George Segal

Hollywood star who helped bring a new Jewish visibility to mid-century American films



Famous in the 1960s and 1970s for his performances in films such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Where’s Poppa? (1970), Blume in Love (1973) and California Split (1974), George Segal was one of the first American film actors to rise to leading man status with an unchanged Jewish surname.

Segal was part of what became known as ‘the new Jewish visibility’ in 1960s America. They included such comedians as Lenny Bruce, Tom Lehrer and Woody Allen; new writers like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth; and above all, a new generation of Jewish movie stars like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967), Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968), Elliott Gould in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1970) and Segal in Carl Reiner’s acclaimed dark comedy Where’s Poppa? (1970) .

These young actors looked Jewish and had Jewish names like Hoffman, Benjamin and Segal, names some of them refused to change. There were exceptions: among them Elliott Goldstein became Elliott Gould and Jerome Silberman adopted the name Gene Wilder).

George Segal Jr, who has died of complications from bypass surgery in Santa Rosa, California, at the age of 87, was born in New York, the youngest of the four children of Fannie Blanche Segal (née Bodkin) and George Segal Sr, a malt and hop agent. He spent much of his childhood in Long Island. All four of his grandparents were Russian Jewish immigrants.

His family was Jewish but secular. When his father died in 1947 Segal moved to New York with his mother. He graduated from Columbia College in 1955 with a BA in performing arts and drama and then served in the US Army. After this he studied at the Actors Studio with the famous Lee Strasberg, appeared in Antony and Cleopatra for Joseph Papp and joined an improv group which performed at a coffeehouse in Greenwich Village where he met Buck Henry, who became a leading screenwriter in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Segal performed on Broadway in Paddy Chayefsky’s Gideon (1961–62) which ran for 236 performances, and made his film debut in The Young Doctors (1961). His role in the medical drama, The New Interns (1964), earned him the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year.

In 1965, Segal appeared with Vivien Leigh and Lee Marvin in Stanley Kramer’s acclaimed film Ship of Fools. The same year, he also played the title role in the war drama King Rat (a role originally meant for Frank Sinatra) and received acclaim for both performances. He also appeared in several prominent television films, including his portrayal of Biff in Death of a Salesman (1966) with Lee J. Cobb, and George in an adaptation of Of Mice and Men (1968).

But his breakthrough came with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), directed by Mike Nichols, who had previously directed Segal in a 1964 Off-Broadway play and cast him in Woolf after Robert Redford had turned down the role. Segal played the young faculty member, Nick, alongside Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Sandy Dennis. He was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe.

Segal became part of a new wave of actors, directors and screenwriters who changed the face of American movies in the next decade, many of them Jews, like Paul Mazursky, Mike Nichols (born Igor Peschkowsky), Buck Henry (born Zuckerman) and Mel Brooks (born Melvin Kaminsky). Many were from the East Coast and moved between theatre and film.

For the next ten years Segal played many notable film roles, working with major film-makers and becoming a significant figure in the New Hollywood. He took the lead role in Sidney Lumet’s Bye Bye Braverman (1968), starred as the title role in Paul Mazursky’s acclaimed romantic comedy Blume in Love (1973), and alongside Elliott Gould as a gambling addict in Robert Altman’s classic California Split (1974). He portrayed a philandering husband in A Touch of Class (1973) opposite Glenda Jackson and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor, the second Golden Globe of his career. He also played a young police detective alongside Rod Steiger in No Way to Treat a Lady (1968) and starred in The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), a romantic comedy with Barbra Streisand, written by Buck Henry, and with Jane Fonda in Fun with Dick and Jane (1977).

The late 1960s and 1970s were the highpoint of George Segal’s career, but the 1980s saw a fall in his fortunes. One casualty was his marriage, which fell apart. He told one interviewer, “I was doing a lot of self-destructive things...there were drugs”. Movies changed and Segal was left out in the cold.

Segal re-established himself as a TV actor in the 1990s. From 1997-2003, he starred in the NBC sitcom Just Shoot Me! as Jack Gallo, the owner of a New York fashion magazine. The show lasted for seven seasons and he was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Actor – Television Series Musical or Comedy in 1999 and 2000.

Segal then starred in the ABC sitcom The Goldbergs (2013–2021), playing Albert ‘Pops’ Solomon, the eccentric but lovable grandfather of a Jewish family. The long-running series entered its eighth season in 2021 and Segal was part of the regular cast up until his death this year.

George Segal was married three times, first to film editor Marion Segal Freed in 1956, with whom he had two daughters. Following their divorce in 1983 he married Linda Rogoff.

He is survived by his third wife Sonia Schultz Greenbaum, to whom he was married for 25 years, and his two daughters from his first marriage.


George Segal: born February 13, 1934. Died March 23, 2021

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive