (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), Busting (1974), Who? (1974), S*P*Y*S (1974), California Split (1974), Nashville (1975), Whiffs (1975), Mean Johnny Barrows (1975), I Will, I Will… for Now (1976), Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Capricorn One (1977), Matilda (1978), The Silent Partner (1978).
After M*A*S*H, Gould’s stock was really high, he starred in five quick films, the best of them was Getting Straight with Candice Bergen. He disappeared for almost two years before resurfacing with another Altman film, The Long Goodbye, playing detective Phillip Marlowe. This was not a very successful film earning poor reviews and undergoing re-editing prior to a limited release. Gould and Altman made three films together and seemed in sync with each other but not so much with studios or audiences. Gould barely has a line of audible dialogue in The Long Goodbye and Altman’s storytelling is like viewing life through a hungover lens. The film has a lot to offer but it is very much a product of the early 1970’s when story structure and characters could be obtuse and overly downbeat.
Gould made the cover of Time magazine in 1970 as the face of the new generation of movie stars.
Segal and Gould made one film together, California Split (1974), coincidentally directed by Robert Altman. Segal and Gould star as fast-talking gamblers trying for the big score. The characters are gregarious and wisecracking, perfect for the stars. It was reported that they clashed on the set but their styles were similar in their often manic type energy which is what Altman was looking for in these addicted gamblers. The film earned mixed reviews and was pulled from release, another Altman box office casualty.
Gould would go on to star in many films in quick succession, though none of them successful, and his two films in 1976, I Will, I Will… for Now and Harry and Walter Go to New York, both co-starring Diane Keaton, were not funny or romantic. He joined the all-star cast of A Bridge Too Far, a terrific film but his part was small. His next film, Matilda, was not successful, but he did manage to appear in several successful films as the decade closed. Capricorn One was a political thriller about a fake moon landing was a surprise hit. He had a small role in the all-star Muppets Movie, which was a big hit. His last solid film of the decade was The Silent Partner, a thriller co-starring Christopher Plummer.
Gould kept his popularity alive from his many hosting jobs on Saturday Night Live! His easy-going, laid-back style blended perfectly with the boozy, free-flowing vibe of the show during the late 1970’s. Gould was game to dress up in a bee costume or perform any other crazy skit idea. As the original cast of SNL passed into history, it seemed that the many stars of the early decade were also fading.
Gould and Segal were red-hot in 1970, they were in the same position of Warren Beatty and Robert Redford, and just before Burt Reynolds and Jack Nicholson emerged. Bad choices and under-performing films sidetracked both Gould and Segal, who turned down film great roles and stuck with writers and directors that offered edgy material but not critically or financially successful films.
When you see them on TV now, imagine them with longer hair, Gould with a bushy mustache, beguiling smiles to charm the ladies and fast-talking out of mischief.