By Alan Hurst
George Segal had a pretty terrific run in films in the late sixties through the seventies, acclaimed initially for his dramatic work and then finding a nice groove as a solid comic performer. He passed away yesterday at the age of 87, still working as part of the long running ensemble on TV’s The Goldbergs.
Segal broke through in films with two performances in the same year – a conniving American corporal in a Japanese POW camp in King Rat (1965) and as one of the ensemble in Stanley Kramer’s Oscar nominated Ship of Fools (1965). Segal’s best known film performance came the following year in Mike Nichol’s superb adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Sandy Dennis. Segal and Dennis played the young couple who become ensnared in the marital games of Taylor and Burton. All four performances were Oscar nominated, with both Dennis and Taylor winning.
Segal then began easing into roles that highlighted his comedic abilities, sometimes with a serious undertone or them, but it was his skill as a comic actor that moved him up the ladder to become one of the major leading men in seventies films.
The marital comedy/drama Loving (1970) with Eva Marie Saint was a bittersweet look at infidelity and dissatisfaction with marriage – and it’s a theme that would pop up a few times in some of Segal’s more successful films and performances. Both Blume in Love (1973) and A Touch of Class (1973) deal with infidelity in a ways that were very much of their time (meaning they haven’t aged well) but they also feature two of Segal’s finer performances, particularly the Oscar nominated A Touch of Class with Glenda Jackson.
What I always liked about Segal was his everyman look – he was a handsome guy but not like Redford or Beatty. Segal was the good looking, slightly sexy guy next door. He wasn’t threatening and he was a believable partner to actresses as diverse as Barbra Streisand, Glenda Jackson, Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood and Mary Tyler Moore. I also liked the way he could do exasperated better than anyone – whether it was as the son trying to comically get rid his mother (Ruth Gordon) in Where’s Poppa? (1970), the corporate husband turned bank robber in Fun with Dick and Jane (1977) with Jane Fonda, or as the nebbish writer who gets tangled up with Barbra Streisand’s hooker in The Owl and the Pussycat (1970). I think the latter is probably Segal’s best work – a noisy, but very funny comedy about a truly mismatched pair.
The seventies also saw him in a fun caper film The Hot Rock (1972) with Robert Redford, a comic western with Goldie Hawn called The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976), and a successful pairing with Elliot Gould in Robert Altman’s California Split (1974), a funny and sad comedy about a pair of low rent gamblers.
Things slowed down for him in the eighties, and he went back to the stage and showed up in a number of TV films and smaller roles in feature films. Although he never really stopped working, he was suddenly popping up in more mainstream fare in the nineties. In 1996 he was part of the ensemble in Barbra Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces. That same year he was in one of the best comedies of the decade: David O’ Russell’s Flirting with Disaster. He and Mary Tyler Moore were bracingly funny as the adoptive parents of Ben Stiller and the two reunited again as the parents of Tea Leoni (who was also in Flirting with Disaster) in her sitcom The Naked Truth.
Segal then got the lead in his own sitcom Just Shoot Me with had decent six season run from 1997 to 2003 and for the last eight years he has been playing the wise and funny grandfather on ABC’s The Goldbergs.
There was no vanity or ego with Segal – he was all about doing the work. Tributes from former co-stars and current cast mates have been consistent in their praise for a generous actor and very decent man.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.