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George Segal: a point man for his times

The actor, who died Tuesday, at 87, helped transform stardom in the ‘60s and ‘70s

George Segal (pictured in Los Angeles in 1997) died Tuesday at 87. Yes, the actor played banjo, too.Damian Dovarganes/AP/file

With the death of George Segal, on Tuesday, the fading of the great menschlichkeit stars of the New Hollywood era has begun. (The actor was 87 and suffering complications from bypass surgery.) Many of the actors who in the late 1960s and early 1970s replaced the tall, dark, and handsome of the Studio Age with short, weird, and interesting are still with us but they’re mostly inactive. Dustin Hoffman, who started it all with “The Graduate” in 1967 and who was described then by one critic as “looking like both Sonny and Cher,” is 83. Elliott Gould, 82, is known to people under 50 as Monica and Ross’s father on “Friends” and one of the old guys in the “Oceans” movies.

Gene Hackman, 91, retired from the screen after 2004′s “Welcome to Mooseport.” Robert Duvall, 90, takes smaller roles when he wants to, as does Alan Arkin, 86. At 83, Jack Nicholson — who’s really a part of a West Coast crew of free radicals (along with his “Easy Rider” costars Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda) — hasn’t made a movie in 11 years. Only Donald Sutherland, 85, seems to have the energy or the interest or the bills to pay that keep him popping up in higher profile projects like the recent HBO miniseries “The Undoing” or the “Hunger Games” trilogy.


All these men were A-list names for at least a few years, and some had a longer run at the feast. (Again, Nicholson’s the outlier, maintaining his superstar status over four decades and into the new century.) Segal was the schnookiest of the bunch, even though he was arguably the most conventionally handsome. As a young actor coming up in the early 1960s, he opted not to change his name or his nose, and what might have been a problematic career choice 10 years earlier seemed exactly right for a zeitgeist that distrusted any movie stars who looked too good. (Jane Fonda to Robert Redford in 1967′s “Barefoot in the Park”: “You know the problem with you? You’re practically perfect.” Redford: “That’s a rotten thing to say to a person.”)

George Segal, left, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

As such, Segal was a point man for his times. He played characters who were likable but at least a little lousy, and he dug into their flaws with curiosity and gusto. His turn as Nick in Mike Nichols’s acid-etched “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), which broke the actor big-time and earned him his only Oscar nomination, gradually reveals the moral sleaziness of a proper young academic. In “The Owl and the Pussycat” (1970), a romantic comedy with a screenplay written by the actor’s lifelong friend Buck Henry, Segal was a pompous, neurotic novelist thrown together with a foul-mouthed hooker played by Barbra Streisand; the movie was one of the year’s top box-office draws.


The same year saw him in “Where’s Poppa?,” an outrageous black comedy from Carl Reiner that paired Segal with Ruth Gordon as a beleaguered son and his senile mother; the “tush” scene remains some kind of landmark in screen mortification. So began a solid five-year run at the top of the Hollywood ladder. Segal played one of the heist crew in “The Hot Rock” (1972), a roué with a crush on his ex-wife in “Blume in Love” (1973), paired with Glenda Jackson in the strange-bedfellows romance “A Touch of Class” (1973), headed up a Michael Crichton thriller in “The Terminal Man” (1974), and hit the casinos with Gould in the Robert Altman gambling drama “California Split” (1974).


Of those films, the last holds up the best, as a great movie about gambling, as an underrated Altman classic, and as one of Segal’s most acutely harrowing portrayals of charm and delusion. (“Blume in Love” is arguably more daring but definitely more problematic, with a scene in which his lovelorn swain rapes the ex-wife, played by Susan Anspach; a sequence that was intended to complicate audience sympathies for the hero now makes him actively toxic.) The winning streak tailed off with bumptious Bogart parodies (“The Black Bird,” 1975), disaster-movie disasters (“Rollercoaster,” 1977), and “Carbon Copy” (1981), the movie that introduced Denzel Washington (playing Segal’s unexpected son) and that stands as the worst thing either actor ever did.

George Segal in "The Goldbergs."ABC via AP

During those years and for many after, Segal could be relied upon to turn up regularly on “The Tonight Show” with a bag full of anecdotes and a banjo, which he would play with the enthusiasm of the genuinely unskilled. He was great company, with his beginnings in improv comedy — alongside Henry, he was a member of the early-’60s New York troupe The Premise — carrying through to latter-day roles in TV series like “Just Shoot Me!” (1997-2003) and the currently running “The Goldbergs.”

George Segal in 2010CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images/file

And if you were lucky enough to talk with him, in person or on the phone, it was like getting buttonholed by a favorite uncle you never knew you had. I called Segal up in 2013 for a story I was writing on Henry, and, boy, was he there in all his menschy George Segal-ness from the moment he picked up the phone:


Segal: Wow. You’re on time.

Me: Well, I didn’t want to keep you waiting.

Segal: Of course, I’ve got plans. Jammed together here. So, have you eaten and everything?

He talked a lot in that conversation about his affection for Henry but also about his own days as a starveling actor in New York’s West Village, about scrapping for roles on stage and in early TV. About how appearing in a failed pilot could somehow lead to a part in a movie like “Ship of Fools” (1965), “and then ‘King Rat’ [1965], and you’re off to the races.” And about how you could jump-start a career with another actor’s leftovers. “Redford turned down ‘Virginia Woolf’ because I think he thought it was too unpleasant. And the other thing Redford turned down was Biff in ‘Death of a Salesman’ with Lee J. Cobb. So I got two great parts from Bob turning them down, which was nice.”

“Nice.” George Segal was nice. But with just enough not-nice peppered in there to keep an audience forever on its toes.