Interview date: 04/23/2009
Run date: 04/29/2009
In the 1970s, it was virtually impossible to go to the movies without finding at least one Elliott Gould film playing in your area. From “M*A*S*H” to “The Long Goodbye,” “Capricorn One” to “California Split,” the man’s name was a staple of movie marquees. These days, he’s still working regularly, both theatrically (the “Ocean’s films) and on television (you may remember him as Ross and Monica’s dad on “Friends”), but the leading roles haven’t been quite as prevalent in recent years, which is why it was so exciting to see him co-headlining 2008’s “The Caller” with Frank Langella. Bullz-Eye had a chance to speak with Gould about his experiences on the film, found out how he feels about moving from being a leading man into more of an ensemble player, and discussed his work on “Saturday Night Live,” his part in “The Muppet Movie,” why he was honored to shave Groucho Marx, and…what’s this about a sequel to “The Long Goodbye”?
Elliott Gould: Hey, Will.
BE: How are you, Mr. Gould?
EG: Fine. How are you?
BE: I’m doing very well. It’s a pleasure to talk to you, and I really enjoyed “The Caller.” I got a copy of the DVD to screen, and it was a great little film.
EG: Thank you, I’m glad to hear that.
BE: When was the most last time you had a full-fledged leading role, as you do in “The Caller”? I’ve seen you predominantly in character parts in recent years.
EG: The last time… (Hesitates) Huh. Let me see. I would have to look at the entire spectrum of what I do, you know? I’d have to rack my brain over that. You know, what I’ve said is that I don’t have to play leading roles. I don’t have to do so much anymore, you know. I don’t take anything for granted; I’m established; I work pretty consistently, and there are a lot of different projects that I do, and some of them I do more in, and some I don’t.
BE: You certainly haven’t been hurting for work, but was it nice to have a meaty role like this for a change?
EG: I was pleased that Richard Ledes wanted me to do the picture. He’s the director, and he translated it from the French.
BE: Were you familiar with his work prior to him approaching you?
EG: No, not at all. I hadn’t seen “A Hole in One.” Quite a few projects get out here to me, and I don’t and can’t do every one. Depending on the circumstances and what they have to offer, I decide what to do.
BE: Had you ever worked with Frank Langella before?
EG: No, we hadn’t even met.
BE: Wow. How was it working with him?
EG: We do so little in the movie…
BE: No, I know. A couple of scenes on the bench, and that’s about it.
EG: I would say that Frank and I are new friends, and he’s totally professional and very talented. I was pleased to have the opportunity.
BE: Did you have to brush up on your ornithology before taking on the role?
EG: I would guess that you’re talking about birds. (Laughs)
BE: (Laughs) Yes.
EG: No, but, I mean, I look at almost everything as a metaphor, so I’m very interested in nature, and I learned a little bit about it in the preparation to do it.
BE: Whose idea was it for you to sport the mustache in the film?
EG: It was my thought. When I came into New York to prepare to start, I showed it to Richard Ledes. and he decided.
BE: I’m sure you’ve heard more than a few comments about your resemblance to Dennis Farina.
EG: Oh! No, I haven’t.
BE: That’s surprising, because that was my instant thought: “Wow, he’s a dead ringer for Dennis Farina.”
EG: Oh, really? I recently met him. I mean, I’ve used a mustache in some of my earlier work.
BE: Absolutely. Maybe the resemblance is just there because of the grey that’s crept into it over the years.
EG: Oh, I don’t hide anything, you know? I mean, I’ve wanted to…I recently did a project and played Socrates and used a beard. So, yeah, sometimes I have hair on my face, and sometimes I don’t.
BE: Ironically, I just shaved my beard off today for the first time in like a year.
BE: Yeah, and I look about 15 years younger.
EG: That’s great. How old are you?
BE: I’m only 38, but it came in about half-grey when I started growing it.
EG: Do you have children?
BE: I have one. A three-year-old girl named Allyson
BE: And she’s liable to freak out when she sees me when she gets home from the sitter today.
EG: Well, you’ll be understanding. She’ll tell you what she sees.
BE: Well actually, speaking of kids, is it odd for you that a lot of today’s generation know you mostly because you’re “the guy from the ‘Ocean’s’ movies,” or as Ross and Monica’s dad on “Friends”?
EG: No, it’s obvious as far as what’s current and what people see.
BE: Do you find that that is what people recognize you for these days, though?
EG: Oh, I think so. But last year, the Brooklyn Academy of Music had a retrospective of ten films that I appeared in, and I was pleased about that. It was gratifying I could revisit that. (Writer’s note: The ten films in question were “M*A*S*H,” “Little Murders,” “The Long Goodbye,” “Busting,” “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” “California Split,” “I Love My Wife,” “Getting Straight,” “Harry and Walter Go to New York,” and “The Touch.”)
BE: When they selected the films, did you get to have any hand in selecting them yourself, or did they pick them?
EG: No, but I did lend them my 35mm print of the film that I did with Ingmar Bergman (“The Touch”), which is arguably the only 35mm print in North America. Since then, I have given it to the archive at UCLA. Actually, they are archiving whatever I give them. But, no, I’m more interested in what people see. I mean, I think it’s honest and true, you know. I’ve done roles, small roles in pictures, and gotten more attention than some pictures that I’ve done larger roles in. And then now, where I am it’s a matter of the whole body of work. I find that ego and vanity is toxic to me, and I’ve had to accept my own because I don’t want to be a hypocrite. So I’m pleased and privileged to have had as many opportunities as I have had and that there are more opportunities. I’ve done two pictures so far this year, and I expect to do at least one more. And I’m working at producing the sequel to “The Long Goodbye”.
BE: Oh, wow. I was not even aware that that was in the works. That’s awesome. Actually, just while I’m thinking about it, when they did the retrospective, was there any film that wasn’t included that you would have liked to see included?
EG: No, I couldn’t…I mean, I’ve done a lot of films.
BE: Oh, I know. I just didn’t know if there was maybe an underrated film that you’d like to have seen spotlighted.
EG: I mean, they did include some films that I didn’t even expect that they could find a print of, and then some other films surfaced that weren’t even programmed there. Films like “Move,” which was the first film that I did when I broke through and was very successful in the late 60’s and early 70’s, that didn’t really quite work. But then things seem to have lasted and endured. So one of the things about “Move” is that it was produced by Pandro S. Berman, who is this great…offhand, you probably don’t even know who he is.
BE: The name sounds familiar, but, no, I can’t say that I do.
EG: He produced “Gunga Din” and he produced “Top Hat.” Pandro S. Berman was a serious iconic producer. “Move” was directed by Stuart Rosenberg, who’s not quite known for comedy, but it still was an opportunity for me. I got to work with Paula Prentiss, and the film was photographed by Bill Daniels, who, I was told, was one of Greta Garbo’s favorite cinematographers. So everything is an experience, you know. There have been some films that I had been offered that I didn’t do, but I can’t say that I’m sorry about anything. It’s all one thing to me, and I’m grateful that I’m still here, and I’ve always been interested in functioning and participating as an older…and hopefully much older…person. But everything is fine up until this time.
BE: I have a fondness for your show “E/R”. I watched it when it was originally on.
EG: (Pleasantly surprised) Oh, thank you. That’s great. Well, I consider that to be a leading role. We introduced George Clooney, and we introduced Jason Alexander.
BE: I keep trying to tell people, “No, I swear, there was another ‘E/R.’”
EG: Yes, it was a half hour situation comedy that was based on a play that was developed by the Organic Theater in Chicago.
BE: That I did not know. When I changed my Facebook status the other day to say that I was talking to you, one of the first comments I got was, “Oh, my God, I just watched ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,’ and it’s still wonderful.”
EG: Oh, I just had a great conversation with Paul Mazursky, and that holds up, you know? Yesterday, I attended…I’m on the board of directors of the Foundation of the Screen Actors Guild, which is separate from The Screen Actors Guild. The Foundation is a nonprofit. The Screen Actors Guild is also a nonprofit, but one is charitable. I’m also currently serving on the board of the Guild, of the union. But we had an event to honor Sherry Lansing, who was a major executive in the industry who started as an actress and is married to Billy Friedkin. Billy Friedkin directed me as Billy Minsky in “The Night They Raided Minsky's.” What’s interesting is my daughter, who is the mother of my two grandchildren, took my soon to be five-year-old granddaughter…they went to Wal-Mart to do a little shopping, and then they were looking at DVDs. Molly, my daughter, saw a DVD of “Oceans Thirteen,” and she said, “Oh, look, there’s Grandpa.” And Daisy said, “Our grandpa?”
BE: My daughter will be very impressed the next time we watch “The Muppet Movie” together, when I point you out and say, “Daddy talked to him.”
EG: I insisted to be in that. I was working with Lew Grade, I had done something with him…actually, the first thing was “Capricorn One,” and then the next one was something called “Escape to Athena,” in which I had an opportunity to do a moment, one moment, with William Holden. But Grade’s organization was doing “The Muppet Movie,” and I insisted on being in it, so they put me in it. You know, being the mayor of the town and introducing Miss Piggy to the big screen, the first time Kermit saw her, and having Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy be my judges was pretty great.
BE: For my part, I can still remember going to see “The Devil and Max Devlin” in the theater, though in retrospect, I’ve wondered whose idea was it to make Bill Cosby be a minion to the Devil.
EG: I had no ideas in that movie. I had done “The Last Flight of Noah's Ark” for the organization, and those were pictures that were done as a bridge to the transition of Disney to where it’s at now. Ron Miller was still running the company, he was Walt Disney’s son-in-law. So the pictures were very formularized. It’s one of the reasons I’m so grateful for having had all the opportunities to work with and for Robert Altman, who gave me such latitude to be inventive and creative. “The Devil and Max Devlin,” you know, I’m sure I played leading roles again after that, but this whole…life is secular and it’s a big trap to think that you have to play a leading role. I don’t think that. And, again, I’m really privileged and grateful to be able to participate. I thoroughly believe and subscribe to team play; it’s all about a team, it’s all about what it is. So in pictures like “Bugsy” and the “Oceans” movies and many of the things I’m doing, I mean, it’s great that I’m recognized for awhile longer or for awhile, but I wouldn’t take that for granted. I mean, I believe I have something to contribute and something to offer, and I’ll play what I can play, so long as it’s true and so long as it’s honest.
BE: Actually, you had a small role in a film that almost nobody I know has seen, but which I loved, called…
EG: “American History X”?
BE: Well, actually, that was good, too. But, no, I was going to say “Kicking and Screaming.”
EG: Oh, right, thanks. I’m actually just being offered now a film with somebody who wants to follow Noah Baumbach’s footsteps. Yeah, that was interesting. I remember when he came to see me, you know, asking me to do it. Actually, my son Sam is in it. He’s in the first scene in it, Sam Gould. I’m glad that he has that. You know what I was looking at earlier today? I was looking at “The Adventures of Mark Twain,” with Fredric March and Alexis Smith. For my whole life, I have seen that picture because his death is so beautiful, and it’s a black and white picture that resonates so, so deeply that I couldn’t be more pleased about it. I am quite friendly with John Wooden, who is now 98. He is the iconic coach of the UCLA Bruin basketball team. He is 98 now, and we’ve become very good friends, he told me…this was before I read the books that he gave me on his life that he wrote, but he was an English teacher in his earlier days at Indiana, and he said “The most important word in the English language is ‘love.’” And then he said, “And the second most important word…” And I thought, “I didn’t know there was another word,” but then he said, “The second most important word is ‘balance.’” I also have a very, very good friend, Norman Lloyd…
BE: Oh, absolutely, from “St. Elsewhere”.
EG: Norman and Peggy will celebrate their 72nd wedding anniversary at the end of June. And just…when was it? Oh yeah, earlier today, because I get up very, very early. I go to the gym before it opens, so I get that under my belt. They open at 5:00, and I get there about 4:30 or 4:20, because Charlie opens up six days a week, and he opens up at that time, so I really get in there. So by 7:30 or 8:00 I’ve got it under my belt. So then I had a little time when I came home…oh, no, wait, this was before I left, because I don’t like to rush. There was a documentary on Charlie Chaplin very early this morning. Sydney, his son, I had met when he was doing “Funny Girl” with my ex-wife, and it was amazing. Richard Schickel had produced, and they had great footage. And also Norman was on it. Norman Lloyd played the choreographer in “Limelight.” And Norman Lloyd also was partnered with Charlie Chaplin in the screen rights of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” One could only image what Charlie Chaplin would have done with that, but once he went into exile, he lost interest.
BE: Right. I guess he really only emerged when…well, I guess he appeared to receive the Academy Award that time.
EG: Yeah, and I was very friendly with Groucho Marx in his later days. He gave me the best review I’ve ever had and probably will ever have. I changed a light bulb over his bed, and when I came off of his bed with the used one after putting the new one in, Groucho said, “That’s the best acting I’ve ever seen you do.” That’s my best review.
BE: I think that’s going to be a pull quote in this piece.
EG: Oh, well, it’s true! He would let me shave him, late in the morning. He would be fully dressed, wearing his beret , standing up in his bedroom, watching reruns of Jack Benny and Burns and Allen, and he would let me shave him with his electric razor.
EG: Somebody said, “Why, what was that about?” I said, “Affection.” I believe that a grain of pride is good for the heart, but no more than that, because it’s blinding. I know my father, who is no longer living, although he lives within me, but he was so proud. A grain of pride is okay, but not much more than that.
BE: I’ve been picking up the seasons of “Saturday Night Live” as they’ve been issued, and I’ve been enjoying your hosting gigs.
EG: Oh, right. Yeah, thanks.
BE: When you came back for that “Five Timers Club” sketch some years later, were you surprised when they called you to appear?
EG: No, I wasn’t surprised. I think I was pleased.
BE: I didn’t know if you had maintained any relationship with the show or with Lorne (Michaels).
EG: Oh, it’s part of history. We have contact occasionally, not very often. But, I mean, those shows are a part of its history. And my first show, which was interesting, was the representative show...the first one that I hosted, where Anne Murray was my musical guest, and where we did the group therapy session with John Belushi and Lorraine Newman, where Belushi was Don Corleone and she was a Valley girl. I’ve heard it on National Public Radio. On radio. And it still stands up, it’s so funny.
BE: Oh, absolutely. That was some classic stuff.
EG: And then the second show was where we did the “Star Trek” sketch, where I played Goodman, the NBC executive who cancels the show. I got a letter because I had the same business manager as Gene Roddenberry, just completely out of the blue, thanking me for that and saying that was the encouragement he needed to commit to the big screen.
BE: Nice. Actually, to speak of some of your more recent TV work, I picked up a copy of “K Street” not too long ago. That was kind of an underrated show, I thought, that didn’t really get a chance to breathe.
EG: Well, I mean, at that point, we were just preparing “Oceans Twelve,” and Steven (Sodebergh) wanted to know if I would consider to come in and do it, and that he would explain it to me if I had the time and could come right away. So I did. I wound up doing three of those. And where Steven thought they would never see the character come out, I did come out in the last show, but we never got back to it.
BE: Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love that you thought it deserved?
EG: Not off hand. I think, for me, it’s the idea of doing it. The idea of coming to work. Like I’ve said to people, some of the pictures I am in are better and some are not. I’ve appeared in…I mean, I have a lot of junk food, you know? But it’s important to be respectful of every cent and every millimeter that is invested into this business and this work. But I’ve said I could look at everything and find a reason for it being there because I’ve lived through all of this and I still am. I mean, there’s the possibility that I’m really going to go further, and it’s very interesting to me.
BE: You’ve been a part of several remarkable ensembles over the course of time, certainly all the way up through the “Oceans” films, but also “California Split” and “A Bridge Too Far.”
EG: Oh, yeah, I was pleased with that. With the whole thing, you know. Lots of stuff, lots of stuff. And then I recall when prior to me even getting into film, I had just come back from doing the West End production of On the Town. The Comden and Green, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins’ classic musical. It’s a great musical. You probably know the movie, I don’t know if you know the show.
BE: No, the movie I have heard of.
EG: The movie was Sinatra and Kelly and Jules Munshin. All they used was “New York, New York,” they didn’t use the rest of the score other than background music. And there are three great ballads in it: “Lucky to be Me”, “Lonely Town” and “Some Other Time.” And so I had just come back, and Joe Layton, who had directed me in that, asked me if I would meet Joe Hamilton, who at the time was married to Carol Burnett, because they were preparing to do a live version of “Once Upon a Mattress” on CBS. And so I auditioned for the jester, who had a great number in it called “Very Soft Shoes.” And I got it. And in our chorus, and it’s one of the things I am just so pleased about, is Michael Bennett was in the chorus of that, and he went on to create A Chorus Line. Because I started out as a chorus boy. So when you say about ensembles, it’s all about that. The illusion of any one being more important that the rest of us is an illusion.
BE: So “Once Upon a Mattress” was right around the same time as “The Confession,” is that right?
EG: “Once Upon a Mattress” was just prior to “The Confession.”
EG: That director (William Dieterle) was quite something, and I didn’t have a clue about how to act or what to do. But I got to know Ginger Rogers, and that was my first…I worked with a guy who directed my favorite actor, Charles Laughton.
BE: What are some of your favorite memories of working with Robert Altman?
EG: It’s like my blood, you know. I can’t remember my blood, I can only feel it and experience it. He was very much like my father, and it was a great opportunity. I love the guy. We were talking about the sequel, and I couldn’t have done “The Long Goodbye” without Bob Altman. At another time, we can talk more, or go into more depth. You can call me any time you feel like it.
BE: Hey, I would love to talk to you more about “The Long Goodbye” as the sequel progresses.
BE: I just have a couple more quick ones. Just one out of curiosity, when “S*P*Y*S” was pitched to you…
EG: Do you know anything about it?
BE: Actually, I’ve still got a Scholastic Books novelization of the film that I got when I was in elementary school!
EG: It was by a man named Malcolm Marmorstein, who had been a stage hand on Broadway, and I wound up doing three pictures with him. And there was even a fourth, which was “Pete’s Dragon,” because he named the dragon Elliot because he liked my name! And so it was first pitched to me as a script called “Wet Stuff.” “Wet stuff,” to the CIA, is blood. It had been conceived and written for Carroll O’Connor and David Niven. David Niven was just one of the greatest guys I have ever known and one of he most amazing human beings. And so I turned it down, there was just something about it. And then Donald (Sutherland) called me. I was just finishing “The Long Goodbye” and Donald called me said, “Would you do this with me?” I said, “You mean we would do this together? That’s a different story!” We had chemistry, you know, and if there’s chemistry… (Trails off) And Irvin Kershner was going to direct it, and I knew him. So I didn’t think it quite worked, in terms of funny. There was something about it that was serious, and it was a little obvious, even the score of it. But it had much more potential than it realized. And that’s also something where Chartoff and Winkler, I had done a couple of pictures for them.
BE: I know it was heavily marketed, if only because it was you and Donald reteamed.
EG: Yeah, I know. You know, it was not very good but…again, like I said earlier, it has some things about it that are…well, I can’t think of the words. But Gerry Fisher was the cinematographer, and he was really good. And Zou Zou was in it, the wonderful French star.
BE: How did you originally get pitched the role of Ross and Monica’s dad in “Friends”?
tEG: I had an agent call me to say, “We think we’re going to get an offer for you for a show, but we don’t want you to take it.” At that time, I didn’t know that they were obliged to let me know, because I thought, “Well, then, don’t even bother me with it!” He said, “They’ve done a pilot, they’ve been picked up, and they are going to be very well programmed.” And then production called me, and I said, “Well, let me see the script.” I looked at the script, and there wasn’t much in it for me, but I saw Jim Burrows’ name on it, and I had worked with his father, Abe Burrows, who was the director of the original company of Guys and Dolls. Abe Burrows was a great iconic man of the theater and a comedy writer and director. But Jim Burrows had done “Cheers,” and he had done “Taxi,” and I wanted to work with him, but I was still having a problem with the agency. And I said, “Listen, if it’s not too much, let me see the pilot.” So I looked at the pilot, and like I said, there wasn’t much in it, but I thought, “Wait a minute: the idea is to stay working.” For me, the idea is to be able to integrate with newer and younger people, and who knows what opportunities can evolve from that? So I called production and said, “In your mind, am I still doing this?” And they said, “Yeah, Jim Burrows would kill us if we couldn’t deliver you.” I said, “Okay, I’ll take care of the agency.” And then they would write for me. And in the first few seasons, you know, they wrote some good stuff, little tid bits and stuff. That was really helpful in terms of continuing to extend the longevity and to bridge to where I’m at.
BE: I think my favorite episode that you did was Ross’s wedding, where you and Tom Conti got to square off.
EG: Oh, that was fun, yeah. That was great fun. He’s such a wonderful actor, and so was the woman who played his wife…
BE: Right, Jennifer Saunders from “Absolutely Fabulous.” Well I think that’s about it, but just in closing, what’s the exact status of this “Long Goodbye” sequel? Is there a script?
EG: I have a script. Alan Rudolph wrote a script, and he’ll direct it. I’m working with the Chandler estate. I mean, I’m extremely…I have no idea how I’ll get a dime to make it, but I like it a lot. I like it very much. It’s very much alive. Recently, I was in Chicago to do some charity work, and I was taken to the floor of the stock exchange there. A portion of it is the largest in the world, and I met a bunch of people, and I was just told that somebody said that they would and could finance it for me. But I’m not in business, and I don’t really talk with people. I let myself be known before I understood myself during the time of my initial breakthrough, therefore making it very difficult for me politically in the present, but everything is evolving now and I have nothing to prove. My priorities are very clear, it’s all about supporting the family; that’s why I work. I’m very interested in education. Ingmar Bergman had said to me, “When you direct, and you will direct, you mustn’t act.” Well, it remains to be seen, and I would say that it’s most unlikely that I will direct in this lifetime, but I don’t give up. I’m interested, but I don’t have anything to direct. I would have loved to have directed the sequel, but Alan is a writer and he was the second assistant on “The Long Goodbye,” and we understand one another, so at this point he’ll direct it and I’ll be the same guy, 35 years later. Which is very interesting in terms of what’s going on in terms of age, the aging of America, you know. But the values of the character don’t age.
BE: Well, I will keep an ear to the ground as it progresses…and with your blessing, I will call you back so we can chat more about it.
EG: Call me whenever you feel like it. And I hope your daughter’s not too shocked about you shaving your beard. I hope that she likes your face. More importantly, though, has your wife seen it yet?
BE: Yes. She said that I looked darned cute.EG: Oh, well, she’s the boss.