The Forgotten Actor

George Segal

George Segal is the forgotten man of the American movie renaissance of the seventies. He is not thought of as an emblematic or important figure of that period; if he’s thought of at all, it’s probably as a likable, lightweight actor who scored a few leading roles on occasions when the producers couldn’t find a real star. It may even be that, for much of his career, his real image is that of the slightly goofy dude who used to make movies or something so that he could get invited to come onto the Johnny Carson show and whip out his banjo. There is an episode of The Larry Sanders Show that opens with Larry trying to stay awake while Segal sits next to him and reels off the titles of all the movies he acted in recently that for some reason don’t seem to have a release date set. (This was around the time that Segal was making movies such as Me, Myself and I, starring JoBeth Williams as a comical schizophrenic.) Larry wraps up the segment and stalks backstage telling everyone within earshot that he has got to start having some new guests.

Segal broke into movies in 1961 with The Young Doctors and then did a lot of TV while waiting for his big break. In 1965, he had his first starring role in the POW drama King Rat and had the attention-getting role of the screenwriter Abby Mann’s mouthpiece character in Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools. The next year, he played Biff Loman to Lee J. Cobb’s Willie in a TV production of Death of a Salesman and got an Academy Award nomination — the only one he’s ever had — for supporting Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Segal was on his way, and seemed assured of continuing success so long as he knew how to pick his starring vehicles. His first few movies as a leading man — The Quiller Memorandum, No Way to Treat a Lady, Bye Bye Braverman — did not seem designed to inspire confidence.

Segal entered the 1970s in an unusual position. He was securely established but not really considered a star. He seems to have been something closer to what someone like Fredric March was in his youth — maybe not a confirmed box office draw or a performer with a defined image, but too talented and well-liked not to be given the chance to carry his pictures. He had been one of the busiest up-and-coming actors in the business through the ’60s, and the ’60s turned out not to be such a great time for minting new American movie stars. Most of the biggest male stars who ruled the roost in the 1970s — Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino — were guys who had spent the 1960s struggling like mad just to carve out some kind of place for themselves in the business. Nicholson, who had plugging away for more than ten years without ever breaking out of indie filmmaking’s Poverty Row, was planning to abandon acting in favor of directing when Easy Rider hit and made him an “overnight” success. The ’60s were a confused time in the movie business, when things were still run by a cabal of dinosaurs who didn’t understand the tastes of the young audiences coming up. It was a decade that began with the studios carefully grooming the likes of George Hamilton for stardom and then recoiling in confusion and dismay when the audience declared its preference for that runty little fellow from The Graduate.

It was a time of flux, and flux scares businessmen, but it can provide an opportunity for artists, who can take advantage of the general confusion to ignore the rules and try new things. And Segal was perfectly positioned to act as explorer. He didn’t operate under the heavy load of being a culture hero, as Dustin Hoffman did after The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, nor was he hemmed in by anything like Steve McQueen’s Mr. Cool image. He could do what he wanted without feeling that the eyes of the world were upon him. He could act in the crawlspaces. And there, he could experiment with new character shades, tap new subjects of comedy. Segal was so much an actor of that moment because he had the chops of a dramatic actor but increasingly came to see himself as a comedian. He became dedicated to mining the comic potential of his roles even when they were dark and edged towards tragedy. That choice may have been forced on him by nature, because he didn’t seem to have the emotional weight for tragedy. But he did have the depth to hit notes far outside the range of most comic leading men of earlier days, and even many of his contemporaries, such as Richard Benjamin. It was also right for a period when an actor such as Robert De Niro in Mean Streets might draw on the techniques of improvisational comedians to lend unpredictability and volatility to a dramatic performance, when Richard Pryor was functioning as a one-man African-American theater company, when Lenny Bruce was making a big posthumous comeback. “It’s the clowns we believe in now,” Pauline Kael wrote in 1975, and Segal’s self-mocking quality made him easy to believe in at a time when audiences were primed to sneer at uplifting and romantic clichés as the same old bullshit.

You can get a sense of what that moment was like, and how Segal functioned in it, by looking at two of his most facile and commercially successful films, both released in 1970: The Owl and the Pussycat, directed by Herbert Ross and co-starring Barbra Streisand, and Where’s Poppa? , directed by Carl Reiner. The former is a romantic comedy about opposites, with Streisand as a hooker and Segal playing a New York City book clerk who tells people he’s a professional writer. The latter is a scattershot lampoon that seems to be the result of a talented old comic craftsman, Reiner, trying to adapt to the tastes of those crazy kids today, which he understands as meaning blasting everything in sight in the name of “satirizing taboos.” (Before the decade was out, this same pursuit of the zeitgeist would have Reiner directing John Denver in his movie debut in Oh, God! ) Neither film is exactly representative of why we now think of the seventies as a great period for American movies, but both work at a simple, mechanical-entertainment level, and one reason for that is that in both of them, Segal taps into the new honesty to bring some humanity to his roles.

In Pussycat, his bookseller is snippy and verbally assaultive; it takes a little while before you can see that this is how he keeps people at bay so that they won’t learn the truth about him, and before long it’s clear that he wants them to stay in the dark because he can’t bear to face the truth about himself. (Streisand, rising to the challenge, uses urban belligerence as a way of pre-empting the nasty judgments she expects people to make of her, and she inflects that sweetly enough to make you aware of how much she wishes someone would care enough to break through to her. It’s one of her best movie performances.) Segal makes you conscious of the lonely pain his character is in; he gets you to feel that he needs a romance so badly that you’re willing to overlook how unlikely it is that he’d find an enduring one with this woman.

In Where’s Poppa?, where he’s more of a comic monster — a man who’s kept a vow to his dead father not to put his ancient mother (Ruth Gordon) in a nursing home, and so has reached the point of wanting to kill the crazy old bat — he uses a similar technique to keep the movie’s all-for-yucks from becoming oppressive. He doesn’t ask you to care for the horny bastard he’s playing, but in his deranged misery, he carves out a few quiet places for himself (and the audience) where his madness has a subdued lyricism. They’re like poetic stanzas strategically inserted into a sonata for trash can lids.

Segal’s real breakthrough may have come in another movie he made in 1970, Loving, directed by Irvin Kershner. He played a commercial artist (“Brooks Wilson, Ltd.”) with a wife (Eva Marie Saint), a couple of small daughters and a mistress. It’s a small, affecting movie without a lot of narrative scaffolding but great sensitivity, which is lightened by Segal’s (and Kershner’s) sense of irony and proportion. They capture the ways in which the protagonist is a bastard without crucifying him for it, and extend understanding towards his selfish and self-deluding impulses without pretending that he’s anybody’s victim.

A year after Loving, he starred in a small New York movie, Born to Win, which was directed by Ivan Passer, an expatriate Czech and veteran of the Prague spring. In a wild swing away from his suburban daddies and crushed but stubborn city strivers, Segal played a modern, urban king rat — a lowlife junkie known as “J,” as if he’d gradually pawned off the rest of his name, letter by letter. Born to Win (which features De Niro in a tiny part as an undercover cop whose method of identifying himself if to holler, “We got guns, baby!”) is a doomed-druggie movie, documenting J’s downward spiral towards his willing acceptance of what’s likely a “hot shot,” a syringe carrying a lethal overdose. But Segal keeps it too jumpy and alive for it to ever seem merely depressing. It’s a sophisticated movie for its genre — it doesn’t try to explain why this fucked-up dude is what he is. J makes no apologies for what he is; he seems as proud of his outsider status as he is of what skills he has. (He used to be a hairdresser, and he comes on to women by offering to do their hair, a detail that Robert Towne and Warren Beatty would later incorporate into Shampoo.) The self-awareness of the performance comes from J’s buying into the myth of the junkie as too wised-up for the straight world, a myth that movies like this perpetuate. He thinks he deserves a gold star just for surviving, though it doesn’t take long for the viewer to see that his survival has less to do with his street skills than with his enemies’ being more indifferent to his fate than he wants to admit; he’s actually the kind of turkey who’s liable to get himself trapped in a public washing machine. And his continuing survival is no favor to those he grows close to; his touch affects his friends as if he were a plague carrier. Between the two of them, Loving and Born to Win established Segal as having an ungodly range and an uncanny ability to use his “likability” to keep the viewer involved in characters who often aren’t likable at all. But as different as these movies are, they do have two big things in common: nobody saw them.

Segal’s biggest commercial hit was the 1973 romantic comedy A Touch of Class, a mold-crusted candy heart from the clogged pen of writer-director Melvin Frank (Not with My Wife, You Don’t, Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, Callaway Went Thataway, etc.). Today, the funniest thing about A Touch of Class is that it won an Academy Award for Best Actress for Segal’s co-star, Glenda Jackson, whose performance made it clear that she had as much business doing routine Doris-Day-gets-laid Hollywood comedies as Segal would have had dancing the lead in Swan Lake at the Met.

That same year, Segal gave a much richer performance in a more complex and barbed modern romantic comedy, Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love, in which he played a Los Angeles divorce lawyer whose philandering costs him his wife (Susan Anspach). The way Segal plays the role — in a sustained spasm of emotional turmoil — you can see that the man is a self-destructive jerk and still respect his pain and wish he could find some relief. Mazursky had a real brainstorm when he cast Kris Kristofferson as Elmo, the hero’s romantic rival, who is secure and easy-going enough to react to Blume’s early attempts to rile him with a shrug; his attitude is, “I feel your pain, brother, but I’m not going anywhere.” Mazursky directed Kristofferson to make Elmo so disarmingly likable that he and Blume end up becoming asshole buddies, even as Blume is plotting to displace him. It’s one of the relatively few times that an American movie has actually managed to find something new and illuminating to say on the subject of male bonding. (At the end of the movie, when Blume is about to become a father, he’s puzzled that the mother won’t consider naming the kid Elmo.)

Blume in Love is a funny, very moving picture; it’s also a problematic one, for the scene towards the end where Blume, driven temporarily insane from frustration over his attempt to co-exist with the woman he wants to love him, finally snaps and rapes her. (He’s still there when Elmo comes home and finds out about it. Elmo punches him, then bursts into tears.) That’s how the Anspach character becomes pregnant, which leads to their reconciliation — a “happy” ending far less plausible than that of The Owl and the Pussycat. Still, the movie’s confusion and the messiness of its feelings seems truer to actual experience than you’d guess from some of the shriller attacks on it, such as that of Susan Brownmiller in her book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. As with the infamous rape scene in Straw Dogs, it’s not as if the movie were instructing audiences to go and do likewise. The aftermath of the rape might play better if we only had a clue as to what’s going on in the woman’s head, if we had a clearer idea of what she felt about Blume and about their time apart, about what reasons she might have for wanting to forgive him. Compared to the understanding that Mazursky extends to the male characters, she remains a rather fuzzy object of adoration, someone to be worshipped and sought after rather than made sense of. That’s a significant failing, but I’m not sure I’d equate it with misogyny.

Segal rounded off his great period in 1974 with Robert Altman’s gambling movie, California Split. Here, he plays a joylessly compulsive gambler who forms a buddyship with Elliott Gould, flying very high (as if he had wings on his shoes) as a gambler who seems blissfully indifferent to the threat posed by pennilessness knucklebreakers, with his next hangover coming in with significantly greater regularity than most of the postings on the Amtrack board. Segal is superb in the movie. He brings off the incredibly difficult last section, where his character doesn’t get the rush he anticipated from a hot streak, and the differences in temperament between him and Gould suddenly become unignorable. And the teamwork between himself and Gould is beyond reproach. It’s a performance that’s as selfless as it is excellent, because Gould needs Segal as a counterbalance to his work here, which is the airiest comic acting imaginable; he’s tap-dancing on clouds. It’s a strange thing, though. California Split is probably the greatest movie that Segal appeared in, and in it, his co-star is doing the kind of lighter-than-helium playing at which Segal so often excelled, and taking it to another dimension. By contrast, Segal is in the uncharacteristic position of acting as ballast. In the pictures to come, there would come to seem something ominous in that.

George Segal’s career didn’t decline after the early 1970s. It just stopped. He kept working, and he starred in movies for half a dozen years after California Split, but given their quality and their box office success compared to what he had been doing, he might as well have been hosting a cable access show somewhere in Borneo. It’s not as if he were doing stellar work in the swamps, either. There are one or two films, such as the 1976 Dashiell Hammett spoof The Black Bird (where he plays Sam Spade, Jr. and has to deal with such irritants as a bald Nazi dwarf and Lionel Stander in a deep-sea diver outfit) where you can still see him working to keep the old muscles from atrophying completely. More often — in such films as The Terminal Man (1974), Russian Roulette (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), 1979’s Lost and Found (which landed him back in bed with Glenda Jackson), The Last Married Couple in America (1980) and Carbon Copy (1981), in which he learned that he had an illegitimate son played, in his screen debut, by Denzel Washington (check that title again and savor it) — he sank to the level of the material.

It’s impossible to know whether the good offers had dried up or if, after the commercial failure of most of his best films, he’d lost faith in the taste of the public and was desperately angling for a hit. Looking at his stiff performances and often aghast expressions in most of the later vehicles, it’s hard to believe that he thought he was working on anything that he’d be able to take any pride in. In these pictures, the old Mr. Likable often looks like a man who ought to be on a suicide watch. In 1982, he started appearing in starring roles in TV movies, at a time when a move from feature films to TV was still seen, among actors of Segal’s generation, as tantamount to collecting a gold watch from the human services department. But at least, at the start, the TV movies had titles that sounded generic in a semi-respectable way, like Deadly Game and Trackdown. By 1984, he had the lead role in The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood, with Morgan Fairchild as his Maid Marion. It was over.

Segal was more or less out of sight for many a moon. He crept back slowly towards minimal visibility in the 1990s, as directors who must have had fond memories of him from years before began slipping him small roles in such films as Gus Van Sant’s To Die For and David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster, and, more surprisingly, he began to deliver for them. Starting in 1997, he got to strut his stuff as a regular on the NBC sitcom Just Shoot Me, which ran for seven years. It’s still not that common an occurrence to see him acting in a movie that’s been released to theaters. But it’s no longer on the same level as spotting Bigfoot in the parking lot at Wal-Mart.

I won’t attempt to argue that a man who agrees to accept money in exchange for appearing in The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox when he could have been off somewhere, doing Shakespeare or public service announcements for VD awareness while waiting for the offers to improve, should face no professional consequences. Still, I do think it says something dire about the culture at large that Segal was allowed to slide so far without being mourned by the media, and that his achievement has been so thoroughly forgotten, to the point that he seems to have next to no reputation at all as someone who was once a valued and important player in movies. This is, after all, the same culture, the same media, that was overprimed to declare each new appearance by Pacino as a major comeback when he was lost in the wilderness, giving dreadful performances in movies as dreadful as Bobby Deerfield, ... And Justice for All, Author! Author! and Cruising, year after year after year. It’s the same culture that continued to hold up De Niro as an example of the best we have to offer the world, as an ever-unpredictable chameleon, at the same time that the man himself was turning to wood, to the point that he’s now spent almost a decade paying the bills by deliberately parodying the mannerisms in which he’s become hopelessly, hermetically sealed.

I’m not saying that I think the press should blow raspberries at them, too: if anything, the press is too eager to leap at the first chance to write off whatever heroes we have so they can get a head start on building up the heroic career of Josh Hartnett. But there’s a double standard at work here: Pacino and De Niro, by virtue of their being perceived a dramatic heavyweights, intimidate many critics into giving them a pass during their bad patches, while Segal’s lightness and comic resourcefulness — the very qualities that made audiences grateful for the sight of him — make it easier to dismiss him as a lesser, disposable talent. Segal’s fast fade from the scene is something for which he has to shoulder much of the blame, but it might have been shored up a little if not for this phenomenon, which we will refer to as the “Cary Grant never won an Oscar” effect until I can think of something pithier. At the very least, the praise that Segal continues to earn for his best work should be commensurate with the degree to which he’s regarded as a has-been and a figure of fun. Is it really such a bother to express our appreciation to the people who’ve enriched our lives while they’re still around to hear it?