Elliott Gould

STATELY, plump Elliott Gould answers the door in his boxer shorts; six foot three and built to match, he fills the frame like Samson between two pillars. He lives in an apartment in a quiet Los Angeles neighbourhood, the location of which – somewhat to the left of Beverly
Hills – seems apt enough. “Armed Response” security notices pop up from lawns, electricity crackles in overhead wires and homemade Lost Cat posters dot palm trees like parasitic flowers. Squirrels play tag outside Gould’s door.

He is 65 now, and has decades worth of mementos from movie sets and a life brimming over with incident. It’s tempting to rush around his apartment picking them up. But of course, there is an interview to be done.

I have turned up early, which Gould likes (his father, Bernard, taught him always to arrive a little early for appointments), but I have also made a throwaway remark about how I thought it was supposed to be sunny in LA, which he doesn’t like at all; he abhors negativity, which includes my innocuous sarcasm, and we get off on the wrong foot. He is wary, doubtless wondering what other presuppositions I have made. Nevertheless, he announces that, “For one of my first exposures in glorious Scotland, I choose to be honest.”

He fetches water from the cooler and we sit down at a small table in the living room. Between us: lit candles, burning incense and a large red Buddha, which he picked up in China. Gould is not a practising Buddhist; he was raised in New York as a Jew and still has some love for that religion, but his many years on the west coast seem to have left him with the Californian taste for patchwork spirituality – a vague belief system sewn together from swags of different faiths.

Hoping to put things right between us, I tell Gould that, although Los Angeles has a bad name internationally, I have always liked the city. He laughs loudly. “Tell me what doesn’t?” he asks, his nasal Noo Yoik vowels bumping noses with each other. “What that is known does not ultimately get a bad name? There’s nothing.”

This, of course, is the case with Gould himself. As the blissed-out Sixties became the bummed-out Seventies, he was, for a brief moment, the hottest movie star in the world. He was Oscar nominated for Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), appeared in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970) and a string of hit movies, and formed a production company. His ascension was made manifest when Time magazine put him on the cover, declaring him “the standard bearer of the Western world’s hung up generation”.

And then it all went wrong. There are tortuously complicated reasons, but suffice to say that the slow fade of his eight-year marriage to Barbra Streisand, plus an emotional experience making The Touch (1971) with Ingmar Bergman in Sweden, plus a personality already fragile from a dysfunctional childhood, plus a difficult relationship with his director and business partners during the making of A Glimpse Of Tiger, a picture he was both acting in and producing, added up to a true Buckaroo moment.

Gould stopped showing up to the set and rumours spread that he had lost his mind. The film was not completed, he lost a lot of money, earned a reputation for being unreliable, unstable even and, as quickly as his star had risen, it burned out.

He didn’t work for two years. “I got to know some kids on the street,” he recalls, “and learned to play chess and learned to play basketball. Not knowing that the establishment [Warner Brothers, who were making A Glimpse of Tiger] would then build a file on me, and collect an insurance policy for half a million dollars based on two psychotherapists having read the file, without me being examined, who said I was nuts, I was crazy. In order to go back to work, I had to go and have a brain wave test.”

Luckily, Gould’s next picture, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), in which he played the private eye Philip Marlowe, was one of the best films of the Seventies. But it was not a hit, and his reputation is only now truly recovering from the Glimpse Of Tiger debacle. His work on the sitcom Friends, in which he steals scenes as Ross and Monica’s father, has proved that Gould is reliable and professional, and the director Steven Soderbergh – a huge fan of Seventies cinema – has cast him in Ocean’s 11 and its forthcoming sequel Ocean’s 12, and in his cult TV show K Street.

“Elliott has always been associated with the counterculture,” says Soderbergh, by phone from Washington DC. “I mean just look at how many times he has worked with Robert Altman. Directors may have wondered why should they cast him in a straight role when he is always so idiosyncratic and iconoclastic. But I just think it’s really good mojo to have Elliott in my pictures, as Austin Powers might say.”

You can’t interview Gould as such. You can sit down, switch on the tape recorder, and occasionally ask a question, which he will use as a key to jam around in his stream-of-consciousness way. He once described himself as “the first American jazz actor”, meaning that he riffs rather than recites, departing from the script and going where the character takes him.

Similarly, listening to him talk is a lot like the first time you ever heard Thelonious Monk play piano – at first it sounds like discordant, improvisational gibberish, but after a while you begin to discern patterns, motifs, a groove. And when that happens, you begin to relax, happy to simply allow the vibrations in the air to make contact with magnetic tape and record Gould’s variations for posterity.

“I don’t know what the hell you’re going to make of this,” he says, breaking off abruptly from a monologue about the great dramatist Eugene O’Neill, “but if you have any questions, call me and run it by me, because everything that I’m telling you, I’ve lived and I’m

He has lived a life. In fact, he has lived several. He is fond of the notion that while he is still alive, all the people he has known live on inside him. Thus his conversation is peppered with the names of the famous dead: Cary Grant; Truman Capote; Groucho Marx, who Gould would visit and shave while the comedian watched Jack Benny reruns in bed; Elvis Presley, with whom he had the following conversation backstage at a Vegas concert.

Elvis, gold-plated Colt 45 tucked into his waistband: “Hey man, you’re crazy!”

Gould: “I ain’t crazy, I’m scared just like you, Elvis.”

Elvis: “How come you and Barbra didn’t stay together? You’re two of my favourite people.”

Gould: “Shut up, Elvis! Leave Elvis behind. You can go through the motions and be Elvis, but come on out and play with us. You can be anything you want to be.”

This is what he does, quoting screeds of dialogue from encounters that took place decades ago. It’s more than an actor’s faculty – Gould claims to be able to remember his entire life, and paints some astonishingly vivid pictures of his early childhood in Brooklyn.

He says he remembers being on his back in his crib and his parents, Bernard and Lucille, standing over him saying, “You don’t know how to feel, and you don’t know how to think, and we will tell you, and you won’t ever have better friends than us.” It was like something out of Harry Potter, he says.

And then there was the time, an October day in 1939, when Gould was 14 and a half months old, and stood upright for the first time. “It was a glorious Sunday on the boardwalk of Far Rockaway,” he says. “I found my balance, and I knew I had found my balance. It’s like sometimes, you know, you take a deep breath and it goes further into the lungs than ordinarily you would be conscious of.”

He remembers looking at his parents, who were holding one another, which they sometimes did in public for appearances sake, though hardly ever in private. He was scared that they were going to push him to walk. The two families they were close to, the Posners and the Greensteins, both had infants that had started walking, and the Goldsteins – Gould is a stage name – wondered what was wrong with their Elliott.

Gould had an ambiguous relationship with his parents, first generation Americans whose families came out of Eastern Europe, and his upbringing damaged him quite badly. His conception had been an accident, and Bernard Goldstein, Bernie, appears to have felt trapped in a marriage and a new role – father – that he didn’t want.

Also, Lucille suffered from baby blues. Their sensitive son picked up on these things, and was desperate to please. He was very well-behaved to the point where he bottled himself up and tucked himself away, no trouble to anyone. He was also aware that his parents did not love one another. He slept in their room for 11 years; it was a no-brainer. All this left him repressed and withdrawn, feelings he worked through during years of therapy. “I’m just now taking my first steps,” he tells me. “I’m compensating for the insecurity and desperation and fear that I inherited.”

When Gould was in kindergarten, his father was drafted into the army. And although an injury meant he did not see active service, it took him away from home. Gould, however, still saw his father every day. He was the only kid in kindergarten whose father was serving in the army; they pinned Bernard’s picture up in class, and each morning the children would salute it.

Gould’s teachers soon discovered that he was a little brighter than the others. He still couldn’t tell the difference between his right and his left, but unlike the rest of his class, he knew that he couldn’t tell the difference, and the teachers found that remarkable. There was an experimental program at that time called Special Progress, in which gifted children were moved up one year ahead of their age, and this was what happened to him.

“I remember I felt like a little kitten,” he says. “They picked me up from behind the neck and they took me from the middle of second grade to the third grade. And in the third grade, the children were reading out loud, and that was beyond my conception. I didn’t have the
confidence, and I immediately panicked.”

Lucille tried to figure how to bring her son out of himself. She decided to enrol him at showbusiness school. “There was a hope that I could memorise a song and dance routine and express myself through that.”

It seemed to work. Gould began to perform around New York, playing hospitals and temples and sometimes at regular theatres. During summer holidays he would perform at resorts in the so-called “borscht belt” of the Catskill mountains.

Things went on like this for a while. Then in 1957, when he was 18, he landed a job in the chorus line of a Broadway musical. He became a hoofer, a song and dance man for hire. In 1962, he landed the lead role in the Broadway musical I Can Get It For You Wholesale. He sat in on the audition of a fragile-looking chick with a big nose and bigger voice. Streisand, she called herself. Barbra. Her name seemed to have one ‘a’ missing, and her phone number had a lot of fives in it. Gould remembered the number like he remembered everything. He called her to tell her she had got the part. They became a couple. He moved into her
apartment. He lost his virginity to her. He was 23, she was 19.

Gould breaks off from telling his story. He has noticed that Fergus the photographer is waiting for him. “Are you ready? Are you ready? I’ll just throw on a pair of pants.” He disappears into his bedroom and returns in a pair of brown trousers and a grey hooded top with
Revolution written across the front. He puts on a woolly hat in the Miami Dolphins colours. “I don’t really support them,” he says, “but I consider myself a fellow warm-blooded mammal.”

He invites me to have a look around while he poses for the camera. I go to the bathroom. You might like to know that Gould keeps in his shower what looks – at a quick glance – like a Golden Globe for Friends. Back in the lounge, I wander over to a table covered in
family photographs. There’s a black and white picture of the Goldsteins at Coney Island, and one big glossy colour print of Streisand with their son Jason as a young boy. Gould and Jason are feeding a horse in another picture; going by his handlebar moustache and bowler hat, it must have been taken on the set of Harry And Walter Go To New York (1976).

There are lots of other pictures of Gould and his current wife Jennifer Bogart – who he has married twice, in 1974 and 1978, but hasn’t lived with for 14 years – and their children Molly and Sam. Gould is now a grandfather. Molly and her husband Andrew have a four-year-old called Henry.

“My wife and I are starting to talk,” he had told me earlier, “and perhaps we’re at a place where we can either mediate, or decide how we can, or can’t, be together.”

“Does that mean you might actually get back together?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“But it’s possible?”

“It’s possibly conceivable,” he said. “Yeah. Yeah.”

I glance over at Gould. He’s mugging for the camera, holding an atlas. He points to a framed certificate on one wall. “I’m very proud of that,” he grins. It’s a spoof diploma, which reads: “The Harvard Lampoon presents its 31st Annual – Kirk Douglas – worst actor of the year award to Elliott Gould. In grateful recognition of those qualities which have done so much to further the rapid degeneration of celluloid in all its forms – Nov 6, 1971.” Gould picked up the scroll in person; his dog Humphrey followed him on stage.

With the shoot over, Gould sits back down at the table. He seems a little more relaxed. We talk about how working in pictures became something of a sanctuary for him. He is, I’d say, cripplingly self-aware. He obsessively replays, in his head, conversations that he has had with people that he would rather had gone a different way. But in front of the camera, he seems able to empty himself out. He first discovered this while working on Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. During a break on filming, he was alone on the set and found himself staring at
the camera.

“I realised that the camera did not give me problems,” he says, “that I gave me problems. The camera would simply reflect or report what I was doing. It would never lie to me. That was my first objective relationship. I couldn’t be objective with mother, I couldn’t be objective with father, I couldn’t be objective with me. But with the camera, that’s how I found myself.”

His most enduring love affair may have been with the lens, but his marriage to Barbra Streisand is still the relationship that fascinates. They split in 1969 and divorced in 1971. He has famously described their marriage as part chocolate soufflé, part bath of lava. Although he was better known when they met, by the time they separated, she was a superstar and he was still a struggling actor often referred to as Mr Streisand.

In the early days of their marriage, she compared them to Hansel and Gretel, and it seems to me that they were more like brother and sister than man and wife. They both had unhappy family backgrounds, both had parents they struggled to please, both were Jewish and both were unconventionally sexy at a time when being unconventionally sexy was getting to be pretty hip. “For me,” says Gould, “it was a total love affair. I just loved her.”

When he saw her audition for I Can Get It For You Wholesale, he turned to Jerome Weidman, who had written the book the show was based on, and said, “I think she’s brilliant, and she reminds me of the way I am. She’s hiding behind things.”

According to Gould, his parents’ marital problems stemmed in part from the fact that his mother never knew her father. He says that from an early age he wished he could be a father to his mother, that he could have helped her in that way. “I realised I couldn’t do that,” he says, “but of course that’s the role I took in my relationships with women – to be their father.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“The women that I got involved with were all needy,” he says, “and either didn’t have a father, like my mother, or didn’t have a relationship, and therefore I could see what their needs were, and that’s what I would try to fill. But without being true to myself. That did not make for a good functioning relationship.”

“Was that at the root of your problem with Streisand?”

“No. I think that both of us were too young.” We follow this thread for a while, then he says, “I love Jason, and my love for Barbra still exists somewhere, but I don’t think we’re friends. Our relationship was not about business for me.”

“Meaning that it was for her?”

“I don’t know. Prior to our meeting,she was very much on the road to be what she wanted to be. That’s not what life is about.”

Perhaps in the end, their differences outweighed their considerable similarities. Streisand seems much more focussed. She is an outspoken opponent of Bush administration policy, whereas Gould’s gripes against the world – of which he has many – seem far woollier, and have to do with the environment and the way politics and commerce corrupt human
nature. More strikingly, Streisand seems to be career-minded, while Gould declares himself to be “allergic to ego and vanity”. It’s almost as if she got their shared pot of ambition in the
divorce settlement.

These days, says Gould, he wants nothing more than to build a farm. It will have an old railway car in which he will cook and serve meals to his family – Jennie and Sam, Molly and Andrew. Little Henry can play with the animals. Maybe Jason will stop by. He has been talking about this for years, since before his children were grown, but money problems and one thing and another have always prevented it. Now with the debts paid and his career on something of an upward swing, the farm is looking – fingers crossed – like a real possibility.

“My great ambition now,” smiles this most Joycean of actors, chocolate eyes melting beneath his bushy black eyebrows, “is to be a great grandfather, so that the children of the children’s children and I can get to know each other. And then, as Mr Gershwin said, who could ask for anything more?”