Elliott Gould: Reel to real

By Tom Tugend, February 9, 2006
Follow The JC on Twitter

Elliot Gould is a screen star whose career was in the doldrums for years and who says he has ‘had problems with reality’ but who has lately enjoyed success on TV and film as a character actor

"Let’s meet at the Chabad Centre,” actor Elliott Gould unexpectedly suggests when I phone him for an interview.

It seems an unlikely venue for a member of a Reconstructionist temple, the least traditional stream of Judaism but, as I later learn during our two-and-a-half-hour interview, Gould is a man of many contradictions and diverse emotions.

He shows up dressed in informal native style, with a straw hat covering his abundant, greying locks. At the urging of Rabbi Shlomo Boruch Cunin, the ebullient Chabad director, Gould briefly exchanges his hat for a peaked baseball cap, emblazoned with the impressionistic figure of a dancing Chasid.

“I am an unorthodox Jew the way I live, but with a deep reverence for the ultra-Orthodox,” Gould says by way of explanation of his friendship with the bearded rabbi.

Gould is just back home after a hectic shooting schedule in Nice and London for the production of Agatha Christie’s “The Mystery of the Blue Train,” in ITV’s hit “Poirot” series in which he plays Rufus Van Aldin, an American oil magnate visiting England in the early 1930s. It is being broadcast in America this coming weekend having already had a first airing in Britain.

The 67-year old actor obviously enjoyed the role and the experience. “The British have always been very supportive of me,” he says, a feeling that goes back to 1963, when he starred in the West End production of the musical “On the Town.” For the London stage run, Gould brought along his new bride, the rising young singer Barbra Streisand. Later, he was to speak out frankly about their relationship, which has since filled reams of tabloid columns.

Elliott Goldstein grew up in a two-and-a-half room apartment in a section of Brooklyn populated by Jews, Syrians and Italians. He was the only child of a garment industry production manager and his wife. Both parents had been born in the United States; his grandparents had emigrated from Russia, the Ukraine and Poland.

Gould has total recall of his childhood, a mixed blessing, at best. “My parents didn’t know how to love each other and that devastated me,” he reminisced. “I’ve been in shock and denial of this most of my life and, as a boy, I was repressed, inhibited and very withdrawn. At Passover, the Goldstein family visited Uncle Louie, and young Elliott got to ask the Four Questions. The future actor found it “stressful to get it right. I was very sensitive and insecure.”

In 1944, when Elliott was six, his father was drafted into the army, became a sharpshooter, but broke his ankle just before he was to be shipped overseas. It was a lucky break, since most of his unit was wiped out in the Battle of the Bulge later that year.

Meanwhile, encouraged by his doting mother, young Elliott Goldstein auditioned for a “country-style” TV show, got a part and was told by the producer: “From now on, your name is Gould.” Now, the mature performer says, “I just accepted it.”

Gould’s stage career accelerated at the age of 12, when he made his debut as a tap dancer at the Palace — while beginning studies for his barmitzvah at Hebrew school. “On my first test I cheated and got a 100,” he recalls.

At 18, he made it on to the Broadway stage in the chorus line of “Irma La Douce” and supplemented his meagre earnings by selling vacuum cleaners, running a hotel elevator and working as a plumber’s mate.

His first breakthrough came as the lead in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” the same musical which first brought Barbra Streisand to public attention. The two young Jewish actors struck up a romance and married within the year. The marriage proved difficult almost from the beginning. It didn’t help that, as his wife rocketed to superstardom, Gould, despite his promising performance in “Wholesale,” had trouble advancing his career.

Snide columnists took delight in referring to Gould as “Mr Streisand” and in chronicling his real and alleged frustrations, depressions, therapy sessions and nervous breakdowns.

Even the birth of their son, Jason Gould, in 1966, couldn’t reverse the downward trajectory of the couple’s marriage and they were divorced in 1971. Gould also has two children with Jennifer Bogart, whom he married twice, divorced once, and from whom he is now separated.

It becomes obvious during our long interview that Gould’s feelings about his marriage to Streisand are still acute and mixed. Again and again, he interrupts our conversation on other topics to break in with comments, such as: “It is not true that I was traumatised because Barbra’s career went up and mine didn’t… Barbra and I will always be connected through our son Jason, but we only communicate when necessary… Life is a challenging and painful journey. Barbra was part of it and our love has not been destroyed… Barbra will always love me.”

But, as his marriage gradually unravelled, Gould’s professional fortunes took a sudden turn upwards. The breakthrough came with his role as Ted in the 1969 movie “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,” directed by Paul Mazursky, about two sexually liberated but confused couples, which the ’60s generation adopted as the iconic reflection of itself.

Gould, who was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance, was at the time described by the New York Times as: “Tall, curly-haired, more homely than handsome, laid back, unconventional, sensitive and unabashedly Jewish.”

Over the following four years, Gould seemed to be everywhere on movie and television screens and his photo graced the cover of Time as “the star for an uptight age.” He was especially popular among young adults, who identified closely with the often neurotic anti-hero he depicted. He scored again as private eye Philip Marlowe in the decidedly laid-back “The Long Goodbye” and as Trapper John in Robert Altman’s black comedy ‘M*A*S*H.” In this, he and co-star Donald Sutherland brilliantly created the anarchic atmosphere among armed forces personnel associated with Joseph Heller’s book “Catch 22” but which the film of that name failed to create, certainly in comparison to the achievement of Altman, Gould and Sutherland.

Then, in the mid-’70s, what had been the hottest property in Hollywood went cold. Gould continued to act in movies and television, but mostly in forgettable productions and roles.

Two decades on, he began to regain his reputation as a character actor through frequent appearances on the phenomenally successful TV series, “Friends” and, in the past few years, he has been lauded for his movie performances in “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve.”

He remains as “unabashedly Jewish” as ever, though in his own way: “I feel connected by the branches of the Jewish family tree,” he observes. “I belong every place where there is one of us… Not only do I not deny my Judaism, but I am aware how unorthodox and unconventional I have been.”

Although “conditioned to question everything, the concept of faith seems right to me and I have found my faith,” he adds.

At 67, Gould considers himself “still a work in progress,” but he seems to have found a measure of equilibrium in a life during which “I never had problems with drugs, but I’ve had problems with reality.”

Certainly, his acting powers do not seem to have diminished, for all the tribulations of the past and the lean years spent in the Hollywood wilderness. David Suchet, the star of “Poirot,” is full of praise for Gould both personally and professionally.

“Working with Elliott Gould was a real pleasure,” says Suchet. “He has that knack of seeming to do nothing while filming and then you see his performance and it is not only good, it is also very complex. He is also very dry and very funny. At the same time, takes his work very seriously.”

And, for all that Gould may, to some, sound somewhat cavalier in his attitude to Judaism, he maintains a high level of respect for Jewish creativity and indeed for individually creative Jews. He lives in an apartment with a picture of Sigmund Freud on the wall and is re-reading the works of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud.

“I have nothing more to prove,” he says to conclude our interview. “I now look on myself as a happy and healthy grandfather.”

    Last updated: 9:52am, May 23 2008