Interview: Elliott Gould

He starred in Hollywood’s coolest films. These days the former Mr Barbra Streisand is a serious student of the Torah.


By Barbra Paskin, December 16, 2010
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Gould in 2010: a student of Torah

Gould in 2010: a student of Torah

Elliott Gould is on a roll. It is a warm Shabbat afternoon and he is relaxing in his modest apartment in Brentwood, Los Angeles and expounding on his favourite subject - the meaning of life.

He has his laptop computer to help him. On it, he punches up a documentary short - Alice Dancing Under the Gallows - a video of the remarkable Alice Herz-Sommer, at 106 the oldest living Holocaust survivor, who survived incarceration at Terezin by playing piano for the Nazis. Still playing today, she is the epitome of enthusiastic optimism, a source of wonder and inspiration to Gould who has seized on the video and emailed it to all his friends.

He marvels at her vitality, that she should have come through such adversity "so full of love and happiness instead of bitterness, resentment, and anger", he says. She is a symbol of Jewish stoicism.

While he has always embraced his Jewishness, Gould at 72 is now approaching his faith with a great deal more intensity, having settled down to some serious study of Judaism. Despite close ties with Chabad, he is especially fascinated with Reconstructionism, the modern American denomination that reinterprets traditional observances to fit the contemporary world.

Snapshot

Born: Elliott Goldstein, Brooklyn New York, August 1938.
Career: First appeared in Broadway theatre productions. Moved into movies in the ’60s. Films include M*A*S*H, Nashville and The Long Goodbye. Oscar nominated for Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice in 1969. More recently appeared in sitcom Friends and the Ocean’s Eleven caper movies.
Personal life: Married to Barbra Streisand from 1963-71, and twice to actress Jennifer Bogart. Three children.

"What interests me about it is how far we've come in terms of being liberal," he says.

He grew up as Elliott Goldstein. His parents, Lucille and Bernie, were American; his grandparents Orthodox Jews from the Ukraine and Poland. Looking back on his childhood years in a very Jewish neighbourhood of Brooklyn, there was the lighting of the candles on Shabbat, the obligatory barmitzvah and observance of the High Holy Days, but no profound religiosity.

"We lived more of a secular existence," he reflects, "but even though I was young, I was aware that there was more to it than just that. We used to go to my Uncle Louie for Seder nights and I remember being panicked by having to read the Manishtanah. It caused me a lot of stress. It wasn't a matter of failing, but I had no confidence. I went to Hebrew school in Brooklyn and I was barmitzvahed in 1951, but I didn't really know or understand very much.

"But my Jewishness grew stronger as I got older and started considering why we were put on this earth."

In lighter vein he chuckles, recalling an incident from his childhood. "I didn't know that my grandmother kept kosher. One year my mother wanted to cook Thanksgiving dinner for her. My grandmother said no but my mother insisted: 'I'll do it just the way you want, I'll get special things to cook it in and everything, I want to do the turkey'.

"So she made it and this was in our little apartment with its tiny kitchenette. Afterwards, my mother asked: 'How was it', and they said: 'Oh it was delicious!'

"And my mother said: 'You see? Butter's not so bad on turkey!'"

He throws his head back and laughs heartily. "She had no idea really. I love that story."

He talks lovingly of his parents but with a regret he has never been able to assuage. "My parents were very attractive people - my father looked like Clark Gable - but they were a mismatch. They stayed together for a long time even though they were… lost."

He says it was his mother who was the big influence as he grew up. "She had a brilliant intellect and from an early age helped shape some of the talents that have made me what I am today."

His early lifestyle was far removed from the affluent Hollywood one he would later adopt. His father, a garment merchant, was earning $20 a week and the family lived in a couple of small rooms in a tiny block of flats. Early on, Gould shared a crib with the son of another family.

"There was only a little living room, a kitchenette and a little bathroom and a bedroom which I shared with my parents for my first 11 years. In the living room, we had a couch that had no springs or anything, so underneath the cushions there were old editions of Life magazine which acted as cushions. We moved upstairs to a bigger apartment just before my barmitzvah and then I had my own room."

He also recalls that, as a baby, he was slow learning to walk, not managing to stand upright until he was 14 months old. A search for balance might be said to be an enduring theme of his life. Finding emotional stablility has not come easily to him, especially having spent the past 42 years living in the public spotlight as one of Hollywood's leading celebrities. But at last he feels he has achieved a kind of peace. "I don't want to be a hypocrite, and the same goes for the idea of practising Judaism, not just as a religion but as a way of life. I remember Donald Sutherland, a very pious Jew - I can be humorous, can't I? - said to me: 'What good does it do to know everything when you don't understand anything?'

"So through the process of my work and being an idealist and my pursuit of truth and substance and meaning, I've been able to get underneath the bottom of the roots."

(Talking to Gould is hardly straightforward. He tends to spiral off at a tangent as he searches for the right words to express his ideas.)

He returns to memories of his family. "My paternal grandfather Elias Goldstein lost everything and my father's family was on relief before I was conceived. So", he reasons, "I do know that, genetically, that was a motivating thing for me, in terms of money, comfort, security. Status."

He lifts his arms and locks his hands behind his head. "I made it! Status! I look outside and see the trees… That's the status that interests me. Being alive!"

Gould's status as an actor, however, is not in doubt. Over a career spanning four decades he has appeared in almost 250 films. He shows little sign of stopping. "I work now to do everything I can for the family," he says. "I don't need very much. I'm comfortable. I have more space than I need here. But I want to continue to work partly, well, basically for them."

His family is spread out. His son, Jason, 44, from his early marriage to Barbra Streisand, lives in Los Angeles and runs his mother's affairs. His second wife, Jenny Bogart, from whom he has long been separated, lives in northern California, as do their son Sam and daughter Molly, and his two grandchildren.

Gould's career grew out of a sense of insecurity and lack of self. "I used to chew my nails. I did that for a very, very long time. I'd eat my nails." His parents enrolled him in song and dance school when he was nine because he was so withdrawn and inhibited. "It was nerve-racking because it wasn't me."

Did it work?

"Well, here I am!"

When not working, Gould spends much of his time studying the Torah. He is a favourite student of some of Los Angeles' most eminent rabbis and a friend of Chabad and the Lubavitchers. "I'm an unorthodox Jew in the way I live but I have a deeply felt reverence for the ultra-Orthodox," he says.

So what does it mean to him to be a Jew?

"I just accept it. My trips to Israel remind me that there you're free to be a Jew and it's great to be free to be a Jew. I like to be free to be what I am. I find that in this world there's very little that I can depend on. There's almost nothing. But I really appreciate - and not to be pretentious - the law, the Torah."

In his vast body of work, he has played a huge number of overtly Jewish characters. From deli owners and schoolteachers to rabbis and theatrical moguls. He was once cornered in the street by Topol urging him to play the part of Tevye in the London production of Fiddler on the Roof, a role he had already turned down.

Gould's career really began when he was 12 years old, as a tap dancer in a show at The Palace theatre on Broadway. By 1962 he was starring in another Broadway musical, I Can Get It For You Wholesale, in which he was famously cast with a young aspiring talent by the name of Barbra Streisand, whom he married the following year.

By the time the couple divorced in 1971, both were huge stars. Gould had left the theatre for Hollywood, where he was almost an instant success. He had hits with The Night They Raided Minsky's, Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, and the late '60s zeitgeist comedy, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice', which netted him an Oscar nomination. Altman called him "a genius".

But the demands of fame threatened to overwhelm him, to the extent that in 1973, when Altman was cast him in The Long Goodbye, the studio put him through a barrage of psychiatric tests. "I think I have had certain problems which is that ego and vanity are toxic to me," he reflects now. "Taking into consideration the ego and the vanity of our species, modesty and humility are true assets. I had to learn that. I'd moved too far out 'there'. I became known before I knew who I was myself."

There was a time when he and Streisand refused to talk to each other. Today their relationship is very different. "I have only good things to say about her. I'm real proud of Barbra. She said some time ago that we'd always be a part of each other. I know what she means. I'll always love her."

Gould has reached a stage in his career where people want to honour him. His strong commitment to Israeli cinema was recognised in the past few months with an invitation to be the opening guest at Haifa's International Film Festival, and a lifetime achievement award from the Israel Film Festival. He has received the same award from New York's Jewish Community Centre.

"I didn't come here to be anybody," he offers by way of a final rumination. "I'm still on the journey and it's a great journey. It's such a privilege."

    Last updated: 10:29am, December 17 2010