The exceptionally gifted George Segal was a necessary, nervy, highly charged actor for over 50 years (early ’60s until 2014). In his heyday he was an explorer of urban Jewish neurotics with underlying rage…half superficial, half pained and always guilty or bothered about something…at other times Segal was a smoothie…an amiable grinner with sandy brown hair and an eye for the ladies.
Segal’s two best roles were in Paul Mazursky‘s Blume In Love (’73) and in Robert Altman‘S California Split (’74).
Segal worked hard and dutifully and never stopped pushing, but honestly? His leading-man peak period lasted only nine or ten years. Or if you want to be cruel about it, he was The Guy Everyone Understood and Related To for only about five years, between ’70 and ’75.
The golden period began with Segal’s breakout performance in Ship of Fools (’64), and then as a crafty prisoner of war in King Rat (’65). This was followed by his career-making performance as Nick, the ambitious and randy biology professor who beds Elizabeth Taylor but can’t get it up, in Mike Nichols‘ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (’66). Segal’s streak ended with his lived-in performance as compulsive gambler Bill Denny in California Split, opposite the wonderfully on-target Elliot Gould.
Segal didn’t catch serious fire until neurotic Jewish guys became a hot Hollywood commodity in the early ’70s. His first serious breakout came when he played a vaguely unhappy cheating commuter husband in Irvin Kirshner‘s Loving (’70). This was followed by his guilty, lovesick moustachioed Jewish attorney in Carl Reiner‘s Where’s Poppa? (’70).
After this Segal starred in six winners — The Owl and the Pussycat, Born to Win (drug addict), The Hot Rock (Kelp the locksmith), Blume in Love, A Touch of Class, The Terminal Man and finally California Split — my favorite of all his films.
Between the mid to late ’60s Segal starred in five films that were somewhere between interesting and pretty good but at the same time not great — The Quiller Memorandum (’66), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
(’68), Bye Bye Braverman, No Way to Treat a Lady (’68), The Bridge at Remagen (’69) and…well, that’s it.
Segal’s last decently written role was as Ben Stiller‘s dad (and Mary Tyler Moore‘s henpecked husband) in David O. Russell‘s Flirting With Disaster (’96).