Monday, May 3, 2021

George Segal, 1934-2021

George Segal in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

When George Segal died at eighty-seven on March 23, most people would have recognized him as the co-star of the hit TV sitcoms The Goldbergs (which began in 2013 and is still running) and Just Shoot Me! (1997-2003). The long second act of his career, beginning around 1987, unfolded almost entirely on the small screen; his occasional movie appearances were in supporting roles in undistinguished pictures. But between the mid-sixties and the mid-seventies he was a force to be reckoned with. Strikingly handsome, charismatic, with an infectious warmth, he was groomed initially for romantic leading-man roles. The first picture he had a significant role in was Stanley Kramer’s 1965 Ship of Fools, though the movie was idiotic and the part – a painter chafing against the possessiveness of his well-heeled girlfriend (Elizabeth Ashley) – was wan and underwritten. But in King Rat (released the same year), cast as Corporal King, a scavenger in the officers’ section of a Japanese POW camp, he commanded the screen, and it was obvious that he had far more to offer than looks and charm. King was the kind of part a young Clark Gable would have played, but Gable would have made sure to make the character likable; Segal doesn’t, and the writer-director, Bryan Forbes (adapting a James Clavell novel), allows him some complicated scenes and reserves of mystery. His exchanges with James Fox as a British officer who forges an unexpected friendship with King are the emotional core of the film.

Then Segal landed more prestigious projects. He was Biff in the justly acclaimed 1966 TV version of Death of a Salesman (opposite Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock, who’d played Willy and Linda Loman on Broadway nearly twenty years earlier). He won the role of Nick, the ambitious newly arrived professor who (with his wife Honey, played by Sandy Dennis) gets caught up in the late-night dangerous games of his hosts, played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, in Mike Nichols’s film of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (also 1966). Again on the small screen, he played George in Of Mice and Men, with Nicol Williamson as Lennie. His sensitive, thoughtful work in this trio of adaptations of serious American plays marked Segal, early in his career, as a major up-and-coming young actor. By 1970 he was a movie star, leading man in three very different pictures, right around the time the old Hollywood was disappearing and the new Hollywood was taking over, and an exciting generation of American actors were seizing the opportunities granted them by unconventional, risk-taking writers and directors. He had also become a staple on late-night talk shows, where he maintained a loose, funny patter and played his banjo.

I was a junior at Brandeis University when Segal came out to meet the students. The occasion was the release of Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa? The publicist at what was then Sack Theatres didn’t arrange for a screening but thought that it would be a strong promo for the movie – and also for The Owl and the Pussycat, which was due to come out a few weeks later – to have him meet representatives of the college-age counterculture audience who were turning out to be the most important demographic. The event was held in the campus gym, and when Segal walked out and saw a packed crowd – we were practically hanging from the walls – he looked amazed, and clearly a little confused. “What the hell are you all doing here?” he asked. Just about anyone in the room could have answered that question: Brandeis was about sixty percent Jewish, and Segal was the biggest Jewish romantic star since John Garfield in the forties. Garfield had been a groundbreaker, but by 1970 it was no longer necessary to have all-American looks to win starring roles, and Segal was hardly the only Jewish man with his name above the title. But unlike Dustin Hoffman and Woody Allen, Segal, like Garfield, was a great-looking Jewish guy. Every straight woman in that gym would have loved to date him; every straight man wanted to be him.

As a movie actor in what would turn out to be the best era for American movies since the flowering of the silents, Segal had it all, including a phenomenal talent. To start, he was a genius at landing on precisely the right style and tone without pushing or straining: resigned hauteur in King Rat; still-boyish hopefulness against a Depression backdrop in Of Mice and Men and deflated hope in Death of a Salesman (where he’s playing one of American drama’s classic past-their-prime golden boys); slickness, playfulness and psychopathology in Roger Corman’s showy (and rather ridiculous) The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967). In Bye Bye Braverman he plays a cross between Jewish vaudeville and lived-in Jewish domestic comedy. In the crass murder mystery No Way to Treat a Lady (both films came out in 1968), where a scenery-chewing Rod Steiger as the serial killer is meant to be the main attraction, you keep looking to Segal, who plays the homicide cop, and Lee Remick, as a witness who falls for the cop, for the respite of a normal emotional range. Their scenes are relaxed romantic comedy. And though Segal doesn’t appear to be doing anything special, everything he does is fresh. Also, he showed an exuberant love of acting – and, partly because of an almost uncanny ease on camera, he never misjudged just how much he could bold the contours of the character without coming across as too emphatic. And finally, his range was astonishing.

Between 1970 and 1974 Segal was, in my estimation, the greatest male actor in American movies, and when you think who else was in that cohort – Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Jon Voight, the startlingly instinctual young Jeff Bridges – that’s a remarkable distinction. But few movie lovers know his work from that magical half-decade now because most of his best performances were in films that didn’t make a splash at the box office and that were sidelined in critical discussions:  Irvin Kershner’s Loving (1970), Ivan Passer’s Born to Win (1971), Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love (1973), Robert Altman’s California Split (1974). (The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, with her usual perspicacity, recognized every one of these high spots as they popped up.) Segal’s two best comic portrayals, as the young bachelor driven to distraction by his senile mother (Ruth Gordon) in Where’s Poppa? and as the pretentious bookstore clerk who is joyously ruffled by his encounter with a prostitute (Barbra Streisand) in The Owl and the Pussycat, actually were in popular movies, but both have been forgotten – and Where’s Poppa?, which is a raucous farce, like Blume in Love, which is a complex, nuanced Los Angeles-set high comedy, contain too many triggers for woke audiences to be rediscovered now. There are gifted silent-movie actors whose entire careers have been blanked out by the ill luck of having been concentrated in movies that literally no longer exist. Segal is a weird case of a gifted actor whose movies are still available to be viewed – though the only DVD of Born to Win, which contains his most staggering work, is in disgraceful shape – but hardly anyone knows they’re worth looking at. (He’s also very pleasing to watch in The Hot Rock, which came between Born to Win and Blume in Love, though it’s a limited part in a medium heist picture that is, notably, elevated by three of its four leading actors; the others are Ron Leibman and Paul Sand. The fourth, the star, Robert Redford, gives the only bum performance.)

George Segal and Eva Marie Saint in Loving (1970).

In Loving, directed by Kershner with tremendous tenderness and a keen attentiveness to the telling, multivalent detail, Segal plays Brooks Wilson, who is in rebellion against his suburban lifestyle and his unsatisfying career as a commercial illustrator. His wife Selma (Eva Marie Saint, in her finest post-On the Waterfront performance), exasperated by his emotional unavailability and hurt by his lack of sexual interest in her, believes that if he gets a lucrative client and they can move their family (two little girls) to a bigger house, things will improve. But he sees a more comfortable house as a trap; he fears being locked into this life he’s pushing against. Selma doesn’t have any idea that he’s been sleeping with a younger woman, Grace (Janis Young), who has threatened to end their romance if he doesn’t tell her about them. Besides, he hates the client (Sterling Hayden), the puritanical owner of a trucking company, and hates the commodification of his artistic talent. He has never made enough of a name for himself to get a membership in the Illustrators’ Club; when he goes there to meet a friend for lunch, he can’t get a drink unless someone who has one puts it on his tab. And he has a problem with liquor, which he turns to when he’s feeling edgy or restless and which makes his filter disappear and escalates his unattractive taste for the caustic comment, his belligerence, his contempt and his self-contempt. The narrative arc of Loving is a series of increasingly troubling humiliations for Brooks, climaxing in the one that could conceivably call an end to his marriage to Selma: at a party, with Grace in attendance but maintaining an angry distance from him, he indulges in a stupid, drunken fling with a neighbor in the nursery that is caught on a baby monitor and viewed by all the guests, including both Selma and Grace. (The movie has one of the most painful dénouements I know.) Segal works in collaboration with Kershner and the screenwriter, Don Devlin (adapting a novel by J.M. Ryan), to locate the Chekhovian quality in the material – the idea that even a man who is selfish and neglectful, who acts out, who cheats on his wife, deserves to be the tragic hero of his own story. The actor is a genius at conveying small, private moments of anguish, and the movie is seeded with them.

Segal is dapperly mustachioed in both Where’s Poppa? and The Owl and the Pussycat, two hilarious pictures (though the first is scrappy and uneven and lacks an ending) that reside at different ends of the comic spectrum. The outrageous Where’s Poppa? comes out of burlesque while The Owl and the Pussycat (directed by Herbert Ross, who’d staged the musical numbers two years earlier for Streisand’s star-making Funny Girl) is a classic romantic comedy. Segal’s best moment in the first, though, is a Loony Tunes distillation of the romantic-comedy spirit:  when his character, Gordon, learns that the caregiver he’s about to hire for his impossible mother – and with whom he’s fallen in love at first sight – is named Louise, he sails into a rapt rendition of the Maurice Chevalier ballad of that name. Where’s Poppa? showcases Segal’s physical freedom on camera in a way no previous movie did: he has the gracefulness of a silent-era comedian. But the movie is really a series of revue sketches; in The Owl and the Pussycat he takes that quality farther, embedding it in the character of Felix Sherman. Segal’s physicality indicates how a repressed, supercilious intellectual in tension with his environment – this is a New York movie from the John Lindsay era – loosens up and, through embracing, first sexually and then emotionally, a brassy, lovable hooker, is able to lose the constraints that are choking him and cutting him off from the possibility of happiness.  In this fairy tale for adults, Segal and Streisand are an inspired pairing, each alternatively combative and yielding but in different ways. It was the only time they ever acted together, but the most celebrated romantic-comic partners – Hepburn and Grant, Hepburn and Tracy, Gable and Colbert – were no better.

The Czech filmmaker Ivan Passer, who abandoned his native land after the Soviet invasion, never achieved the recognition in the U.S. that his lovely debut feature, Intimate Lighting, had won him at home. And though it’s inconceivable that Born to Win could have been made in any other period in American film history, even in 1971 it was too unorthodox to find an audience. It’s the portrait of a junkie named J (for Jerome), a hipster who thinks of himself as a life artist but whose existence is a series of scrambles – for a fix, of course, but also to get out of hot water – with his dealer, Vivian (Hector Elizondo), who also pimps his addict wife (Paula Prentiss); with another client of Vivian’s whom he’s ripped off; with unscrupulous cops who are willing to frame him unless he helps them arrest Vivian. Passer and his actors (including a surprisingly good Karen Black as J’s current squeeze and the inventive Jay Fletcher as his favorite buddy to cop with) negotiate tonal shifts as wild and unpredictable as the ones in John Guare’s plays. Segal doesn’t skate the line between showboating and desperation; he pivots around it like a trapeze artist. Casting him as J was a brilliant stroke, and I can’t imagine anyone but Passer (or maybe Robert Altman) would have thought of it. Segal comes through with a performance of breathtaking imaginative vision. This is a true tragicomic performance – and utterly unlike anything he’d done before or would ever do again.

Susan Anspach, Kris Kristofferson and George Segal in Blume in Love (1973).

In Mazursky’s Blume in Love Segal plays a divorce lawyer whose love for his ex-wife Nina (Susan Anspach) becomes an obsession. Stephen Blume loses Nina when she catches him in bed with his secretary; she walks out and cuts him completely out of her life. We see through the film’s somewhat tricky flashback structure that Nina has become a profoundly unhappy woman, stricken with what we might call post-sixties disease: her optimism from the decade when she and Blume got together has become curdled by all the ways in which she feels the country has gone wrong, and nothing she tries eases her suffering. She and Blume are no longer a good match, because his natural ambivalence brushes up against her belief in various kinds of social and political commitment. When she divorces him (asking his partner, played by Mazursky himself, to represent her), he thinks he’s accepted her decision. But then he sees her in a restaurant with her new lover, a stoner musician named Elmo (Kris Kristofferson), and he goes a little crazy. He makes friends with the amiable, uncomplicated Elmo, who has turned out to be the antidote to Nina’s sourness, and slips back into her good graces. Blume has charm and warmth, and when the marriage gets shaky, he struggles legitimately with her demands, which can be unfair. But he’s also glib and devious. Now, though, jealousy deepens him. As Segal plays Blume in these scenes, his style changes – he’s still as congenial as before but more baffled than bemused, and more clandestine; he seems to have burrowed inside himself in some way. Blume in Love is also a tragicomedy, though its high-comic tone and style (Mazursky’s trademark) presents a sharp contrast to the low-rent street-smartness of Born to Win. And this is another movie, like Loving, that asks us to care about a man who behaves very badly – too badly, I fear, for a contemporary audience to forgive him (which makes me feel very sad for the contemporary audience). And Blume gets a happy ending. But then, so does King Leontes, the protagonist of the greatest of all tragicomedies, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale – and Leontes behaves even worse than Stephen Blume. In this vibrant picture, in which the disparate elements and our responses to them are too braided to be sorted out easily – or at all – Segal does some of his most intricate and impassioned work. Once again, I think, we’re in Chekhov territory, and Segal turns out to be, by instinct and inclination, a Chekhovian actor without portfolio.

Finally, in California Split, one of Altman’s string of early-mid-seventies masterpieces, Segal plays Bill Denny, an L.A. magazine writer with a gambling addiction who meets Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould) at the casino and is enticed into his topsy-turvy world. Charlie doesn’t have a job; all he does is gamble. He lives with a pair of escorts (Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles). The rules of the workaday world simply don’t apply to him – and Bill, who is separated from his wife and bored with his job (his editor, played by Jeff Goldblum in one of his first movie roles, looks like he just graduated from college), and who is weighed down by a spiraling debt to his bookie (played by the screenwriter, Joseph Walsh), finds Charlie’s free and easy lifestyle of endless holiday terrifically seductive. But he can only be a tourist in it, because for him gambling is a problem, not an expression of his nature. California Split is an exploration of the phenomenon of gambling from Bill’s point of view, but its mood filters down from Charlie’s, so it’s not like any other gambling movie ever made. Segal and Gould, actors of vastly different personal styles, are the yin and yang of the movie, and they give perfectly matching (great) performances. Even the film’s finale pulls in two directions – California Split has one of the most melancholy happy endings I can think of. (And except for a couple of sequences in Born to Win, it may be the most extraordinary scene Segal ever got to play.)

Segal was fine in a couple of movies that followed California Split, Russian Roulette and The Black Bird (both came out in 1975), and ten years later he gave a vivid, funny performance in Stick, out of an Elmore Leonard novel, as a guffawing, life-embracing, cigar-chewing millionaire who hires an ex-con played by Burt Reynolds as his chauffeur. The movie, which Reynolds directed, is pretty bad, but Segal juices it up. And then he got swallowed up in TV situation comedy, and I’m afraid I lost track of him. But when he died I recalled with both fondness and gratitude the work he contributed to the American Renaissance era of movies. Unlike most of the other performers whose careers I’ve delved into during a decade writing for Critics at Large, Segal’s star dimmed long before his passing. It would give me untold satisfaction if, somewhere down the road, it was set alight once again. The man deserves it.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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