Actor George Segal, the late film critic Roger Ebert once noted, “is good at playing the harassed son of the archetypical Jewish mother. In ‘No Way to Treat a Lady” , he was the vice cop whose mother kept wanting him to finish his soup before rushing to rescue Lee Remick.”
In the jet-black 1970 comedy “Where’s Poppa?” Segal played a hapless lawyer so desperate to escape his nagging, senile mama (Ruth Gordon) that he dons a gorilla costume, in one scene, to try to scare her to death (no such luck).
Then there was Segal’s turn in Sidney Lumet’s “Bye Bye Braverman,” as a Jewish intellectual who, with three comrades, sets off to attend the funeral of a friend who met an untimely demise.
I caught up with Segal, now 79, at the Beverly Hilton hotel recently, where he was promoting his latest Jewish endeavor, ABC’s new sitcom “The Goldbergs,” Adam F. Goldberg’s autobiographical rendering of his loud mishpoche circa 1985. The actor was dressed casually in white trousers and a beige jacket, and still recognizable (albeit with white hair) from the films that made him a movie star in the 1960s and 1970s (think “The Owl and the Pussycat,” in which he starred opposite Barbra Streisand, and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which gleaned Segal an Oscar nomination).
In “The Goldbergs,” he plays Al “Pops” Solomon, the dapper Don Juan of a grandfather to the perpetually bickering sitcom clan. In the series’ pilot, Pops manages to crudely school his youngest grandson in the art of love and sex, drive his new Trans Am into a burger joint (after which he blithely declares, “Who wants nuggets?”) and woo a widow with myriad grandchildren -- “so you know she puts out,” he leers.
“Pops is kind of a dandy and in his own idea of himself he’s a lady killer,” Segal said. “As a widower, he’s always out looking for action, but mainly he loves his grandson; he must see himself in that kid.”
At a press conference for the show, Segal also declared of Pops: “He gets laid a lot.”
If his “Goldbergs” antics are at times over the top, they’re nothing compared to his turn as Gordon Hocheiser in the decidedly politically incorrect “Where’s Poppa?” in which Ruth Gordon famously munched on his tush in one scene. Did Gordon actually bite his backside or kiss it, I had to ask of that infamous sequence. “Who the hell knows?” Segal replied. “I was holding a tray at the time. Actually she went mmmmmmmffffffff,’” he said, miming Gordon’s exaggerated handling of his derriere. “It was just another day at the office for me.”
Some critics have complained about the Jewish mama stereotyping in that film, but Segal disagreed. “That was a great Jewish movie,” he insisted. “It was full of Jewish soul. “
Even so, he added, the first time he read the script, he worried, “’This is off the rocks.’ You can’t make a movie like this. But when I heard it was Carl Reiner directing – even though I was a little squinty coming in – as we got rolling I fell in love with the character and the situation. The character was heartrending to me; he was so moving.”
Asked about Ebert’s assessment of his expertise in portraying hapless Jewish sons, Segal said, “Yeah, I’ll go along with that.”
He also refused to change his name – or his nose – when an agent suggested he do so early in his career. “I remember he was a Jewish guy with quite a prominent nose, but he told me I had to do that if I wanted to have any chance at all in movies. It’s great when someone tells you that, because it just firms your resolve to say no.”
Like Dustin Hoffman and Elliott Gould, the Jewish Segal went on to become a staple of Hollywood marquis, but if he has portrayed some iconic members of the tribe, he insisted, “They weren’t necessarily Jewish in my mind. However effective I was it was because I never thought of them that way. It wasn’t until later that I thought, ‘Some of these Jews are really funny.’”
Segal was raised in a distinctly secular household; his forebears were socialists, and one of his great-grandfathers even ran for governor of Massachusetts on the socialist ticket, earning the nickname of “The Young Debs” (for socialist leader Eugene V. Debs). Segal’s Russian maternal grandparents trimmed their surname from Slobodkin to Bodkin in order to assimilate within their new country. The young Segal did not attend religious school or become bar mitzvah and, in fact, attended a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania.
Nor was his mother anything like the Jewish cliché; rather, Fanny Blanche Bodkin was “like a Victorian lady, very proper, very reserved,” he said. Before George was born she lost a 6-year-old daughter, Greta, to pneumonia, and, Segal recalled, “There was a kind of pall over our home. I would go to my friend’s houses for dinner and they were excited to be with one another, but there was none of that in my family. I think when you lose a little girl who is the apple of your eye, it’s very tough. And my mother probably wanted another daughter before I was born.”
The lack of parental attention – his father, a malt and hops agent, was perpetually away on business – perhaps led Segal to seek it elsewhere, specifically on the stage.
He first thrilled to the idea at age 3, when his older brother cast him in a show they put on for the neighbors in their garage in Great Neck, NY. “They dressed me in a tramp’s outfit, gave me a cigar stub and a derby, and I looked like one of the kids in ‘Our Gang,’” he recalled. “My scene was one where this other kid strained to lift up a barbell. Then I walked on – a little peanut – whisked up the barbell and walked off the stage. I got a big laugh, and that was it for me.”
The deal was sealed when Segal was 9 and saw Alan Ladd starring in “A Gun for Hire” at his local cinema. “He was this guy with a trench coat and a gun, and Veronica Lake was nuts about him. Something clicked in me that that was a job, and I wanted it.”
Even though Segal was a self-described “shy kid with acne,” he took to the stage and eventually got a job as an understudy in a Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” starring Jason Robards. “The first time I went on stage, it was inspired,” he said of his performance. “The second time was two months later, when I invited an agent and a number of other people to see me in the play. And I was petrified,” he said. His performance in the first act was a disaster.
“During the intermission, I was desperate, so got down on my hands and knees and said, ‘God’ – whom I had never addressed before– ‘If you get me through the second act I will never act again,’” he continued. “So I got through the show – and then I went back on my promise.”
God didn’t seem to mind. Segal went on to star in myriad films in the 1960s and 1970s; when the roles dried up in the 1980s, he focused on his hobby of playing the banjo and, as he told The Guardian, “shrinkage happened.”
His rebirth in the popular culture began in the late 1990s, this time on the small screen, when he snagged a role in the NBC sitcom “Just Shoot Me,” and then gigs on other series including HBO’s hit “Entourage” (who can forget his portrayal of the uber-manager Murray Berenson on that Tinseltown satire)?
Which brings Segal to wax on the difference between TV and film, as he knows it: “If you’re talking about the time of ‘Virginia Woolf,’ it was expansive; we took our time and rehearsed for about six weeks,” he said. “Sidney Lumet also did that; it was all about rehearsal and then he would shoot in a flash because we all had it down by the time we got in front of the camera. In TV, you work on your performance at home, and you might get a few rehearsals, but it’s like instant acting; it’s as if you’re pouring water into a Nescafe. There’s no room to fail; you’ve got to get it quickly. But then again, sitcoms are only 22 minutes long.”
With “The Goldbergs,” Segal is thrilled to be working again in a comedy, which he prefers to dramatic roles. “It’s hard for me to get serious in dramas,” he said. “I’m always giggling inside. Perhaps it’s just age that makes me feel like giggling. But I think there’s just really something to making people laugh.”
"The Goldbergs" premieres Sept. 24 on ABC.