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George Segal on learning how to bet from Robert Altman, fathering Denzel Washington, and more

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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: George Segal started his TV career just as the 1960s were getting underway, but within a few short years, he’d all but made a full-time transition to the big screen, where he spent the better part of the next two decades, starring in a decidedly diverse slate of films, including Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, Where’s Poppa?, California Split, and Rollercoaster. In the ’80s and ’90s, Segal shifted into doing more small-screen work, including the long-running Just Shoot Me. He returns to the weekly sitcom grind this season for ABC’s The Goldbergs.


The Goldbergs (2013-present)—“Albert ‘Pops’ Solomon”
The A.V. Club: When you came aboard The Goldbergs, you did so on the heels of starring in Nick At Nite’s Retired At 35. Was it a case where you wanted to keep working, or did they actively reach out to you for the role?


George Segal: The thing about this business is that you have people who are looking for you… and somebody looked. [Laughs.] This was on the table, they sent it to me, and I laughed out loud, which is very rare. I really haven’t done that since I read the pilot of Just Shoot Me. It’s very rare that an actor laughs out loud. So that caught my attention right away, and then an interview led from this to that and… ah, it’s mystical to me. I don’t ever know how it happens. Sometimes it’s being in the right place at the right time, sometimes you’re just the guy they want. It’s impossible to explain. This is a real gambler’s business, acting. It’s a crapshoot, and you keep stepping up to the table and hope that your number comes up. Or it’s like being a used car in a used car lot. You’re just waiting for somebody to come over and kick your tires. You’ve got to be crazy to do this.


AVC: So who is Pops, aside from being the show’s resident grandfather?

GS: He’s irascible and loving and slightly demented, which leaves room for a lot of high jinks. It’s wherever the writers want to take it, but to me, it’s all fun. It’s funny in a kind of way from my youth. Lenny Bruce did a routine about the London Palladium, which is… you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’s moving, but it’s really, deeply funny. I’ve never really run into that in script form, that mentality, but for me, it’s in The Goldbergs.


It’s great to be a part of something that I think is really funny. Television is full of stuff that a lot of different people think is funny, or else it wouldn’t be on, but this time they hit my chord, my bell. I don’t know why it is. I don’t really know a family like this. My family was much more Victorian than this, so all the yelling and the screaming… It’s really moving and funny, because it’s always about something. They’re all like little Bible stories, in a kind of way, because there’s always a moral. The best television comedies do that. I think Seinfeld did that, I think we did it on Just Shoot Me. There’s some pith in there to be extracted. There’s some good stuff in there that leaves you better for having watched it.

Now, I know that’s a little high-flow for what is essentially a burlesque, slapstick comedy. [Laughs.] But it is full of good stuff. Every show is really about something, and part of that is that it’s Adam F. Goldberg’s life. All these plots are stuff that he’s had happen, so there’s a whole new array of specific family stories, which is hard to come by, you know? Usually a sitcom is not a personal thing. It doesn’t reflect a personal point of view. But this does. And he’s really invested in this, and it turns out from all his writing—you get dizzy looking at his IMDB listing—that he really knows what he’s doing. This is high-level stuff, as far as I can tell.

The Closing Door (1960)—actor
The Young Doctors (1961)—“Dr. Howard”
The Desperate Hours (1967) —“Glenn Griffin”
AVC: It looks as though your very first TV appearance was as part of the cast of a televised play called The Closing Door.


GS: That’s right! With Dane Clark and Kim Hunter. I’d seen Dane Clark in a hundred things, probably. He was the king of B-movies in the ’40s. And Kim Hunter, I first fell in love with her in Stairway To Heaven, but, of course, she was Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. I remember she wore penny loafers. [Laughs.] That was thrilling for me. I felt for the first time, “Oh, my God, I’m a real actor! Look what I’m doing! I’m in a play with Dane Clark and Kim Hunter!” It was a mind-blower to get that.

AVC: In The Closing Door, there’s a successful brother and a jealous brother. Which one were you?


GS: Not a clue. [Laughs.] Look, I’m just happy I remember I was in it!

AVC: I noticed that there’s a common thread between your first TV appearance and your first film appearance, in The Young Doctors: Arthur Hill was in both.


GS: You’re kidding! Arthur Hill was in The Closing Door? I didn’t remember that! But after The Young Doctors, I also did… oh, what’s that one that Humphrey Bogart did in the movies? Desperate Hours! I did that, and he was the father in that. Arthur Hill. Love him. He was a great guy… and a great Canadian!

AVC: So we’ve talked about your first TV role and your first film role, but how did you find your way into acting in the first place?


GS: Well, I was taken in 1941—which would make me 7 years old—to the local movie house in Great Neck to see This Gun For Hire, with Alan Ladd as this unrepentant gangster and Veronica Lake as his moll. He had a trench coat and a gun, and it occurred to me as I was loving this movie that this was a job. This guy came in every day, they put the coat on him, they gave him the gun, and then he went home at the end of the day. So if it’s a job, then maybe I could get a job like that. [Laughs.] That’s the first time I put all that together.

Then when I was in 7th grade, Art Linkletter had a show in the afternoon called House Party that all the ladies listened to, and all the kids listened to it when they were home sick from school. They did it in L.A., but they moved the show to New York for, like, two weeks, and they always had a section of these five precocious kids. Art Linkletter would ask them a question, and after telling him a few things about themselves, they’d give these adorable, funny answers.


Well, when I was in 7th grade, they came out to my school to talk to the drama guy, I guess. Anyway, I was put on a bus and went to New York. I was petrified. The other kids didn’t know what this show was, but I’d seen it, and I knew that you had to be really brilliant and listen to what Art Linkletter said to give one of these answers. When I got there, though, one of his assistants, who were backstage, said, “Mr. Linkletter’s gonna say this to you, and when he says that, then you say this.” And he gave me the line that I was supposed to say. Which, if I may say, got a nice laugh. [Laughs.] But I put that together and went, “Oh my God, the fix is in! These kids didn’t think of a thing! All these years I’ve been listening they’ve been giving them the answers? Sounds like a job for me.” So that kind of cemented it.

Of course, I also loved all the attention, and maybe that’s because I’m the youngest in my family. I guess I just wanted that attention. Because those two brothers had been around and knew everything, it always made me want to say, “Shine the light over here!” I was a painfully shy kid, but, and I know this sounds crazy… I only felt comfortable when I was on the stage. I was lifted by it, and I was energized by it. It’s therapy. [Laughs.]


Where’s Poppa? (1970)—“Gordon Hocheiser”
GS: Gordon Hocheiser! Well, that’s really funny. That had some funny, off-the-wall stuff in it, and it’s the closest thing I’ve done in my life to The Goldbergs. You know, that was Carl Reiner, and he was at the top of his form. I had idolized him during Your Show Of Shows, so the idea that this guy from Your Show Of Shows was going to be directing this movie blew me away. I’ve had these experiences a couple of times of being awed by the people I’m working with. And, of course, Carl being such a humanist, you get by that immediately and get into his orbit and realize you’ve got nothing to worry about.

AVC: So how sweaty did you get in the gorilla costume?

GS: [Laughs.] Very. It’s funny you should ask that, but after all the boxing and the jumping on the bed and clearing off the bureaus and all that stuff, I was shvitzing.

King Rat (1965)—“Corporal King”
The Quiller Memorandum (1966)—“Quiller”
A Touch of Class (1973)—”Steve Blackburn”
Stick (1985)—“Barry”
GS: Oh, I liked Stick! That was Burt [Reynolds]. If you had ever asked me if I’d ever be in a Burt Reynolds movie, I would’ve said, “There’s no way. No chance.” I don’t know how that happened. Oh, I think he saw A Touch Of Class and wanted me. Whatever it was, I had a great time down in Florida. He was a wonderful director, and he made it so nice for the actors. It’s so nice to have an actor or an ex-actor directing you, because they get it, you know?


AVC: Stick was based on an Elmore Leonard novel, and Leonard also co-wrote the screenplay. Was he on the set?

GS: No, I don’t think so. I heard he didn’t like it much, because they diddled with it afterward and re-cut some stuff. I never read the book, so I didn’t know what I was playing versus what was written. That’s happened a couple of times: People said, “Oh, that Quiller Memorandum!” But I had never read the book, because a movie script is completely different. You have to play what’s on that page, not what you remember from what you read in the book, which may or may not have anything to do with the character. Although I got a lot of King Rat by reading that book. That really fleshed it out. It’s not a steadfast rule. Sometimes you read it, sometimes you don’t. I don’t know why or when, but that’s how it is.


AVC: Since you’ve brought it up, how was the experience of making The Quiller Memorandum? That was a case where you were an American in a predominantly British cast.


GS: It was great. It really was. And it was a script by Harold Pinter, so the actor in me rejoiced. I was an American in a predominantly British cast with King Rat as well. It’s great because they have really well-trained actors, so you go toe-to-toe with one of those guys and it raises your game. Come to think of it, A Touch Of Class was also an all-English cast except for me.

California Split (1974)—“Bill Denny”
The Feminine Touch (1995)—“Sen. ‘Beau’ Ashton”
GS: Oh, that was an education, that movie. I did a couple of things with the actor Robert Morley, and I thought that California Split was such an American movie, with Reno and all those references, but when I worked with him, he said, “Oh, California Split! You know, I’ve seen it three times!” It turned out he was a betting man; he had a bookie and was at the races and all that. Gamblers love that movie.


Elliott [Gould] was a gambler in his youth, and he would hang out with Joey Walsh, who wrote it. They were both child actors, went to a professional children’s school, and did all that early live television and all that stuff. They had cash and they were good gamblers, both of them. Joey still has a steady poker game that he goes to. But for me, someone who wasn’t a gambler, it was a real learning experience. That was a lot of fun, because I was playing something I’d never done before, and I had to learn from [Robert] Altman. Altman, who on football day—this was before multi-screen stuff, because it was back in ’73 or so—had a house in Malibu, and on Sundays, he’d have three big Magnavox television sets, one right next to the other, and he’d bet on all of the games, so he’d just race back and forth in front of those sets. I’d never seen such stuff before.

AVC: How was he to work with as a director?

GS: Great! And laissez-faire. Always tickled by what the actors would bring. Didn’t want to get in the way of that. Very little direction, per se.

AVC: I spoke with Elliott Gould just a few weeks ago—

GS: Oh, yeah? What did he say?

AVC: Well, that your character was more or less based on him.

GS: That’s right. He was the innocent, and Joey Walsh was the expert, which is the part that Elliott was playing.


AVC: He also said, “Ask Segal about The Feminine Touch… because he’s the one who got me into it!”

GS: [Several seconds of explosive laughter.] Look, we were both on our asses, and we got some money. We got $15,000, and we were happy to get it! I was, and he was, too, no matter what he tells you.


Just Shoot Me! (1997-2003)—“Jack Gallo”
GS: Well, that was just fun all the time. That was a workplace family, which was a lot nuttier than The Goldbergs. [Laughs.] It’s on a whole other level. It’s really satisfying to be on something where it’s a family, though. A loving family, where everyone has each other’s back. That’s a wonderfully supportive feeling to have. That’s why we all love each other, and why we still meet for lunch a couple or three times a year, the Just Shoot Me! people, because it’s a family. It’s so intense, these shows. I don’t know what single camera’s going to be like, but when you’re doing a four-camera, you’re doing it live, and you really do have each other’s back. The Goldbergs is much more like making a movie, which is more what I’m used to. But it was great to visit those other fields with Just Shoot Me! and Retired At 35.

Take Five (1987)—“Andy Kooper”
AVC: You actually did a sitcom in the ’80s as well: Take Five.


GS: I did. But that really was… uh, yeah, I did that. [Laughs.] That was kind of misbegotten, and I don’t know what happened. That was a nutty time. I just remember that being a little out of focus. It never really came together. But you step up to the table. You go to the paddock. What’s that thing called? The starting gate! All the frisky horses are in there, the bell rings, and they’re off, and you just run the race and see how it turns out. So many of your questions are couched in a way that makes you feel I’m in control of any of this, when it’s more like being in a barrel going over Niagara Falls. I have no clue how any of this will go. You speculate, you chat about it, but all you think about it is what happens immediately, then it’s off to the next one. So it’s fun to do these interviews because you get to hear what other people think about or remember about your work. We all live in a bubble out here, so this is good!

Rollercoaster (1977)—“Harry Calder”
GS: Oh, boy, I loved Rollercoaster. You said you’re in Virginia; that’s where we filmed at, what, something Dominion?


AVC: Yep, Kings Dominion. And also at Ocean View Park, in Norfolk.

GS: Ocean View, yeah. With the great old wooden coaster that went all kerflooey. [Laughs.] Oh, yeah, I loved that one. It was kind of a disaster film. It came out after Airport! and all those, and it was one of the movies released in Sensurround. Earthquake was another one, I think.


AVC: How did you enjoy being part of a disaster film?

GS: It was great! It gave me a chance to give my Clint Eastwood impression. [Laughs.] I don’t know, I was an investigator, and I never really got a chance to play those kinds of parts, so it was great fun. I know I keep saying things were great fun, but that’s my memory of it. It had good things in it, like my quitting cigarettes, having a broken marriage, and visiting my child. There was peripheral stuff that was really good, besides having Timothy Bottoms. Oh, and there’s another thing: I got to work with Richard Widmark. I mean, come on, he was Tommy Udo [in Kiss Of Death]. That was a big kick, and so was working with Henry Fonda.


2012 (2009)—“Tony Delgatto”
AVC: You also got to do a more special-effects heavy disaster film recently, with 2012.


GS: Yeah, Roland [Emmerich] is great. He’s funny, but he’s dry. That was fun. I had a lot of vegetables fall on me. [Laughs.] If you remember the scene, everything on the boat tips, and everybody’s sliding down in the kitchen… well, that was a machine, that whole thing, and all the people in the chef uniforms, they were all stuntmen and stuntwomen. So when that thing went, they all tumbled and they knew how to tumble. There were no actors on that set. Roland was walking with me, and he pointed to the machine—you had to walk up a catwalk to get onto it, and it was a big hydraulic machine—and said, “You could make 10 movies for what this cost.” Maybe that’s why he then went and made a small movie about Shakespeare [Anonymous]. Either way, he’s back with White House Down. He’s got his niche!

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966)—“Nick”
GS: Well, that was a great experience. I’d already worked with [Mike] Nichols, and the fact is that was one of two parts that I got that [Robert] Redford turned down. That one was offered to Redford. The other was Death Of A Salesman with Lee J. Cobb, but he didn’t want to do that, either. He was a wonderful actor back then. Not that he’s not now, but in that youthful time, he was something else. He did something that I went to read for, and when I saw him… oh, it was The Iceman Cometh. He played Don Parritt, and it was an illuminating performance. He really got it, and at a very young age. He understood the game much earlier than I did.


AVC: What was it like to be in the midst of the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton relationship?

GS: Oh, that was great. He was like a Svengali with her. She learned reams of poetry by heart at his instruction. If she was doing Dylan Thomas, she’d do it with an Irish brogue, the way he gave it to her. That was some intense love match. You could feel that. It was really at its apotheosis at that time. Nothing had gone sour.


The Hot Rock (1972)—“Kelp”
The Cable Guy (1996)—“Steven’s Father”
GS: The Hot Rock! Yes! The best thing that happened on that… I mean, for one thing, that was a boy’s dream. We were on helicopters. [Laughs.] And it was a William Goldman script. But when I think of The Hot Rock, I think of working with Ben Stiller on The Cable Guy. At a certain point when I was down there, he comes up with the soundtrack album to The Hot Rock, the Quincy Jones soundtrack with the four of us on the cover: me, Redford, Ron Leibman, and Paul Sand. And when I’m about to sign it for him, he says, “Can you, uh, sign it as Kelp?” And I was so moved. Here’s my director, who had a seminal experience with this film when he was, like, 14 or something. I mean, wow.

Flirting With Disaster (1996)—“Mr. Coplin”
AVC: Everyone knows how Lily Tomlin got along with David O. Russell. How were your interactions with him?


GS: Pretty good. But much better when I saw him at a dinner that was for him for The Fighter. I would say he’s really mellowed. [Laughs.] But whatever he did on Flirting With Disaster, he did it right. And he had a great editor. All those jokes—“baby batter”!—that was all him. He really had the funny place. [There were] big laughs in that movie. And what a premise: trying to find his parents. It was a real road movie. I’m proud to be in that movie.

Carbon Copy (1981)—“Walter Whitney”
GS: An underrated movie, in my view. That was about so many things on so many levels, and Denzel [Washington] was so good in it, but it was a slightly dangerous subject in its day… and maybe still is. But it deals with a lot of stuff that should be dealt with. And is being dealt with, I hope. That’s one of the heaviest movies I did, Carbon Copy.


AVC: At the time you were doing it, did it feel controversial to you?

GS: Well, it was a play 10 years before that, with Paul Burke. It was already a decade old, those concepts and everything, by the time it came to us. But it’s still thin-ice territory. It’s still touchy territory. You know, it’s funny: I saw Denzel at Madison Square Garden at a basketball game a few years ago, and the first thing he does is pull out his wallet to show me his son in his football uniform at the university he’s going to. Like any proud father would show his father how his grandson is doing. [Laughs.] So we have a little bit of that relationship going. We’re always very pleased to see each other in a very father/son kind of way. And that’s nice.

The Zany Adventures Of Robin Hood (1984)—“Robin Hood”
GS: Yes! Oh, I loved that! I loved playing a woman in that. [Laughs.] That was fabulous. I looked a little like Ava Gardner. Roddy McDowall, who was in the movie, actually said, “You look like Ava Gardner.”


AVC: It’s a rather slapstick affair, but it’s got some British comedy sensibilities to it, too.

GS: It does. And the guy who directed it was an ex-stuntman, so all the fights and all that stuff really works. It’s got to work if you’re going to do Robin Hood. I remember he had these grisly guys, these stuntmen. When Robin Hood is supposed to sweep in to cut the ropes of these poor peasants who are supposed to be hung. But before I can do that, they come at me. We practiced the swordplay, and I won both times, but when we were shooting it, these guys came at me, and they looked so ferocious that I just went, “Aaaaaaa!” [Laughs.] So the director stops, and he says, “Just remember: They’re on your side. They want you to look good. Don’t worry, they’ll go down!”

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1963)—“Larry Duke”
GS: Wow. The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, that really blew me away. I saw it recently, actually. It’s about this ambitious actor, and I improvised a little, which is something you didn’t do much on that show, but when I was watching it recently, I said, “Oh, okay, I can buy that.” [Laughs.] It’s nice to see stuff you did when you were a kid where you can say that. Especially since I still remember how nervous I was doing it. Of course, I look at it now, and I can see my makeup. I was, like, “Oh, my God, look at all that makeup!” So I had a couple of different reactions, but thank you for bringing that one up. That’s a good one to close on. It’s always good to close on something that’s not half-bad.