Brooklyn Boro

Elliott Gould: Part two of the Brooklyn Eagle’s long-ranging interview

October 13, 2016 By Peter Stamelman Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Elliott Gould in “California Split,” directed by Robert Altman. Photo courtesy of Elliott Gould
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In early June, the Brooklyn Eagle published the first half of an interview with Brooklyn-born actor Elliott Gould. The following is the second half of the interview.

Eagle: Let’s move on to the films and start with 1969’s “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” Because it was only your second leading role in a studio picture (after “The Night They Raided Minsky’s”) and because of the daring subject matter (swinging, wife-swapping, etc.), did you have any reservations about doing it?

Elliott Gould: Oh my God — I was scared to death! I really thought I might not do it. But then Larry [Tucker, co-writer] and Paul [Mazursky, co-writer and director] played out the final bedroom scene for me and it was so funny that I got over my fear and decided to do the picture. And I’m so glad I did. The cast was terrific; just the chance to work with Natalie [Wood] was such a thrill for me. And Dyan [Cannon] and I have remained friends over the years.

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Eagle: Then, after “MASH” in 1970, which was your first collaboration with Robert Altman, you did “Getting Straight,” directed by Richard Rush. All three films — “B & C & T & A,” “MASH” and “Getting Straight” — dealt with new moral and social issues (and, in the case of “MASH,” a revisionist, more clear-eyed view of war) brought about by the convulsions of the ’60s. Were you consciously looking for such material?

EG: Truthfully, no. It was just a reflection of what was getting made at the time. It was part of the zeitgeist. I remember sitting with Richard Rush [director of “Getting Straight”] in the coffee shop at the Beverly Wilshire  Hotel, and he asked me if, for the role, I could summon anger, rage and passion, and I said, “Yes, of course!”

So I got the role on my way to Oregon, and I’m driving from Los Angeles to the set in Oregon. Along the way, I stop in Las Vegas to see Barbra (we were still married at the time.) She was headlining at one of the resorts on the Strip. She had terrible laryngitis, and I said, “Listen, cancel tonight’s performance. Rest.” And Peter Matz, who was Barbra’s arranger and conductor, said, “She’ll be fine.” And I blew up at him. I always was, and still am, very protective of Barbra. So by the time I got to Oregon, I had plenty of passion and anger. In fact, it was my performance in “Getting Straight” that convinced Ingmar Bergman to cast me in “The Touch.”

Eagle: Yes, I want to ask you about “The Touch” and working with Bergman. But first, I want to put in my two cent’s worth and say I think “Getting Straight” is a very underrated film. It’s a great film for millennials to watch today to get a feel for the ’60s.

EG: I agree. It holds up very, very well. And I’m proud of my work in it. I thought, at the time, I might actually receive a Best Actor nomination for the film.

Eagle: Let’s move on to 1973’s “The Long Goodbye,” which reunited you and Altman — and which happens to be one of my favorite performances of yours. How did it all come together?

EG: When Bob [Altman] called me, I was between pictures. There’s a long arc between “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” “MASH” and “Getting Straight,” then my working with Bergman in Sweden on “The Touch” (1971) and then, in ’73, doing “The Long Goodbye” with Bob. You know how it is in this business: one minute you’re hot, then [snaps his fingers] the next minute you’re not. You were an agent; you know this as well as anybody. I look back and realize I exhibited a lack of perspective and a certain savvy when it came to the business. For example, Bob asked me to do “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” But I had a commitment to Mel Stuart’s “I Love My Wife.” Well, with hindsight, I realize that I should have, somehow, had my agents postpone that commitment. But who knew? Certainly not me.

Eagle: So continuing with “The Long Goodbye” …

EG: Bob was in Ireland shooting “Images” and he called me and said “What do you think?” (re: The Long Goodbye.) And I said I always wanted to play that guy. And Bob said “You are that guy.” David Picker [the head of production at United Artists] had given Bob the Leigh Brackett script and he loved it. But he had not yet gotten the picture. In fact, another director did — and this director didn’t “see” me as Marlowe. Fortunately, Bob eventually did get it.

Eagle: How did you come up with all of Marlowe’s tics: the muttering (“it’s OK with me”), the constant smoking, the same, rumpled suit?

EG: I remember saying to Leigh Brackett at the first screening of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, before shooting began, this approach to Chandler has not been done before. This was a whole new take on Marlowe. We added American jazz beats, if you know what I mean. For example, Bob cast Nina van Pallandt [Note; not an actress, but a “celebrity” because she was Clifford Irving’s mistress at the time of the Howard Hughes hoax in 1971-72.] Now I don’t see Nina van Pallandt, but because the “old man” [Altman] does, I go with it. I figure he knows what he’s doing. So he has me do a rehearsal with her, and that gave me a chance to get my wardrobe: my blue blazer, with my mismatched black pants, the white dress shirt and the tie. Now there’s a story about that tie: it’s a red tie, with tiny American flags on it, which most viewers of the film don’t catch. Which was my “thing,” because, for example, when I got into the Pacific to save Sterling Hayden, I don’t take my shoes off, I don’t take my pants off, I take my tie off.

Eagle: Signifying?

EG: Signifying I love America! You know, I was talking with Jacky Nicholson, and he said, “I love America.” And I said, “America is my favorite place on the planet. We have everything — Canada, the United States and Mexico.” And Jacky said, “No, I mean just Americans.” I remember a conversation I had with Alfred Hitchcock, where I said, “My take on America is that which simply evolved from everyone else, as in America being the infant of the rest of the world.”  To which Hitchcock replied: “I accept.”

Eagle: Back to “The Long Goodbye” …

EG: All the things I did in that picture … if Altman hadn’t given me the space, I couldn’t have done them. The first day’s shooting was done at Radford [CBS studios in the Valley]. Marlowe is like Rip Van Winkle, he’s been asleep, he’s an anachronism. The first time I say “It’s OK with me” is in my scene with one of the girls. And to me, “It’s OK with me” meant “I don’t know what the hell is going on, but I’ll go with it.” Steve McQueen stopped by the set that day and he watched a few takes. Then we chatted between set-ups. He said to me, “There’s nobody better than you, but I don’t understand what you’re doing. If you could only stay within my boundaries, we could work together.”

Eagle: Did you stay in touch with McQueen?

EG: Oh yeah. But he was living in Malibu with Ali [McGraw] and I was living alone at the beach, and somehow we just never found the time to get together. I was not only living alone, but I was feeling adrift. And Paul Newman, another pal, said to me, “That’s OK, every good person should know what it means to be alone.” I’ll never forget that. You know, it’s Newman who made me a star…

Eagle: What do you mean?

EG: Paul was directing his first (short) film based on the Chekhov story “On the Habits of Smoking.” The film was being shot in the Orpheum Theater on Second Avenue, and he needed some “background,” so he put me in a scene. And then he said, “Now you’re a star.”

And, I’ll tell you a funny story: at one point during the shooting of the Chekhov play, Paul asked me to go over to their [his and Joanne Woodward’s] West Village apartment to pick up a few things. And Joanne gave me a script and a sweater, and she said, “Make sure he puts on his sweater.” And I thought, “You’ve just knighted me.” I love Paul Newman. During the time Paul was doing “Sweet Bird of Youth,” I organized the Equity softball team that played in Central Park. He played a couple of times. He was good…

Eagle: Did you and Paul ever think of working together?

EG: Yes, I almost did “Pocket Money” with him. Stuart Rosenberg was directing, but I had already worked with him on “Move,” which was a film that turned out to be much less than I had hoped for. But can you imagine, Lee Marvin did the role that I was going to do!

Eagle: Speaking of actors, you came to Hollywood as a transition was occurring. Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda — these were the prototypes for a leading man in American movies. Then you and Dustin and Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, broke that mold. Were you aware of the change as it was happening.

EG: Well, you know, we reflected our times: the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, the ’60s. But as I’ve gotten older, what’s become of greater significance to me is not trying to change the world, but spending time with my family [Gould has a daughter, son-in-law and grandson and granddaughter who live in the Bay area] and character. I used to think it was all about talent, and now I know it’s all about character. I mean, of course, you have to be talented, but what good is that without character? My father, who was a neighborhood guy, taught me by example the value of character. And you’re not born with character; you have to develop character. Shortly before his death, Arthur Laurents [a celebrated playwright and screenwriter] called me. In the course of our conversation, he asked me how I could have stayed so good after everything I’d been through. I said, “Thanks for the compliment, but I don’t think that way. And my response to you is simply that my mother never gave up.”

Eagle: You were the first, and one of the few, American actors to have worked with Ingmar Bergman in “The Touch” (1971.) Bergman regulars Bibi Andersson and Max von Sydow were also in the film. That must have been heady stuff…

EG: That experience was truly an evolution for me, a chance to grow.

Eagle: What was the genesis of the film?

EG: I’m told by my agent that I’m No. 1 on a list of actors to do Ingmar Bergman’s first English language film. My agent sent me the script and it was not like any script I had ever read before — or since, for that matter. It was as if he had written a novella. It was a very tough script; there’s a scene where Bibi Andersson and I have violent sex. Well, I immediately got a migraine reading it. I thought, “How can I do this scene?” But you don’t say “no” to Ingmar Bergman.

Eagle: You must have learned a lot from Bergman and from that experience.

EG: Well, that was actually one of the reasons I accepted the role. I thought, “I’ve got so much to learn. I’ll be working with, arguably, the greatest director in the world, and two of the best actors on the planet, Bibi and Max. Let me see if I can hold my own with them.”

Eagle: Were you disappointed by the poor critical and popular reception?

EG: Of course. But on a personal level it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I certainly have no regrets. In fact, I’m very proud of my performance in the picture.

Eagle: What is so remarkable for me in interviewing you is that, after so many years in the business, you are still so positive and enthusiastic.

EG: Oh, thanks! You know, I feel like I’m never really “finished.” I’m still evolving, I’m still being surprised, I’m still capable of wonder.

Elliott Gould’s latest film “Humor Me” opens in December, and he is currently filming the new CBS drama series “Doubt,” which will air mid-season.

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