George Segal passed away this year. A working actor right up to the end, Segal had a relatively brief tenure as a leading man, but managed to find featured roles long after many leading men faded from memory.
I wrote this blog about Segal and Elliott Gould, two actors who did not seem to take stardom too seriously. Although they only had one starring role together, they represented the new cinema of the 1970s. Gould’s photo was even plastered across the cover of Time magazine.
Today, Segal is mostly remembered for his television work, but his feature films of the 1970s were pretty wacky. He had a few hits and some bombs, but he seemed to shrug off the successes and failures, played his banjo on The Tonight Show, smoked a cigar, and moved on to the next project. By the early 1980s, his leading man days in feature films were behind him, but he found plenty of television work and still appeared as a featured actor in many films. He was nearly 40 when he broke through as a leading man, rather late in life, but his knack for playing broad comedy, in the very off-beat 1970s, put him on the A list for film roles.
Segal appeared in a number of “caper” films where a crime or flimflam was the focus of the story. He played a few dramatic roles, but most of his choices were screwy comedies, usually with a strong female lead, and where he played an arrogant nitwit. Jump ahead several decades and you see actors like Will Farrell, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikes and Steve Carrell playing those roles.
1970 Loving Segal co-stars with Eva Marie Saint in this comedy about a man who is weighing leaving his wife (Saint) for his mistress. Segal often plays somewhat unsympathetic characters, which is not great career advice if you are wanting a long, leading man career. For a comedy, this was a downbeat film.
1970 The Owl and the Pussycat Segal is a frustrated writer and Barbra Streisand is a frustrated model/hooker. They are apartment neighbors who are through together in their living accommodations. Segal’s character is uptight and nerdy, and Streisand’s is mouthy and direct. They are opposites. They eventually start to like each other, then do not, and in the end become a couple. This film would begin Segal on his way to play a variety of men who are out of their element with very strong, opinionated women. Written by Buck Henry (The Graduate) and directed by Herbert Ross (The Sunshine Boys, The Goodbye Girl).
1971 Born to Win A black comedy, Segal plays a drug addict who has broken up with his wife. Pretty funny so far. Drug addiction and failed relationships. This was the early 1970s.
1972 The Hot Rock Segal teams with Robert Redford, in a film written by William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, A Bridge Too Far) and directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt), about a diamond robbery. This film had all the elements of a hit, but was not. It is an amusing film, Segal and Redford are good in their roles, it has suspense and is light-hearted, but it just never gels.
1973 The Lie (TV Movie) Segal tackles an Ingmar Bergman script about an unhappy marriage and life. Sounds like a movie for date night.
1973 Blume in Love Written and directed by Paul Mazursky (An Unmarried Woman, Down and Out in Beverly Hills). Segal co-stars with Kris Kristofferson and Susan Anspach in a modern love triangle. Segal’s character (Blume) is a philanderer who grows tired of marriage. His wife (Anspach) has her own affair with a younger man (Kristofferson), and becomes pregnant. Blume discovers that he wants to reconnect with his wife, even though it is not his baby. A modern love affair. A smart and biting comedy.
1973 A Touch of Class Segal’s first pairing with Glenda Jackson. I don’t think a lot of people recall this highly successful film. This was a very adult comedy, with shape, biting humor and Segal’s slapstick antics. Segal and Jackson make a very interesting couple. Segal plays a married man about to embark on an affair with Jackson’s character. Much of the film is them trying to get together. Segal seems to pair up with very strong females, it emphasizes the comedic tension in his films. This is very much a story of these two characters trying to figure out if they area compatible or not. The film was written by Melvin Frank and Jack Rose, and directed by Frank. Segal and Jackson won Golden Globes and Jackson an Academy Award.
1974 The Terminal Man Segal plays a mild-mannered man who after an accident suffers seizures and blackouts. He has violent episodes. Experimental surgery implants devices in his brain to correct these episodes. Unfortunately, his brain adapts and craves the electronic stimulation making him dangerous and on the loose. Michael Crichton wrote the novel this screenplay is based. Mike Hodges (Get Carter) wrote the screenplay and directed. Segal plays a sympathetic but homicidal character, a challenging role, that reminded the public that Segal had dramatic chops.
1974 California Split Segal and Elliott Gould co-star in this very serious comedy against the addictiveness of gambling. Directed by Robert Altman. Segal and Gould are both very good in this film, but the subject is not very enjoyable.
1975 Russian Roulette A crime thriller, with Segal playing a Royal Canadian Mounted Police detective who must detain a Soviet citizen to prevent him from assassinating the Soviet leader visiting Canada. The plot has some twists but Segal plays a fairly conventional role. This film is really forgotten. It was financed by British film interests and failed to gain much traction in America.
1975 The Black Bird Segal plays Sam Spade Jr. in this screwball affair, again after the Maltese Falcon. I found this a hilarious, oddball film, with Segal playing equal parts dunce and just unlucky. Written and directed by David Giler (Alien, The Money Pit), it features an assortment of character actors who add to Spade’s problems. The reviews were generally unkind and it has yet to appear on DVD, which is too bad. Although not for everyone, I love this film.
1976 The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox Written by Jack Rose and Melvin Frank, and directed by Frank. Segal plays a swindler who absconds with money from an outlaw gang. Goldie Hawn is also ethically challenged, a dancehall girl who gets ahold of the money, with Segal’s character in pursuit. Segal again plays a not-so-bright character, who begins to fall for Hawn’s character as they try and escape the outlaw gang. Hawn is more than a match for Segal’s character and they are quite good together. The humor is often bawdy and low-brow, but very entertaining.
1977 Fun with Dick and Jane Segal teams with Jane Fonda in this comedy about middle class husband and wife who turn to crime after he is laid off from his high paying job. A social satire, sort of, but played for broader laughs. Directed by Ted Kotcheff (First Blood, North Dallas Forty), the film was very profitable. Segal plays a milquetoast good guy who is not a very good thief.
1977 Rollercoaster This is both a thriller and a disaster film rolled into one. Someone is sabotaging amusement parks and threatens to do more unless he is paid a lot of money. Segal plays the inspector who works with the FBI to capture the suspect. This is a very standard thriller, it has moments but Segal does not get to do much acting.
1978 Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? Segal teams with Jacqueline Bisset in a dramedy about the gruesome murders of famous chefs. This film has a lot of charm and the chemistry between Segal and Bisset is quite believable. This more of a traditional leading man role for Segal, his character is not as dense, but Bisset still has the upper hand.
1979 Lost and Found Segal and Glenda Jackson reteam since their great film, A Touch of Class. This new film is not very good. It contains elements of their first film together but without the humor. The same people who made A Touch of Class, made this bomb.