In his forty-eight years of screen appearances (and that doesn't even count his years as a Broadway chorus boy), Elliott Gould has made a big impression on a lot of viewers. He hit the big-time with the double whammy of Paul Mazursky's Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1968)—for which Gould received an Oscar nomination—and Robert Altman's MASH (1970). He reteamed with Altman as Philip Marlowe in The Big Goodbye and for the pictures California Split, Nashville, and The Player. Other early triumphs included Richard Rush's Getting Straight and Alan Arkin's Little Murders (which Gould produced after starring in the original Broadway cast of Jules Feiffer's play), before a professional disaster that has passed into Hollywood legend, when Gould's erratic behavior led to the cancellation of planned film "A Glimpse of Tiger" (of that chapter, Gould recently commented, "I didn't have a drug problem; I had a problem with reality"). And yet, the work never really stopped. Ingmar Bergman called (for his 1971 film The Touch), and then Altman. When Saturday Night Live came around, Gould was there, hosting six times between 1975 and 1980. Other films include Sir Richard Attenborough's A Bridge Too Far, Barry Levinson's Bugsy, Charles Burnett's The Glass Shield, Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming, Tony Kaye's American History X, and four films for Steven Soderbergh: Ocean's Eleven, Ocean's Twelve, Ocean's Thirteen, and Contagion (he also played with the Muppets twice, in The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan). His extensive TV credits are too numerous to begin to detail, other than to note his rapport with a younger generation as Monica and Ross's dad in twenty episodes of the smash-hit sitcom Friends. In addition to a role in the about-to-open Ruby Sparks, Gould appears in the indie Dorfman, currently popping up around the festival circuit; he came to town to collect the Freedom of Expression Award from the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival at a screening of Dorfman (Dorfman will also screen 7/31, 81, and 8/5: click for ticket info). Certainly, Gould loves to gab; he graciously agreed to regale me, at the Galleria Park Hotel, with many tales of Hollywood.
G: How did you first get started...playing basketball? You like to play basketball, right?
EG: Ah. I couldn’t play at all. Basketball was—I mean I was very much into baseball. And my parents, Bernie and Lucille—I’m told they used to take me to Brooklyn Dodgers games. And they also told me that—they were always in the men’s room with me, because I always had to pee when something was happening. But basketball—I think my mother and father liked basketball. And they used to go to the old Madison Square Garden and watch people play. There was a guy named Harry Boykoff. And he may have been a Jewish player because of course, for us, I mean, Jewish players in that world and in that business was not—they’re not many of us. And so I got into basketball—I think I was in the seventh grade or—. My friends used to go to Sethlow Park, and they used to play basketball there: not full court—half court, three on three. And I used to also—I’d haul and like to take my socks and throw my socks into a drawer and used to listen—actually here at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, they’re having a documentary about Marty Glickman who’s the announcer. Marty Glickman, who was a Jewish person, and there’s a documentary that’s going to be here and I haven’t seen—but I had participated in it. And Marty Glickman either ran in the 1936 Olympics or wasn’t allowed to be in the 1936 Olympics, being a Jew. And when I became aware of Marty Glickman, he was an announcer. He announced baseball, but he announced basketball. And it was so exciting, and he also announced football, Giants games. So I would go, and I would try to play—I couldn’t shoot at all. And in the seventh grade at Sethlow Junior High, they had a drill where...everybody in the class would line up, with one person at a time would shoot a foul shot to see how many layups you could get in thirty seconds. And I mean I either used to—not quite finesse or sort of bluff my way through, because I couldn’t do it, and I couldn’t do anything. I could listen to the radio and imagine what was being broadcast. And I could go to the movies and ooh, sort of pretend. But—so there was a player, I think it was Carl Braun, who played for the Knickerbockers—and this is in the very early fifties. And so I’m so embarrassed and so ashamed that I can’t do anything, and I’m going to be exposed now that I’m just a geek. And so I say, "Oh, this is the way Carl Braun would do it." And they were—I threw the ball in the hoop. And it went in. And it was such a shock that for the next thirty seconds, my not being capable—of not being able to sink one lay up—I got through it because I threw the ball, and that was my beginning in basketball.
G: Well, unexpectedly, there’s a real convergence there with acting. Because—especially film acting, being on the spot when the camera rolls and having to deliver and, also, like you say, you scored that bucket by imagining: by playing a role.
EG: Yeah. That’s pretty good. But I’m deeper into nature, you know: it’s just the idea of it which is so interesting to me. I mean, nature—it’s a choice that I took through the process and along the way. Because there’s so many of us that are afraid of nature. And we’re told what to feel. And we’re told how to feel.
G: Do you mean something in your personal nature that makes you constitutionally right for acting or do you mean nature nature, being in the world?
EG: Nature nature, being on earth and being in space. Yeah. Nature nature. Because it’s all interwoven.
EG: It’s all interrelated. And so then to act—my acting fundamentally is I love to play. There will always be a child in my heart. And I love to play. This child loves to play. And then, I had been a tap dancer. Because having been so inhibited and shy and withdrawn and repressed: there’s others like me. And probably, you seem to be able to relate to it, you seem to understand—
EG: And to know. So I was taken to a neighborhood song-and-dance school about being a tap dancer. Maybe I was nine, you know, between eight and nine. I thought, "Oh no. This is not me. I’m not for it and it’s not for me." And I thought then later on—‘cause then the guy—Freddie his name was—he was sort of a masculine tap dancer/kind of teacher. You know, "What do you want to do?" What do I want to do? It would seem—and I don’t know what anything means. You know, to be a fireman? I don’t want to burn myself. I don’t want to breathe smoke. To be a cowboy? I’ve seen them. I used to like to see Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, you know. And then—but I liked more than that. I liked to listen to the Lone Ranger on radio. At any rate, so—to learn to tap dance. In my rationale, through some degree of I don’t give up, is if I memorized routines and I apply myself to memorizing routines, then perhaps I’ll be able to express myself and communicate through that which I’ve memorized knowing that my life was not about memorizing. Although, in terms of the evolutionary process, I mean it’s taken us forever to be where we are, and it will take us longer than forever to get the fuck out of here.
G: And once you’ve learned a time step, it’s in your bones, right? You never forget it.
EG: No, I went further. Because now, my bones now—I hope there are some people listening who understand the feeling of arthritis and the feeling of us being constituted of perishable matter and all perishable matter is affected by time.
EG: Yeah. So then when I was twelve, I played the Palace. Great job. You talked about vaudeville [Ed. before the interview]. So I was brought into vaudeville. This was 1951. And of course, that was the year Bobby Thompson hit the home run, the shot heard ‘round the world, and the Giants beat the Dodgers in the playoffs. Almost meaningless. Doesn’t mean anything. I mean, I don’t deny. And so I met my teacher. I met two teachers. I met a ballet teacher—stretching is good for us. And I was trained. And I also met this incorrigible, intransient black Irishman, Billy Quinn, who took me on [to learn tap dance]. Now I, coming from a somewhat dysfunctional home, where there were no brothers or sisters—and again, I was devastated because Coach [John] Wooden—talk about basketball. I was his friend in his last three years. The greatest guy I’ve ever met. And I didn’t know he had been a school teacher. And I asked to meet him. And I met his son and he got us together. And Coach Wooden told me he had been an English teacher in Indiana. And then he said to me, "The most important word in the English language," he said, "is 'love.'" And then he said, "And the second most important word"—and I thought, I didn’t know there was another important word—he said, "is ‘balance.’" And that’s kind of what we’re talking about.
G: In everything.
EG: So Billy Quinn took me on, and I didn’t want to learn. And many of us out here didn’t want to learn. Afraid to know. It was too upsetting to me. My parents didn’t know how to love one another. They didn’t know how to adapt. They didn’t know how to give it up. And so he was trying to impress on me—Billy Quinn in 1951—about time and timing. And he would be pounding me mentally—pounding me. And I didn’t want to learn. Nobody could get through to me. But when I wept—and I wept, he did not treat me like a baby. And he got through to me. So the timing is perfect. It’s always now. And, uh, from there to here and beyond.
G: And that’s interesting—what you say about having that timing drilled into you from dance training. They say you can’t learn comic timing, and yet, that kind of foundation probably has something to do with your sense of comic rhythm that you have.
EG: Well, uh, okay, but also the key to that is listening. And the key to that is hearing. Sid Caesar—do you know who he is?
G: Oh yes. I love Sid Caesar.
EG: I did a picture—it was originally entitled "My Darling Shiksa," and then it became Over the Brooklyn Bridge. And we needed a patriarch. We needed someone to play my late father’s brother who was the patriarch in the family. And I recall talking about basketball, that I would go to—Dave DeBusschere was a friend of mine: number 22. You can figure him out. He was great. The Knickerbockers became champions when he was traded from the Pistons to New York. And Bill Bradley was my friend too. And still should be my friend. I wouldn’t allow him to not be my friend. But Dick Schaap, when the Knickerbockers were playing a game during the week, the lights would go on at Madison Square Garden. And Dave DeBusschere was the general manager. And so he would allow some people to play four-on-four games—half court. And Dick Schaap was doing a documentary about all the elements from the Show of Shows and the writers like Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, and he showed it to me...And there was Sid Caesar. I sort of grew up with Sid Caesar. And Jackie Gleason and Milton Berle. And I thought, that’s the guy. That’s the guy that I want. He’s a very tough guy, very strong. They were all afraid of him. And so I suggested him, and he was cast. So when we had a table read of "My Darling Shiksa," or Over the Brooklyn Bridge, it was the day that Sid Caesar’s autobiography was published, and which he wrote, and it’s called Where Have I Been?.
G: Yeah, right.
EG: He had had a problem with alcohol. And I said to him, I said, "When we’re working, I can’t tell you, but when we’re working together, I can show you because I followed you the whole way." And on September 9th we’re going to have—I don’t know if I can be there—but a nintieth birthday party for Sid.
EG: And which Mel and Carl Reiner come, and Sid Caesar’s really something, and we did a great scene. It was like a Jewish Red River. And I got a picture which I thought I’d bring to him. We had an amazing scene: it’s the best acting that he could do that he would do because I really get very close and I listen, and I listen so as to be able to adapt. So it can’t ever always be the same. You can simulate it. I just was watching, oh my God, you know, I listen to—I have Jascha Heifetz playing Bach sonatas. And great pianists of that ilk—it’s amazing. It’s amazing—like the greatest athletes ever.
G: When you bring up Sid Caesar—I promised myself I would ask you about Groucho. You befriended Groucho. I’m curious how you managed to do that and what you could tell me about—
EG: Well, it was David Steinberg, who had been with me in the original—
G: Oh, Little Murders.
EG: Stage production, yeah. I couldn’t imagine—let me see—no, that was before you were conceived, I think. But it doesn’t matter. Everything is in the present. We’re all here. So David introduced me and Groucho to one another. And then Groucho—he had a girlfriend by the name of Erin Fleming who he loved; he loved girls and women. And Erin really did a lot of work with him and lived with him, and he took care of her and she took care of him and we became friends. So Groucho would have dinners. I met Mae West at his place and had her sign my driver’s license. But I became his friend in his latter years. And he would let me shave him. He would—late in the morning. He would be fully dressed, wearing even an overcoat sometimes and his beret standing in his bedroom watching reruns of Burns & Allen and Jack Benny. He loved them: they were his friends. And he’d let me shave him with his electric razor. And a cynical person said to me, you know, "What was that about?" And I said, "Oh, that was about affection and confidence." And then I was going through my long-haired, overall period—you know, wearing mismatched Converse shoes—and a light bulb—a light over his bed blew. And so I got a new one. And I took my shoes off. I got on the bed. Took the used one out, put the new one in, came off of his bed, and Groucho then gave me the best review I will ever have, which was, "That’s the best acting I’ve ever seen you do."
G: Forever putting to rest the question how many actors does it take to screw in a lightbulb.
EG: Right. Just one.
G: Well, or two.
EG: Or two.
G: Two for the joke.
EG: What do you mean?
G: The dialogue. The listening. He listened to what you were doing there.
EG: Well, he was there.
G: It takes two to tango for that joke to work.
EG: Okay, fine. Fine.
G: But anyway. Or one.
EG: No, no, no. Two is fine. The more the merrier.
G: So I got to steer back to the man of the hour: Elliot Gould, here. Dorfman. Let’s talk a little about Dorfman. That gives you a deservedly meaty role with a character arc...
EG: There’s a couple of scenes that I like. And I had said to Wendy [Kout] the writer—I wish that I could have had more input but I didn’t know us as far as the character. The writer and the producer, they’re very, very happy with the result. But I’m really happy with a couple of the scenes, one in particular.
G: With your daughter on screen—
EG: With my daughter—a beautiful scene which’s very meaningful to me.
EG: And that’s Sara Rue who plays my daughter.
G: Right. I was going to ask you how you got involved in that project. You’ve been very supportive of the film in kind of taking a victory lap with it and giving attention.
EG: A victory lap? As far as I know it doesn’t have a theatrical distribution yet.
G: But hopefully it will--
EG: Well, that’s okay.
G: Emerge with that.
EG: I mean, yeah, yeah. People sometimes say to me, "Are you serious?" And I can say now I don’t have to be so serious any longer. I know I’m honest. And therefore, one of the things I’m learning—because I’m learning a lot now, and through acceptance and this presentation—this award that the festival is—
G: The Freedom of Expression Award.
EG: Freedom of Expression—you know, somebody, I think from the Chronicle, asked me..."What does it mean to you?" And I said, "Look. I’m not so into honors and stuff like that. I want to be respectful and I enjoy real true humility." And the freedom of expression is for me so meaningful. It gives me license to fail. It gives me license to be bad. It gives me license to make mistakes. I never want to do that. Going back to "what am I going to be?" I’m for—I’ll carry water for a fireman, you know? I have very fundamental ideals. I’m an idealist. And I believe—I said that, in recent times, Jack Nicholson, who’s a colleague, and he’s done in his way much better than me. My family could use some of the resources. But he said, "People are dying," and I said, "Yeah, we’re starting to go." And that’s why I feel loyalty is a real asset. Yeah. And then I said I also feel that, you know, "It’s really important that we be there for one another. But we’re not that close friends. So I don’t want you to think in terms of I want—I’m not going to ask you for anything." You know, how can I be a little profane? I won’t be profane.
G: You can.
EG: I’ll try to be the way I’d want my grandchildren and my children to hear me.
G: Right, right. I also think—well, I wonder—it would seem, given your personality, or what I glean of your personality from this short meeting, that it might be a fun or interesting opportunity...in this case and also in San Jose, Cinequest gave you the Maverick Spirit Award not so long ago—to maybe interface with the public again and kind of –
EG: Well, that’s what I mean. Because last year—I did seven films last year. And Dorfman I did the year before. But of the seven films last year—actually, the first one, some of it was done here in San Francisco. That was Contagion. So I did two studio pictures. The other studio picture’s just opening within the next week—Ruby Sparks.
G: I saw that.
EG: I’m a psychiatrist—I’m [Paul Dano's] psychiatrist in it.
EG: And then four of them are independent pictures—whatever that means. And then the other one is a not-for-profit, which really interests me. Aish Ha Torah, which is an orthodox Jewish international organization, as far as I know; I believe it’s international in terms of the law and what has been written. But in one of the pictures I play an older person. And I went recently to the Edinburgh Festival and served as the president of, hoohah, of the International Film Festival. My picture was not in competition. But I had to see about fifteen or seventeen pictures within four or five days. And the jet lag is dynamic. But it was fine, and also I was there for this picture called Fred—where I play that character. And to be able to come to the table now without a pretense but with my entire body of work or all my experience—
G: And accumulated knowledge.
EG: Exactly—which is sort of what it’s about. So I have to—a couple of years ago the Brooklyn Academy of Music did a retrospective; they were great to me. Now they’re going to show Fred and, you can’t do enough, but to bring my knowledge in a modern—like myself, you know about how I shot layups. You know, I played Michael Jordan Horse and Around the World in one-on-one for homeless and abused children for cameras. And we started everything. And this was in the mid to late eighties. So there’s Michael Jordan and Horse, I said, "I’m going to start you off with an old-fashioned traditional, and then the key word is 'fundamental'—funda-fuckin-mental. Which is great for people to know. I said to some people in Seattle, ‘cause I had a film—a children's film, a family film, that I think maybe I could start a class in "stardom"—in relation to "what does it mean?". And you know, I wouldn’t want to dwell on Sly and the Family Stone: everybody is. You know, "what is this about?" It’s not about being somebody. And like I also have said—I said that the first in Israel, in Haifa: "I believe there’s nothing of value other than what we have to share. And it’s one thing to share goodness and accomplishment. It’s another thing to share a problem." And that once people are willing and capable of communicating directly like this we can see that no one of us can have a problem that one of us didn’t have before.
EG: That’s really important.
G: Oh, it’s potentially world changing obviously.
EG: Potentially. Well, isn’t that something?
EG: Isn’t that something? Wow, yeah, it gives me a chill, thanks. Did you see this film? Are you aware of—it moves me so to be understood and accepted, to—Beasts of the Southern Wild?
G: Oh, yes
EG: You’ve seen it?
G: I did. Yeah.
EG: Yeah. Well. It doesn’t get—she –
G: Kind of a soul-rattling movie.
EG: Gives the greatest fuckin’ performance–
G: A six-year-old!
EG: She’s unbelievable. And the father—I’m told they never acted before.
G: Yeah, I was told what they brought to the film sort of ended up dictating the shape of the story.
EG: Well, there you have a wonderful director/writer. And it’s an American film. Because one of the things I reflect—and the Dalai Lama is a great friend of mine—even though we haven’t met. And Bob and Katherine Altman told me that Richard Gere’s a really terrific guy. And someday—but when it comes to people or whatever, I don’t think I have a motive. And so I believe that western civilization is predicated on the child and his mother. And if there is such a thing, the child and her father is no less significant.
EG: And that picture—
G: It’s like Freud is still relevant.
EG: Well a guy asked me—because, you know, they said, "I understand you have—"—well to some people, not to everyone.
EG: And not even to all of us. So they said to me, "I understand you have a portrait of Freud in your home." And I said, "Yeah, I know some Freudians, and some of the work I’ve done that they analyze everything I do." And so, the guy said to me, "What does it mean to you? Do you get—what does that mean?" He helps me understand myself. Yeah.
G: That ain’t bad.
EG: No. No, yeah. To understand yourself you’ve got to accept yourself.
EG: I don’t think you can until you accept.
G: I have to ask you about Little Murders. I love it so much.
EG: Oh, thanks! I produced it you know.
G: Yes, I know. And it was a real gift for you to get that on screen and, I think, give it a wider audience.
EG: Wow! Do you know that I started working with Jean-Luc Godard on it.
EG: So you know that.
G: I do want to know about that too.
EG: I don’t want to get muddy. I feel that I’ve gotten a little muddy.
G: No, no. Not at all.
G: It’s my job to not let it get muddy. I wanted to ask you first about when it was on Broadway. It’s that heartbreaking thing of putting your whole being into the play, and then it only going a week. But I wonder what that week was like?
EG: Oh, no. No, Pfeifer and I are very good friends...
G: Audiences, from what I had heard you say, and what I have heard Jules Feiffer say, were hugely—they were small but they were just bowled over by it, and standing ovations and a real feeling in the room: that sort of thing…am I mis-hearing that?
EG: Alexander Cohen had given me the script. He was living in someplace in Connecticut, and Alex Cohen who was a great guy, who had been a publicist, and had produced some really significant Broadway presentations such as An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Yves Montand and some stuff, he gave it to me to read and to meet with Jules Feiffer about directing it, because there was talk that two prospective productions: one at Yale—and it hadn’t been done—and the other a Broadway production, uh, which was probably a mistake. And Martin Bregman, who produced Al Pacino in Scarface—he flew me up to Martha’s Vineyard to meet with Jules Feiffer to talk with him about my view of directing Little Murders, and again I had some ideas or whatever, but it was not to be. It could be now possibly, but it was not to be. But then I was asked to go in and read for the part of Alfred Chamberlain, which I did. A lovely man who directed it: George Sherman, who had done some work in Philadelphia and was very close to Andre Gregory (which was My Dinner With Andre). You know, people who were much more avant-garde and much more developed, I think, consciously creatively than I could be at the time. And so, I got the part, and Barbara Cook played Patsy, and Ruth White played the mother, and Heywood Hale Broun played the father, and Richard Schaal played the priest, and Phil Leeds played the detective, and David Steinberg played the brother: that’s how I got to meet Groucho—not at that time, though. And so we went to Boston and played the Wilbur Theater, and it wasn’t working. There was also one other character. It's so interesting how I neglected it: John Randolph played the judge. And then they fired John Randolph, and it’s the only—it’s the first time I talked—I went to visit Jules, and I said, “Jules, you mustn’t fire the judge. You mustn’t fire John Randolph." I mean, I—I didn’t know, you know. "I mean you mustn’t." Well, of course he had to. Jules, I love. I’m so pleased to be his friend, and he’s my friend. And so they wrote the Judge out, and John Randolph was let go. And then they let go of George Sherman, and they brought in John Dexter...a British guy who had worked at the National Theater, and he then directed it and we opened at the Broadhurst Theatre. The Broadhurst Theatre was a theater that Fiorello! had been in—the musical about Fiorello H. LaGuardia: great musical house, great theater, and we ran for a week! And we closed. And I had a thought, and who would have thought that? I think my opening night—there two people who I was told were going to come, ‘cause we had the same agent at the time. David Begelman, who ultimately killed himself. There’s a book called Indecent Exposure. David had—you know, whatever—he had an unhappy end, but Peter Sellers, who was a friend of mine, and Bob Fosse, who had wanted to work with me. And so, one of them came to the opening night and, of course, it wasn’t to be but I think that the next performance after our first performance—’cause there was not very much advance sale; it wasn’t commercial, and there was very few people in the theater, really: maybe eleven, maybe thirteen or fourteen—and it was the best performance. And there were young people in the theater, and they—they—
G: They got it.
EG: They got it. They got it…if they got it, that meant that I had it. And that was that, and then I had felt— I thought, "Hmm." Not right away, but there could be an interesting movie—a different movie.
EG: And so I thought, "Who could do the movie? I don’t know anyone," you know, and I—had I done any movies? I don’t know, and so I wrote to Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Luc Godard responded, and said to me that] his two favorite American writers were [Charles] Schultz from Peanuts and Jules Feiffer, and he was going to be at Berkeley. I was here in San Francisco because my wife at the time, Barbra [Streisand], my son’s mother—uh, you know, my baby—she was performing here. And I thought, "I’ll go to Berkeley and I’ll meet Jean-Luc Godard and we’ll talk about this movie."
G: That’ll be a day.
EG: It was! It was a night. And he said to me, “Why do you want to do this?” And I said, “Well,” I said, “I think that it would be good.” That was all I could say! And so we made a deal for him to do it. And then around this time now, I was going to start to do Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which was my third film, and I wasn’t supposed to leave town, but Godard was going to be at the Algonquin Hotel, and I wanted to bring Buck Henry. I brought Buck Henry in to meet him. Do you know any of this story?
G: No, I don’t know this story. No. I know Buck Henry (laughs).
EG: He’s a great guy! You know his name is Henry? His name is Henry Zuckerman, I think. And so—he’s a great guy—and so my late ex-partner Jack Brodsky, who produced the picture with me, he was also a publicist. He and I on a Friday flew in to New York with Buck Henry to introduce Buck to Jean-Luc, who was staying at the Algonquin Hotel. And it was raining when we got there, and there was a guy in front of—waiting for a cab, wearing a coat, that was not going to be Jean-Luc Godard, but he was wearing glasses and it could have [been]—it looked like Jean-Luc Godard, and I thought it would be so funny. I mean, "I’m sure that that’s not Jean-Luc Godard," and so I got out of the cab and then Brodsky and Henry were following me, and I walked up to this guy. I think I knew it wasn’t Jean Luc Godard. But I said, “Jean-Luc!” and I sort of feigned a thing. “This is Buck Henry.” And Buck Henry said, “Oh, Mr. Godard, I’m so happy to meet you. I’m such a big fan!” "He’s waiting inside." That was funny. And so we met, and we were going to—you know, we had to find writers for him ‘cause he had said to me, “I don’t know what the picture is. It may be a still. It may be about somebody wanting to make a picture and the final result is I’ve got a still.” I said, “Listen.” So, Buck Henry and then Benton and Newman. And Benton and Newman had worked with him on The Death of Trotsky, I think. And they had done some work on Bonnie and Clyde, and he wanted them. So we hired. And "we" being United Artists, and so then they were writing it. They were working on it. And...I went to see them...[Godard] had an office near Carnegie Hall. And I saw him with Benton and Newman, and I said, “Listen. The establishment here doesn’t want to work with you. They don’t want to have anything to do with you. I do. But they want to work with me. But I want to work with you. So if you could show up for me maybe seasonably.” He dismissed the writers and took me for a walk around Carnegie Hall. It was right there. And he said to me in his French accent, “If my wife and my son ask me to tell them that I love them, I tell them to go fuck themselves.” And I said “Well Jean-Luc, that sounds very strong, but I’m not there yet.” So we had then got another script that I thought was pretty good, but it was not, uh—it was wanting. But it was interesting. And then there was an off-Broadway production that was done, that Alan Arkin directed with Marcia Rodd, Fred Willard—the man of the day—and let’s see, probably Christopher Guest, unless it was Jon [Korkes], who played the part in the movie [Ed. It was]...so we decided to have Jules adapt his play and put the Judge back in and have Alan Arkin direct it. But then of course we were able to get the great cinematographer Gordon Willis to shoot it. It may have been his second picture. I think he did The End Of The Road with Terry Southern. It was John Barth’s book The End Of The Road. And...[Gordon Willis'] operator was Michael Chapman, and of course Donald [Sutherland] is so fabulous as the priest. Donald is amazing as the priest. I remember the day he came to work: it was one day—I went out and got him—he had a cold—and I went out and got him fresh-squeezed orange juice...I did Little Murders when Mazursky wanted me to do Alex In Wonderland, and then after Little Murders, I went to work with Ingmar Bergman, and then I came back and got into a tremendous problem, which was no real relationship with business people, and I had to find out for myself. I didn’t consciously aim to sabotage that part of my career, but for me, I really—I love to be free, and I didn’t know that I didn’t have any perspective or judgment when it came to the business of your world and the world of your business. And I thought it was about being talented. And of course I didn’t know. But there’s something more important, which is: character. And this had given me the opportunity to develop a character for all of us—a character, you know.
G: I also want to ask—I know everyone does—about The Long Goodbye...you give this defiantly idiosyncratic performance in a defiantly idiosyncratic film.
EG: Thanks! Oh my God…
G: Well, it’s just so marvelous, and I know and have heard you talk about Altman having said that your prep is "Read the novel, read Chandler on Chandler."
EG: That’s exactly right. But he also, prior to that—when he called me once he got on the picture—he was in Ireland finishing Images, and he called me in the West Village and he said to me, “What do you think?” And I said, “I always wanted to play this guy.” And he said, “You are this guy.”
EG: And that was that.
G: That’s a gift.
EG: Oh my goodness. Yeah. He told me I scared him, though. Because you set up lights, and you set up cameras, so it’s not like it’s a mystery, but I mean I would take—like when we were doing MASH, I mean he published me afterwards as me being his enemy. He also had told me that when he was doing Cold Day In The Park, which was the picture he did before with Sandy Dennis and I think his partner or his manager or someone was a Jewish person, he said he was in his kitchen up there in Vancouver where his company was...Lion's Gate. I guess Lion's Gate is there, right there, physically in the geography of it. It was a Lion's Gate picture, and he said the worst thing. He said that he was so angry at his producer that he didn’t know what to say. He was on the phone and he said to me that the worst thing he could think to say was “Jew.” And I thought, "Okay," you know. I mean—you know. It’s—fine. We used to have Jujubes which were little things, but they were really hard, and you could break your teeth on them, you know. And my feeling about that in terms of prejudice or ignorance or stuff is not to take anything—to take it personally.
G: But you sort of had to—maybe not had to, but you took it upon yourself to teach him how to direct you, right, at first?
EG: Oh, so thanks for bringing it back to that because he said to me, “You’re ruining it for me. Why can’t you be like someone else?” We were at lunch at the Fox Ranch, and we were doing a scene, and it was a scene that—I mean, I’m not quite friendly with Sylvester Stallone, but Sylvester Stallone said to me that he was an extra on it, and that he didn’t admit to being an extra in several Hollywood films, but he admitted that he was happy to be a part of that one, but he told Altman. He said that “I don’t accept it! No—he couldn’t have been. He was never in a film of mine." So...I had my lunch on a tray. We’re outside at the Fox Ranch in Malibu, and he said, “Why can’t you be like someone else?!” And he pointed to Corey Fischer. I guess it was Corey Fischer, who was from The Committee, you know—because Altman hired—The Committee was from here in San Francisco—hired improvisational groups to work with him, or to work for him, and that was for me the worst thing anyone could say, and it was the only time I started to shake, and I threw my lunch up in the air and I said, “You cocksucking motherfucker. Don’t—I’m not going to stick out my neck for you again. You’ll tell me what you want, and that’s what you’ll get. I know where I come from. I was a tap dancer. I understand precision. I understand repetition." And he said, “I think I made a mistake.” And I said, “I think so.” And he said, “I apologize.” And I said, “I accept!”
EG: And really at that moment the crew—the unit from Getting Straight was coming on to have lunch with me because that was going to be the next picture. So it was so horrible for me to have to test a system that is something we have to fight every day in terms of materialism. But having been free, and free to be able to express myself with you, and to be here to accept some degree of validation—but we can’t not only live in the past; we can’t be in the past, you know: it’s about being here. So I’m very grateful, and one of the things that I said is that I do a few of these because it’s good for me, to be able to meet people and like we said earlier, in terms of bringing all of my knowledge and experience here, so: do you want me to do the dishes? You know, I’ll shine your shoes. You know, there ain’t no job that is more important than any other job, including the President of the United States!
G: You mentioned precision—and what was the other one?
G: Precision and repetition as important tools—elements of acting...to me, the third element is relaxation: as Stanislavski would say, “concentration and relaxation.”
(EG slumps back in his chair and begins exhaling into his microphone.)
G: And you know I think that to me when I watch your performances, there is that—it feels effortless, from this side of the camera, watching. It seems loose…that to me was the big part of your appeal, and was probably why Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice got you an Oscar nomination, people responding to that organic, you know, sort of relaxed quality: am I off-base there? You don’t like to analyze that?
EG: Oh no no no no no. One of the things I’m working on, because in terms of like I say, "I don’t think old. I think like a baby taking his first steps." And since you do put it all together, I can contribute something more with that, but it was leading me to—oh yeah, finishing that thought, but I know I’m going on 74, and I don’t know just what work or what business there is out there for me, and I thrive on modesty and humility. And [Irish tap-dance teacher] Billy Quinn, who broke my resistance and got through to me in terms of time and timing—this is right. It’s right. I think it’s—I believe it’s—perfect. And I have found that perfection is a limitation unless we’re in the moment, and then we don’t even want to think about it: things are the way things are. Nothing is more than that. And so he gave me a Webster’s Dictionary. And, one, it wasn’t the first word, and it wasn’t the second word, and it wasn’t even the third word, but it’s the other word which is “genius” which is defined as "one of a kind." And I believe that each of us is meant to be one-of-a-kind. But taking into consideration the ego and the vanity of this species of ours, I believe that a zucchini is also one-of-a-kind, and that there’s nothing more intelligent than vegetation—
EG: Because it simply is, and that’s all life is about: being.
G: Oh, I like that. So that a plant listens to the sun and listens to the water the way an actor listens to a co-star.
EG: Listening and hearing isn’t the same. So therefore I recall, and I recall the moment, and I found pictures, snapshots of it which I have: October 1939. I’m fourteen months old. And I was on the boardwalk of Far Rockaway and there’s a series—a few pictures. And there’s my parents. My mother’s wearing a hat—she was a milliner—and my Daddy there together, and they seldom were together in affection and in love, because that’s the best. That’s the best. Your parents love you. It’s indefinable, and there were three families: there were the Posners, the Goldsteins and the Greensteins. Posner and Greenstein were blood relations. My father was the friend, perhaps godfather, but that—I’m not into that. I mean, again, with all due respects—no. No. I’d rather be a friend. And so Posner walked. He was three months older than me. Greenstein walked. He was three months younger than me. I didn’t walk. I mean, you know, about me now in terms of—
G: Just like the lay-ups? (Laughs.)
EG: That’s right! I didn’t walk. Now I’m on the boardwalk—and a glorious autumn day there on Long Island and Far Rockaway, and my parents are there and I’m looking through the…the…
G: Opening of the stroller?
EG: No no no no no no no.
G: The railings?
EG: The railings! Looking through the railings over the beach, over the ocean to the horizon, and I felt my balance. And I knew it. Looking through the railings, over the beach, over the ocean to the horizon, I felt balance. And I looked at my parents, and I’m saying, “Oh my God, they’re insecure. They’re like—they’re worried about me because I’m not working. They think there’s something wrong with me." And I’m thinking, “Don’t make me walk. Don’t push me to—this is one of the reasons I’m sure I’m the slow...one of the reasons I go so fast because somebody’s going to find me out, you know?
G: See that story puts the lie to something I was just going to ask you, which is it seems to me that—it’s all a matter of perspective, I guess, but that young actors have a tendency to want to work harder than they have to—and put pressure on themselves, and with age there tends to be a better understanding of—
EG: Well, age is an opportunity, I believe: that the miracle is in the conception and that everything else is a process through whatever conditions we have to learn to live through to learn, to evolve, you know? Scientifically—so one of the things I’ve been doing—like I say...I can’t overcompensate anymore…I still got it, but I thought, "Okay, this speech from Shakespeare, and I’ve been asked to do a little bit, but I’m not educated. But one of the things I’ve done is— you know, so therefore I get into it and learn I take forever.
G: Oh it belongs to everyone. Sure.
EG: What’s that?
G: Shakespeare belongs to everyone.
EG: So do I.
G: Yeah. (Laughs.)
EG: And so, yeah, well, of course! And so I have no experience with it. And the language was peculiar, and Pauline Kael, who became a friend because she endorsed my work at a time that was very tricky— and we became friends, especially in her latter days—and she said, “Have you seen Hamlet 2000?" with Uma Thurman’s first husband.
G: Right. Ethan Hawke.
EG: I said, “No.” I met the guy, [the film's director] Michael Almereyda. “It’s fabulous. I just had a problem with the language. It’s just fabulous. Fabulous,” she said. “See it.” And then when I said, “You know I’m really interested in making something, composing something. I have nothing to prove in terms of a director. ‘Cause Bergman had said to me, “When you direct—and you will direct”—you’ve heard that—“you mustn’t act, and no matter who’s doing it and who’s done it, you’ll know.” But I mean that’s—my first priority is family, supporting the family. I have nothing to prove. That would be interesting to do. But so I decided, “Let me see. If I don’t understand:"
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to…
And I’ve memorized it, and I know it, and I can’t say it all like that.
'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil…
Holy shit! What does that mean? You know…
EG: Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely…
What’s a contumely? So I’m okay. My mind is okay. And as far as younger, newer people are going so fast. I was doing—when Carl Reiner couldn’t continue with [sitcom] Baby Bob after we did Ocean’s Eleven, we had to work with babies for CBS. It was interesting. I wish he had stayed on. So they cast me as the grandfather and to play the father of Adam Arkin, and I remember Alan—this is when you know, I got ahead of everyone, and Alan said, “You know, my son Adam is more like you than he is like me." And so I did it, and then in formularized work. And I had always felt that Friends was, like, stereotypical, and yet I wanted to work with [director] Jim Burroughs: you know, it might be possible I could do something in and on TV. And so I don’t have a problem. Like I say about humility and being the zucchini—
EG: Being a circumcised zucchini…
EG: Is, uh, you know, so.
G: Well, I’m going to just ask you just one more question because I’m going to have to let you go. You brought up something else that I was definitely going to ask you, which was Bergman having said to you that one day you will direct.
EG: No, "When you direct." Not one day. There wasn’t a day. There hasn’t been a day.
G: Right, but the question— (Laughs.)
EG: "When you direct, and there will be— Can you direct and there will be?" Is that a question?
G: Well, I wonder if, perhaps, if the opportunity arose—
EG: You’d have to want me to, and we’d have to meet, because I understand management now, and when I took the chance or tested the environment with "A Glimpse of Tiger"—I would love to. But not for the sake of—but not just to do it.
EG: You know like I have.
G: What about the Marlowe project?
EG: Well, I can’t find a nickel—well, it could be—
G: But then you might violate [Bergman's] rule, right?
G: Because you shouldn’t act and direct.
EG: Yeah, right. Well, I should play the part. It should be an older guy. I mean especially now, yeah. It should be, but I mean, who knows? We have The Long Goodbye. Other people have tried to do it. Other people have really tried to do it. It’s a jazz piece. I mean it’s very percussive, and so the idea of doing it without anything to prove: yeah, there’s a project. That’s what Pauline Kael said. “Before you direct a film, don’t you think you would want to direct something onstage?” I said, “Absolutely!” but in the most modest way, either at a church or a school or in a cellar because then, in the moment, it’s all the same, and in terms of dealing with the financial pressures or the people with ego presented by—what’s that guy’s name? That very successful—the brothers? He did Intouchables. When Bugsy was coming out, and they had a party. They showed something at the Museum of Modern Art, and I saw him: Harvey Weinstein. I said, "You know there’s—I’m not really being cast, and again you have to come—you have to get a little deeper into this to cast this," but he said, "You will be after this, after Bugsy." But I had no regrets...If I had understood what I was doing, I would have knocked me off a long time ago, you know? And to have endured and survived to get here, and I’m talking with us—. And I so believe in education. I so believe in what we are, so—and also to share that we’re blinded. (Gesturing to the HDTV in the room:) We’re blinded with that junk. You know, and even just being, you know, just being. So it’s really a privilege, and I’m very, very grateful for your interest and time, and I mean it, you know, and I honestly mean it.
G: This has been truly quality time (laughs). I have to say: it’s been wonderful.
EG: Oh, thanks! Well, like I said: to share, you know, to share and also not to take anything for granted—or to take to young, new actors; not to assume anything—not to assume anything. We don’t know anything. All we can do is bring ourselves, and I always thought that there’d be someone there or someone here, and there wasn’t, but I guess it had to be me. And again—it’s one of us, just one of us, so what it means is what you make of it, you know? And be true. Be true. So [basketball coach] John Wooden, my friend—oh my goodness gracious. What a guy. What a guy. All about team play.
G: Thank you so much.
EG: Vladimir Horowitz—he’s a pianist.
EG: Right. So it was like watching him and listening to him. And also: it’s so eclectic, on my iPod, because I mean, I’m terrible with technology, but I can communicate, and that’s what my computer is about. And I also can put music onto my computer, and I can take the music off of it, and put it on an iPod. So everything on it: I love it. I live everything that I listen to.
G: Terrific. Thank you.
EG: Great. Never give up.