Elliott Gould on Groucho Marx, Ingmar Bergman and acting
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He’s been a major movie star, a counterculture icon, the husband of Barbra Streisand and a lovable-and-busy-character actor. So to what does Elliott Gould attribute his half century of success in ‘the biz’?
“I have been able to endure and survive,” said Gould philosophically during a recent interview in Los Angeles. “I accept my limitations.”
With his unmistakable unruly hair, laconic style and tendency to mumble, Gould has never been a standard Hollywood product. Though there have been peaks and valleys in his career, the twice-married — Streisand was his first wife — father of three and grandfather of two is busier now than ever.
“Dorfman,” a romantic comedy starring Sara Rue and Gould as her depressed widower father, opens the Hollywood Film Festival on Friday evening at the Arclight. He made “Dorfman” last year; this year alone, he’s been in seven more, including Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” in which he plays a research doctor.
He’s so busy that he can’t even go to the “Dorfman” premiere; he had already committed to a festival in Wichita, Kan., that is screening another of his films, “The Encore of Tony Duran.”
Thanks to his supporting actor Oscar nomination for Paul Mazursky’s 1969 comedy, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” his turn as the wickedly funny surgeon Trapper John in Robert Altman’s 1970 war satire, “MASH,” and as a Vietnam vet and former social radical college professor in Richard Rush’s 1970 comedy, “Getting Straight,” Gould became a touchstone for the counterculture 1970s.
Then he went to Sweden to make Ingmar Bergman’s first English-language film, “The Touch,” which opened in 1971 to less than spectacular reviews. Gould admitted that he recently read the late filmmaker’s autobiography, ‘The Magic Lantern’ and “he is dismissing all of his English-speaking pictures including ‘The Touch.’ ” He had recently attended screenings both here and in Stockholm of an alternate print that is both in English and Swedish — English is spoken only when the cast is involved with Gould. “It moved me so,” he said. “There isn’t another film like it. No matter what anyone thinks, it is a masterpiece.”
But when he returned to Hollywood to produce and star in “A Glimpse of Tiger,” which he describes as a modern-day ‘The Little Prince,’ everything fell apart. The film was shut down after four days amid reports that Gould had drug problems and a nervous breakdown. Gould said that wasn’t the case.
“I had no judgment and no perspective,” he said rather elliptically. “I thought now I am coming here with Ingmar Bergman’s instrument and craft, and I thought I was in charge. I am an idealist. I thought it was about being talented. I couldn’t compromise.”
An only child growing up in Brooklyn, Gould said he was “very withdrawn and shy and inhibited and repressed.” So at age 9 his parents brought him to a “song and dance school’ to help him. “There were others like me, and I felt, well, in terms of communicating, if I memorized a routine maybe I could be able to communicate through routines.”
He did early TV commercials but got his first big gig at age 12 at the venerable Palace Theatre in New York City. Gould worked with singer-dancer Bill Callahan.
“I would come down the aisle and was dressed like a Western Union boy,” he said. “I would say ‘Telegram for Callahan. Telegram for Bill Callahan.’ I would go all the way down to the conductor and say, ‘I have a telegram for Bill Callahan.'The conductor would say, ‘I’ll take it.’ I said, ‘No, I have to give it to him myself.’ ”
He’d finally make his way on stage, where Callahan would tell him “I’m dancing, and I can’t be bothered now” and go into his routine. “They gave me $50 a week, four shows a day. I had the last dressing room all the way upstairs. That was a good job.”
But his favorite job came a little later as a friend and aide to Groucho Marx in the legendary comedian’s later years. “He let me shave him,” Gould recalled. “He would be fully dressed, sometimes wearing a coat, with a beret and standing up in his bedroom watching reruns of ‘Burns and Allen’ and ‘The Jack Benny Show.’ And he let me shave him with his electric razor.’
One day Gould noticed the light bulb over Groucho’s bed had burned out. “I got another bulb and stood on his bed, took the used one out, put in the new one and came off his bed. Groucho said, ‘That is the best acting I have ever seen you do.’ That was my best review.’
Hollywood Film Festival, Arclight Cinemas, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. Oct. 21 through 24. www.hollywoodfest.com
— Susan King
Photo: Elliott Gould at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times.