Whoever came up with that famous quote “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” never saw George Segal. In the 1970s, no leading man did romantic comedy better. He was charming, handsome, ever so neurotic, with a soupçon of world-weariness tossed in for good measure. He starred in hit after hit, including 1970’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” and “Where’s Poppa?” and the 1973 classics “Blume in Love” and “A Touch of Class,” for which he received a Golden Globe.
FOR THE RECORD:
George Segal: The Classic Hollywood column in the Jan. 24 Calendar section said that George Segal played the editor of a fashion magazine in the NBC comedy “Just Shoot Me.” He played the magazine’s publisher. —
Segal brought that ease and sense of fun to his role as an editor of a fashion magazine in the 1997-2003 NBC comedy “Just Shoot Me,” and it’s on display again in the new TV Land sitcom “Retired at 35.” In the series, which premiered Wednesday, Johnathan McClain plays a successful young New Yorker who decides to quit the pressures of his job and move in with his dad (Segal) in a retirement community in Florida. Segal’s character is newly separated from his wife (Jessica Walter) and isn’t above playing the field at the complex.
“I’m really comfortable in this format,” Segal says of returning to the sitcom world. “It’s an instant family. The jokes were good. This to me is like cutting-edge comedy in the guise of an old-fashioned sitcom. It’s edgy.”
It’s late in the afternoon and Segal, a fit 76, is holding court at the famed Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood. Since there are very few customers in the restaurant, the waiters are particularly attentive to the actor, who decides to nosh on a bowl of jellied consommé.
Although Segal is best known for his comedic talents, he never intended to be the funny guy. Recently, somebody sent him a tape of his appearance in the 1960s on “What’s My Line?,” the CBS game show on which each week the panelists were blindfolded and would have to guess the identity of the guest by posing questions to them. “Somebody asked me, ‘Do you do comedy or drama?’” Segal recalls of the appearance. “I said, ‘Drama.’ I had no notion I was going to take a comedy direction.”
While he was starring in such dramatic movie fare as 1965’s “Ship of Fools” and “King Rat” and the 1966 screen adaptation of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” for which Segal received his only Oscar nomination, the actor was making the rounds of talk shows — charming audiences with his breezy personality and performing songs on the banjo.
And it was one of these talk-show appearances, says Segal, that caught the eye of the wife of director Jack Smight, who suggested him for the 1968 dark comedy “No Way to Treat a Lady.” The film gave Segal the opportunity to be tough and funny as Morris Brummel, a New York detective who is involved in a game of cat and mouse with a serial killer (Rod Steiger) with a mother issue. Brummel had his own mother to deal with, played by Eileen Heckart, who nagged her son to settle down.
Suddenly, Hollywood realized he could play funny. Barbra Streisand saw him in “No Way to Treat a Lady” and had him cast in “The Owl and the Pussycat.” Ditto Glenda Jackson, who wanted him for “A Touch of Class.”
Segal is still the best of friends with Paul Mazursky, who directed him in “Blume in Love,” in which he played a divorce attorney attempting to win back his ex-wife. They have breakfast several times a month. “I just saw him this morning,” Segal says. “I meet with these geezers at the Farmers Market. We usually talk about show business — the old days and what’s happening now.”
By the late 1970s and into the ‘80s, Segal’s comedic vehicles were critical and box-office disappointments (“Lost and Found” and “Carbon Copy” among them), and he all but disappeared from the silver screen for several years.
“Most of us get about 10 years at best [at the top],” Segal says. “As you get into playing father roles, the parts dry up because — I don’t mean to say it’s a sex thing — but you have that testosterone vitality. Then slowly you move into another category and there ain’t as many jobs there. But there are certain actors, like Jack Nicholson, who crested and just kept going. I am in another group, whatever that group is, but I have been tremendously lucky. You just have to keep bellying up to the table.”
George Segal appeared with which “Gone With the Wind” star in 1965’s “Ship of Fools”?