Trapping an Elusive Character

Scott Collins is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Elliott Gould has epiphanies on stage and off these days. One happened recently near the Alamo.

Wandering San Antonio during a tour stop for "Deathtrap," the Ira Levin mystery in which he is starring, the actor asked for directions from a passerby. The two struck up a conversation, which led to Gould signing an autograph.

"And then we had a moment," Gould recalled. "I said, 'How old are you?' and he said, 'Fifty-eight.' I said, 'When were you born?' and he said, 'In August.' I said, 'August what?' and he said, 'August 29.' "

The two were born on the same day in the same year. And while some might shrug off such a meeting as pure coincidence, to Gould it's evidence of "synchronicity," and yet another metaphor for the searching nature of his life and career. To ask this '70s film icon a question about himself usually means getting a quirky, and sometimes obtuse, answer in return. There may be an anecdote harking back to his drama student days in Brooklyn, or a chance encounter two weeks ago on the streets of San Antonio. He may even sing some verses from his long-ago run in the musical "On the Town" ("We've got one day here and not another minute . . . ").

Asked when he knew for sure that he wanted to be an actor, he joked, "I don't," then added, "I think to be an actor you have to know what it is to be a person. And I had to find out what it is to be a human being before [acting] could have any meaning for me."

Best known for his roles as conflicted, emotionally blocked young men in such Vietnam-era film classics as "MASH" and "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," Gould, with "Deathtrap," is returning to the stage after years of film and TV work.

"I've spent very little time onstage since I graduated from the chorus in 'I Can Get It for You Wholesale' and 'Little Murders' and a few other stage pieces, once I found the movie camera," he said in a recent telephone interview. "I've never done Moliere; I've never done Shakespeare; I've never done Chekhov."

"Deathtrap," which Gould and co-star Mariette Hartley bring to the Long Beach Terrace Theater for eight performances starting Tuesday, might not be mistaken for Shakespeare. But Gould still remembers his reaction years ago when he first saw Levin's play, a reply of sorts to Anthony Shaffer's sophisticated whodunit "Sleuth."

"In the third scene of the first act, I actually screamed. It really scared me," he said.

When the producers of the current tour approached him about the part, Gould saw an opportunity to cast himself against type. He plays an aging playwright who schemes to murder a younger rival so he can steal his script.

"I don't think we're used to seeing me play such an [expletive]," he said.

Gould has been pleased with the response so far in 12 cities such as Indianapolis and Miami (the national tour will visit a total of 25 cities).

"I think it's [for] an audience that wants to be entertained and wants to be startled. I think it's a very well-done entertainment, and a very well-structured thriller, with a real sense of humor," he said.

Gould has been acting most of his life. He was born Elliott Goldstein and raised in Brooklyn. His father worked in the garment district; his mother saw to it that young Elliott was taking drama, singing and dancing lessons by the time he was 8. The lessons only somewhat cured his lifelong shyness.

"We used to play hide-and-seek in the neighborhood," he recalled. "And sometimes I would go around the corner and hide so deep in another apartment house's basement that by the time I came out, people weren't playing anymore."

But as a teenager he modeled, appeared in revues at hospitals and temples and even worked summers at comedy clubs on the Borscht Belt. He was cast in his first Broadway chorus line at 18. A few other such jobs came his way, but in Manhattan, Gould became the proverbial starving actor, bouncing through such odd jobs as vacuum cleaner salesman and elevator operator. He worked in Macy's a year after Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman had jobs there demonstrating toys. Soon Gould was doing the same thing at Gimbel's department store, plugging a game called Confucius Say.

"So they dressed me in a mandarin robe, with a mandarin hat and a pigtail and a big mustache, and I had yellow makeup on," he said. "I got paid $11 a day plus 1% of what we sold and I was Confucius." He left to take a more lucrative position, this time selling punching bags at Bloomingdale's.

But Gould then got two important breaks. Another chorus job, in "Irma la Douce," led to the starring role in the 1962 premiere of Harold Rome's musical "I Can Get It for You Wholesale." Gould received good notices--and also fell in love with and married a bit player who stole the show with her version of the comic tune "Miss Marmelstein." The actress' name was Barbra Streisand.

Streisand's career took off quickly in the mid-'60s, soon eclipsing her husband's. Gould had to content himself with managing her business affairs and brushing off gibes that he was "Mr. Streisand." At one point he became so depressed he began psychoanalysis. Frustrated, he separated from (and later divorced) Streisand and moved to Hollywood, where it seemed as if the industry had been waiting for him.

Starting with a secondary part in the 1968 William Friedkin movie "The Night They Raided Minsky's," Gould became a countercultural hero, an actor who seemed to express the ambiguities and uncertainties of the age.

"Tall but not handsome, distinctive but not distinguished, [Gould] is far from the conventional embodiment of the Hollywood star," film historian Ephraim Katz has noted.

Of his 1969 breakthrough, in Paul Mazursky's sex comedy "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," Gould remarked: "I found my relationship with the camera, and that really opened everything up to me."

Critics agreed. When Robert Altman cast Gould against type as smooth private eye Philip Marlowe in 1973's "The Long Good-bye," Pauline Kael hailed the star's "loose and woolly, strikingly original performance."

But from the late '70s through the early '90s, Gould saw his career decline in a series of unremarkable films such as 1978's "Matilda" and 1990's "The Lemon Sisters." Critics praised his performance as a dimwitted hood in the 1991 Barry Levinson film "Bugsy," however, and Gould expressed some frustration with fans who do not realize he has been working continually in recent years.

"Somebody just asked me what was the last movie I made, and it's not even out yet," he said. He has a supporting role in the upcoming "City of Industry," which stars Harvey Keitel and Stephen Dorff, and in Stephen King's TV remake of the film of his own novel "The Shining," in which Gould will play an estate administrator.

"I'm getting older and never denying it," Gould said. And while that affects his choice of roles, he nevertheless sees an opportunity to play "a more mature, older person, with qualities that have evolved in me." He seems both gratified and somewhat amused that many people now recognize him for a recurring role on TV's "Friends," as the father of Monica and Ross.

He and Streisand had a son, actor Jason Gould, with whom he is close. (As for Streisand, Gould said cryptically, "We're still connected.") He has two other children, Sam and Molly, from a subsequent marriage. "I never lost sight of my family," he said.

Nor has he stopped the restless searching that has typified both his career and many of his characters.

"My overview and philosophy in some areas is divine and in some areas is out of this world," he said. "You can't even think of it as being real, but it's real to me." And that gives him hope for many things, including his career.

"I think that there's a future for [me] in this," he said, with some understatement. "I'm very interested in what it is."

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"DEATHTRAP," Long Beach Terrace Theater at the Long Beach Convention Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd. Dates: Tuesday through Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; next Sunday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Prices: $17.50-$47.50. Phone: (213) 365-3500.

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