Yet Another Encore!
By Shirley Craig
Elliott Gould’s acting career spans five decades from the 1960s. He has starred in some very notable films, including the groundbreaking Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. His portrayal of private investigator Robert Marlowe in The Long Goodbye is iconic. And then, of course, there is Mash, Robert Altman’s award-winning film about the Vietnam War. Today, Gould is still a prolific working actor that many younger audiences know him from his roles in Ocean’s Eleven and as Monica Geller’s dad on Friends. I had the luck to catch up with him after seeing his recent film, The Encore of Tony Duran, which has just been released on DVD and video on demand.
You’ve survived a long career?
I’m surviving. I’m still doing it.
Yes, you are. But, I read that you had some tough times along the way. What keeps you going?
Oh, well, by embracing it, you know? By not giving up and being open minded. One of the major things that I've been able to accomplish has been to get to the roots of my insecurity, and how I've been able to do that has been to recognize and accept my limitations. I didn’t know any limits before and compensated and overcompensated for insecurities and self-doubt and a lack of confidence and trust by going too far, by going further. So I didn’t give up. I have a working and living philosophy. I believe in the value of what we have to share, and it’s one thing to share goodness and accomplishment. It’s another thing to share a problem. Once people are willing and capable of communicating directly like this, we can then see that no one of us can have a problem that one of us didn’t have before.
That’s a great philosophy.
I think I’ll adopt that philosophy.
Please. It’s universal. It belongs to all of us that are willing to be here.
I just saw the The Encore of Tony Duran, I really loved it.
[Laugh] That’s great. I’m delighted that you respond to it and that you like it.
What attracted you to the character?
I thought the writing was really good and, of course, what was attractive to me was the idea of someone who had lost everything, somebody who had succumbed to a value system that was killing him, and someone who was lost and out of control, and the idea of working and to be able to get back on track and get past yourself. I know for me, to be able to recognize one’s problems, not deny them, not try to change them–because we have to evolve, to embrace our problems and love our problems and give our problems an opportunity to evolve–that’s the only way. So that’s what attracted me to it, and the guy who wrote it, whose name is Mitchell Cohen, I thought he did a good job.
I do, too. I loved his line, “Nobody remembers your first act!”
[Laugh] That’s great.
Tell me how you got involved in the project.
When I met the fellow who plays Tony Duran, Gene Pietragallo, he had lived that. And I knew his family, and we met and it also seemed to mean a lot to Fred Sayeg, who directed it, and really, when you talk about passion, I appreciate the opportunity to work on something that has great meaning to other people, and that is important to me.
Is that how you got involved, because you knew a family member of Gene’s?
No, I got involved with the project because Fred Sayeg had asked if I would consider to do it, and then I read it and I got involved through the process of reading it, and then meeting some elements, and then having the time and committing to it.
Were you reticent at all working with a first-time director?
What’s reticent? I've got to look up reticent. I don’t quite know what that means.
Well, cautious. Have you worked with many first-time directors?
I've worked with quite a few. Paul Mazurksy was a first-time director. Peter Himes was a first-time director.
That puts my question in perspective right there.
Elliott. [Laughs] Yeah, Peter Himes was a first-time director. Monica Vitti, I believe, was a first-time director, and when she showed the film and she acted with me in her film, she didn’t speak English. But we had met, and I loved her work. She introduced me to Michelangelo Antonioni, who was her boyfriend and, of course, one of his great films–and she was in it, I believe–was L’Avventura … It’s an adventure. So you take your chance. You take your chances, and I enjoy the privilege to be able to take a chance. I don’t gamble anymore, but I want to have an open mind to be able to take a chance where I feel it’s worthy and it could be a positive. I remember saying to our friend Mick Jagger, “What do you want to do next?” This was in the early ’70s. “You can do anything.” He said, “I’d like to make films.” I said, “Well, with your juice, with what you have going for you, you can do anything you want,” and he said, “I know, but I don’t have the confidence yet.” I said to Mick, “So what you’re saying to me is with confidence you’ve yet to develop in yourself, something more could be possible for us,” and he gave me a reluctant nod, and I said, “I've got to repeat that,” because at that point, my kid Jason was about 7. This was 40 years ago. I said, “He’s stuck in the same place you are. So with confidence that you’ve yet to develop in yourself, something more can be positive to us. How else do we do it besides going out there and trying, going out there, and attempting and committing to it, and seeing what you can do with it?”
Very good advice.
During the course of the film, there was a problem. Gene Pietragallo had had some problems. He didn’t have any problems with me, but he was, for a while, he wasn’t going to be finishing the film or couldn’t finish the film and I said, I told the fellows, “I've committed to this a great deal because of Gene Pietragallo. It’s not good enough to let him not do it. You’ve got to allow me to help him even more,” and we were able to do it, and he accomplished it. So I feel that a grain of pride is good for the heart but no more than that, because it’s blinding. I just feel, you know, that it’s so meaningful. And then what’s a success? What’s success? Being comfortable in your own skin, being happy with who you are and what you are. There’s nothing much more that we can ask of life, because it’s not about materialism. What greater material is there than life itself?
Let’s go back in time for a minute. When you read the script to Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, one of my favorite films, did you have any idea you’d end up with an Oscar nomination?
No. I almost didn’t do it. I was extremely inhibited and repressed and, although I was married at the time, I thought that it might have been … an exploitative thing. I did not have the kind of security or faith or confidence, but then I met Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, and they played me a tape of the bedroom scene, a rather brilliant and hysterical bedroom scene between Ted and Alice, and I could hear that it was funny– and I appreciate humor a lot. One of the things, how I look at it in terms of drama and humor, is sometimes what’s funny is sad to me, but what’s dramatic is usually funny to me.
I’ve heard that playing Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye was your favorite role?
It was for a while. It was a great opportunity. I felt it was the first movie I was able to sort of make, and that was great. And I’m just so gratified and so pleased that it’s held up, being that we broke a mold. We went a little further, but it’s held up and it works and it still has an audience, and I won’t give up on the sequel until I can no longer do it and even then, I don’t want to be selfish, but the character is now a much older person, older than we’ve ever known him, but it’s still me. You know, each one, it’s like a kaleidoscope.
Are there any plans actually to do the sequel?
There’s been some work for a sequel. I've done some work with the Chandler Estate. I've spoken with Bob Altman about it and shown him my treatment and then had Alan Rudolph write a first draft, but we can’t make plans until we have financing, and there’s no financing for it. And I’m just thrilled to have been able to participate in The Long Goodbye.
IMDB says you’ve made 99 films, but I think it’s more, isn’t it?
I think it’s more. I can’t count. I used to count, but I don’t count anymore.
It’s been an amazing career, but you must’ve turned down a lot of parts?
I've turned down some.
Any big regrets?
Well, of course. I’m sorry I didn’t do McCabe & Mrs. Miller, because Bob wanted me to do it. … I wasn’t sorry that I turned down Portnoy’s Complaint because even though Philip Roth is a favorite, I hadn’t read the book, and I've only read it in recent years, and I didn’t think it was a picture, even though a good friend of mine had directed it. That was Ernest Lehman, but it was mostly McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Otherwise, I have no regrets because the picture that I did instead was I Love My Wife. I had to do I Love My Wife at that point for Universal, which was the only Universal feature I've done so far. So I don’t have regrets.
So, as an elder statesman of Hollywood, what advice can you give to young actors trying to get their foot in the door? Any words of wisdom today?
Education, an open mind. Keep your ego and vanity at bay, or recognize where you’re either affected or influenced by that and, fundamentally, I just learned to listen ... I didn’t know that at the time that I broke through, that I didn’t have perspective or judgment and I had thought, especially coming from the socioeconomic background that I did and being second-generation American, that it was about talent and being talented, and I've learned that it’s not. It’s about character and to continually find education, not to forsake academic and formal education, and be careful of too much success too soon and stay humble.
Well, when you’re young, one doesn’t always have that perspective.
When you’re younger. Well, we don’t have a studio system anymore. I would love to have a studio and that foundation like the trunk of a tree to work and help to educate our young people, young artists, because we revolve. The young people write songs, poetry, things about it. The young gets old. Everything must change. That’s a song. I have a recording that Quincy Jones did of that. Being young is no excuse, and youth being wasted on the young, I don’t adhere to. We have to be green. We have to learn. We have to make errors. Industry and business and materialism, you know, that has to be kept at bay too in terms of it having such an effect and influence on nature, because again, the greatest gift that we have is nature itself.
So how do you feel about Hollywood today? What do you think about the state of the cinema?
Yeah, I’m thrilled that it’s still alive and that people still love it, and people are working in it and at it. And there’s a show that has been on American Classics that Robert Osborne has presented called The Story of Film: An Odyssey, and I adore it. I love to watch it. People complain about Hollywood now. People talk about how it was, how it is, how it will be, but just like the theatre was known as the fabulous invalid, I think that film and the arts and crafts and opportunities and possibilities to project hopefully intelligence on film will continue to survive.
You started in theatre. Do you have any interest in going back to Broadway?
Well, you say theatre and then you mentioned Broadway, so the answer is, I mean, commercial theatre is another kind of, you know, it’s a business. Regional theatre, scholastic, I mean, theatre, I’m very interested. I’m extremely interested.
So if the right play came along, you’d jump at the opportunity?
Well, I don’t want to jump. I mean, I support a large and growing family that is dependent on my employment, and so I would, I have to be comfortable. I also have to really love it, really love it, you know, but yes, I’m very interested in it and I think it’s great.
Talking about family, with all demands of the movie business, how did you balance work and family?
Oh, my God. How did I balance? I have a friend, I mean, John Wooden passed away at 99. I was blessed to be his friend for his last three years. He was one of two people I really wanted to meet, and we were able to arrange that. John Wooden was known as “The Wizard of Westwood.” He was the iconic basketball coach to the UCLA Bruins, and we met because his son belonged to my union. And when I met Coach, he told me that he had been an English teacher in Indiana, and then he said, “The most important word in the English language is ‘love’ and the second most important word,” he told me, “is ‘balance.’ ” How? Arthur Lawrence, who wrote Gypsy and wrote West Side Story and wrote The Way We Were and also the first thing he directed was I Can Get it for you Wholesale where I first met my son Jason’s mother, Barbra, who was my first wife. He said to me shortly before he passed away, “How have you stayed so good? How have you been able to stay as good as you are after everything you’ve been through?” and I said, “Arthur, I don’t think that way, but I feel you’re paying me a compliment, so thank you. And my answer to your question is simply that my mother never gave up.”
Your mother was a big influence in your life?
Oh, God, yeah.
Who have been the other strongest influences in your life?
Everybody, everybody I've touched. You see, who? Who have been influences on me? Well, of course, the two women that I married, my father, my children, my grandchildren, my friends, and other artists and colleagues who I've had the privilege to work with, but the greatest influence, I think, is nature itself.
If you weren’t an actor, what would you have been?
At this point, what would I be? Either a doctor or a lawyer or maybe, if I wasn’t an actor, yeah, I would really need a lot more education.
What are your passions outside of acting?
Outside of acting or playing, nature, just the majesty, the magic and the majesty of nature itself, being alive. I’m very happy that I can read and to interact and communication, to communicate. That’s also what acting is about, to be a vehicle, a medium, through which we can communicate and learn from one another. So education is really important to me.
Have you ever thought of formally going back to school?
Yes, I do, but I’d have to have the time, and I have to be able to read. So my life is like an education for me.
To change the subject back to film. If you were stranded on a desert island and you had to take only three movies with you, what would they be?
I’ll go off the top of my head because there’s more than just three … I would take The Quiet Man, in no particular order, Casablanca, and The Grand Illusion.
Are you going to write a book one day?
I don’t know. I know the verse to it. It goes, (Elliott starts to sing) “ABCDEFG, I never learned to spell, at least not well.” I’m having a good time now, I hope you don’t mind. “1234567, I never learned to count a great amount, but this busy mind is yearning to use what learning it’s got. I won’t waste any time. I’ll strike while the iron is hot,” which is the verse to, “If they asked me, I could write a book.” Everybody does it. I think it’s sort of boring. I mean, I’m not so, you know, but it’s good information and the more I continue, the more I live, the more I learn, perhaps I get closer to chronicling all of the fabulous opportunities that I'm having in this life.
You know, I met John Lennon twice. The first time, he judged me, and it sort of hurt my feelings, but I understood. The second time, I was able to guide him a little bit, and he wrote a lot about this. John Lennon was a fabulous spirit in a lot of what he writes. We’re all over the place. So even your talking with me, because I could tell from hearing you, that you formally do what you do. I don’t formally do anything other than if I’m contracted to do something, I have to be somewhat formal as to living up to my commitments, but I’m extremely grateful and blessed and appreciate your interview.
Well, I appreciate your time. I’m going to ask you one final question. When you think of the word, “Hollywood anecdote,” what comes to your mind first?
What comes to my mind first is Groucho Marx. Groucho is quoted as having said that “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend and inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Then another anecdote of Groucho’s was that he went out of the door and innuendo. He was a great friend of mine, and I was privileged to be his friend in his latter days. I used to shave him with his electric razor as he watched reruns of Burns and Allen and Jack Benny. He gave me the greatest review I’ll ever have. I changed a light bulb over his bed, and he said to me, “That’s the best acting I've ever seen you do,” which almost brings me to tears because you’re understanding me, and my greatest fear was to be misinterpreted or misunderstood and judged on something that was not necessarily what I meant, but meaning is pretty abstract. So a Hollywood anecdote, I’ll give you one more. I was really privileged to spend some quality time with Alfred Hitchcock, and I said to Mr. Hitchcock, “The American to me is that which has evolved from everyone else, as in the infant of the rest of the world.” I don’t know if I said, the infant, the rest of the world, and he said to me, “I accept.”
Thank you for your time.
Oh, thank you for your time and interest. I’m very appreciative, very much so, and I’m glad you liked The Encore.
I did, I really did.
I hung up the phone with Elliott Gould feeling privileged to talk to such an acting legend. I would like to recommend you all rent or buy The Encore of Tony Duran for a movie experience that will simultaneously bring tears to your eyes and joy to your heart.
And, click here to read my interview with Fred Sayeg, the director of The Encore of Tony Duran.