Scott Klavan on George Segal
The Two George Segals
I’d never watched the long-running ABC-TV sit-com The Goldbergs, because I was sad to see what had happened to George Segal. I was from Great Neck, the same hometown on Long Island as the actor, went to the same schools years after he did. As a kid, I saw every one of his movies. I felt a connection to him; I saw me, my brothers, and my friends in his face.
Segal, who died March 23 at 87, was the first of a group of appealingly naturalistic male film actors, including Elliot Gould, Richard Benjamin, Dustin Hoffman, and Richard Dreyfuss, who were openly Jewish leads, complex, brash, warm, flawed, libidinous, funny, sometimes immoral. George Segal’s characters in those days weren’t mensches, the term that has come to somewhat incorrectly signify soft and ineffectual “nice guys.” Coming to fame in the movie version of the play Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, and in such films from the mid-60s to late-70s as King Rat, Loving, Blume in Love, No Way to Treat a Lady, California Split, he was a scheming POW, an adulterous husband, a police detective, a gambler: handsome, foolish, cool, dynamic, hapless, sexy; he was a man, a guy, a human being. He, and the directors and writers who created those roles and films—purposely casting this unconventional actor as a reflection of the openness of the era, the “inclusion” of those times—exploded the stereotype of the Jew as nebbish, greedy sleazeball, and putz. These were effectively assimilated American Jewish men whose religion influenced them but didn’t define them. The roles and movies, often sophisticated, erotic comedies and dramas, were upfront, in the American mainstream. (Many times, he played gentiles.) While the characters he portrayed weren’t always confident, Segal, the actor, was. He gave young Great Neck filmgoers hope that you, too, could be accepted as a real guy in life, an American who just happened to be Jewish, and even more, a lead who gets the girl.
Segal’s career fell off the cliff in the 1980s. The US movie business stopped making romantic/sex dramas and comedies, moving to mechanized special effects. Jewish sensibility faded to the background. He kept working, but in the wilderness: his IMDB credits list a long line of obscure films and TV shows, many of which—Deep Down, Time Of Darkness, Direct Hit—aren’t even in movie review encyclopedias. (Film nerds will know that he withdrew from Blake Edwards’s 10, which became a gigantic hit with Dudley Moore in 1979, a choice that led to several lawsuits and might have accelerated his decline.) He moved up and back to supporting roles in bigger pictures—For the Boys, The Cable Guy, The Mirror Has Two Faces—had a string of bum TV shows, until landing a hit, Just Shoot Me! in 1997, and then, “Pops” Solomon, the high-spirited grandfather, in The Goldbergs, in 2013. But I had never watched The Goldbergs, because it hurt me to see what had happened to him.
When I did catch a glimpse of Segal in the ‘90s, momentarily changing channels to Just Shoot Me!, it was like watching a different actor. Now puffy and over-the-hill, he was mugging and rolling his eyes in overdone “sit-com” style, playing cute, currying favor from the audience. He didn’t mean what he said, seemed to be a step behind, or past, his lines. His performance was superficial, neutered, innocuous; the soulful feeling, connectedness, “groundedness,” maybe the confidence, that had made his earlier film parts so believable and affecting, was gone. There were two George Segals, the early and late. (And I don’t mean the sculptor George Segal (1924-2000) once popular for his life-sized plaster casts of people in urban settings.)
But, after he died, I geared up and forced myself to watch The Goldbergs, or scroll through some excerpts on YouTube, anyway. I was hoping-beyond-hope that maybe he had gotten better since Just Shoot Me! and that the show would be more than a collection of hoary Jewish cliches, the kind that the culture had briefly moved beyond those many years ago. But The Goldbergs is pretty lame. Broad, shallow, crummy. And there was George Segal a step behind his lines, currying favor.
Hey, all of this responsibility/disappointment is a lot to lay on an actor who played banjo in a corny Hollywood jazz band on Johnny Carson and was the lead in the thriller Rollercoaster. I can tell you with certainty that many actors would kill to have a 60-year career where you work till virtually your last day in your late 80s on a high-rated lucrative TV show. Judging from comments online, The Goldbergs has a devoted following, as does “Pops.” Actors age, and change. And actors do what they have to do. In many ways, Segal’s career took a fairly common old-school course, following movie stars like Robert Taylor, Fred MacMurray, and yes, Ronald Reagan, in a poignant journey from leads to supporting parts, to TV. As a self-professed secular Jew who was never even Bar Mitzvahed, Segal may not have cared much about the trailblazing ethnic nature of his early work. Though it’s unlikely. (He appeared on an uproarious 1970 episode of the David Susskind talk show, “How To Be A Jewish Son,” alongside Mel Brooks, David Steinberg, and others, once so popular it was rebroadcast every year.) Sometimes, artists represent things they may not fully intend, and can’t control. But certainly, Segal was not an ordinary, traditional star; he could even be called unique. He had to know that. Leslie Howard and Melvyn Douglas hid their heritage; John Garfield, while great, played more the street-gangster, something deemed suitable for a Jewish actor. Segal was a full-on A-list romantic Jewish lead, and that’s important; that’s why his transition, if you will, to nonsense like The Goldbergs left a bitter taste.
The current absence of American films that deal with Jewishness in a real, natural way is also rough. It seems we’re slowly but surely rolling back to age-old caricatures. Recent TV mini-series The Undoing and the movie Marriage Story feature sleaze-ball low-rent Jewish lawyers who have to be rejected in favor of “acceptable” gentile attorneys in order for the leads to have a chance to win their case. It’s up to the terrific Israeli shows, streaming here, Fauda, Shtisel, etc., to resurrect the mature, complicated Jewish tale. Today, the sexy provocative, funny, and moving human stories Segal starred in years ago, have been replaced by movies that are timid, basically censored, preachy propaganda arms of various political groups; certainly, positive heterosexual play is off the table. The likely Best Picture Oscar winner of 2021, Nomadland, is an ode to a lonely widow who turns down the nicest suitor in the world to—take jobs cleaning bathrooms and sponging off her sister.
After I watched some of The Goldbergs, I started to worry: maybe George Segal was never that good. Maybe my memory of him was just the product of an inexperienced adolescent pulling for a guy from his hometown, with the same sensibility? I decided to re-watch a few of his old films. Despite my extolling of him here, I hadn’t seen his pictures in years. I’m kind of a Nostalgia=Sad kind of guy, and try to think of the future more than the past. (I haven’t been back to Great Neck in a long time, and the last movie theater there, The Squire, where I saw a lot of these films, a place old enough [opened 1935] so that George Segal himself might have once attended, closed in Sept. 2020.)
I picked two 90-minute ones, to ease the pain of any negative response, from 1970: a comedy, The Owl and The Pussycat, and a drama, Loving. The Owl and the Pussycat, based on a 1964 Broadway play by Bill Manhoff, starring the interracial couple Alan Alda and Diana Sands on stage, adapted by Buck Henry for the screen and directed by Herbert Ross, features Segal as “bookworm” struggling author Felix who has an affair with brassy call girl Doris, played by Barbra Streisand—another Jewish pioneer, maybe the biggest. The movie is biting, racy, exceedingly well played. Segal and Streisand handle the dialogue in a completely believable almost improvisational way; their interaction is brazenly raunchy, personal, silly and fun. Segal himself blows past the stereotype of the “intellectual,” making Felix a lustful yet charming, forthright yet sensitive, repressed fellow. A scene wherein he imitates the late-night broadcast of a TV station to help insomniac Doris get to sleep reveals the versatility and inventive skill—maybe honed at an early improvisational theater company he founded—that got hidden later. Segal has been quoted as admiring the Cary Grant of Bringing Up Baby, and in The Owl And The Pussycat, he’s a modern-day version, up on that level.
Loving’s story of self-absorbed, self-destructive illustrator Brooks Wilson (Segal), excellently directed in loose, intimate fashion by Irvin Kershner, is dated on the surface, but emotionally refined and fraught inside. Its last fifteen minutes of infidelity at a swank party are spectacular, one of the best, most wrenchingly surprising sequences in modern film. Along with the brilliant, underused Eva Marie Saint as Brooks’s suffering wife, and a supporting cast of fine, underrated players such as Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Janis Young, Nancie Phillips, David Doyle, and a young Roy Scheider, it rises to become a classic of bourgeois confusion, yearning, and angst. This film is now over fifty years old—fifty?!—yet there isn’t one aspect of the way it is shot or performed that would be out of place in contemporary independent cinema. (2019’s Uncut Gems, with Adam Sandler, lifts elements from it, as well as from Segal’s 1971 tale of a drug addict, Born to Win.) Segal’s central performance as the unfaithful Brooks, whose trysts are heartfelt, ridiculous, and tragic, is both appealing and pitiable, and particularly in his scenes of wordless physicality, uncompromisingly courageous in his willingness to throw away film-star ego and bare his humanness. It still feels new, and different; I can’t find a cinematic comparison to him in Loving.
Rather than make me turn away from the Segal movies of his peak, and my youth, these two pictures made me want to see more of them. They made me happy, for what he achieved, and sad, for what got lost. They justify my telling you: George Segal was a lot more than “Pops”; he meant something, to young Jewish guys from Great Neck, and others, from all walks, I bet. To the culture.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, CAA, and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. Scott directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival; and directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. In 2019, he directed a 60-minute version of the Sondheim/Lapine classic Into the Woods, cast solely with senior actors, for Music Theatre International (MTI) and Lenox Hill Neighborhood House; the show was written up in The New York Times. He helped to develop and directed Eleanor and Alice, by Ellen Abrams, about Eleanor Roosevelt and her cousin Alice Longworth, for the Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park and the Roosevelt House in NYC. He directed Night Shadows, by Lynda Crawford, about the poet Anna Akhmatova, for the On Women Festival at Irondale Center. He is a Lifetime Acting Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop (PDW), where his own play The Common Area, was chosen as part of the PDW’s Festival of New Works in 2019. Scott teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.