WE’VE ALL AGREED to meet at Canter’s Deli. George Segal, Joseph Walsh, and Elliott Gould. It’s mid-September, one of those absurdly hot Los Angeles days, and I’m there early, cooling off and biting my nails, excited, but a little nervous to talk with these three men, two of whom I’ve already interviewed, one, at this point, I’ve only met.
After presenting Robert Altman’s California Split at Telluride, doing a Q&A on stage with Segal and screenwriter Walsh, we wanted to extend our discussion. We wanted to include Gould who wasn’t able to attend due to shooting conflicts. It’s the 40th anniversary of Altman’s masterpiece, and we all think it’s worth noting. Gould shows up first. He’s every inch the movie star, absolutely fascinating, disarming, but down to earth, sensitive and warm — and yet, you can’t read him easily. He’s mysterious, but intently philosophical and, of course, still very funny. Amused and bemused — that Gould way of virile masculinity mixed with offbeat, unexpected humor and intelligence that’s gone unmatched. No one is like Elliott Gould. Screenwriter Walsh follows, apologizing for being late (he’s only a few minutes late); he’s gracious, sharp, and comical — and ever the charming gambler. A guy full of stories. Wonderful stories. He always knows the score but is exceedingly generous. You get the feeling a lot of gamblers are. Segal is next, a bit more reserved, but once he opens up, a man who will burst out with a laugh and a quick, brainy quip or observation. You see his Blume from Blume in Love — you see him observe and and soak in the discussion. You see him think. You can see why he’s a star.
The conversation starts immediately. This may be the 40th anniversary of California Split, but these guys have known each other for 50-plus years. And because of that, the conversation goes everywhere. This is living Hollywood history and the conversation is flowing almost like an Altman film. It’s an honor to be at this table.
GEORGE SEGAL: Let me tell you how far back this all goes. The first time I met Elliott was at Adolph and Phyllis Green’s apartment. They were every kind of with it. They wanted to be with Leonard Bernstein and all that. Where everything was happening. They lived in the Beresford. Beautiful! And so I guess Barbra had just starred in …
ELLIOTT GOULD: Funny Girl.
GS: Was it Funny Girl? Yeah, it was Funny Girl. And Phyllis called Marion and me and said, you’re the youngest people we know and we’ve got these two people coming …
EG: [Laughing] And we don’t know them at all …
GS: [Laughing] No, we don’t know them at all … So, it was Barbra and Elliott. So all the women are talking at Marion, and they’re on the sofa, and by the piano is Elliott and me, and we don’t know each other, and Elliott is in a three-piece suit. And he tells me the funniest show business story, which involves me, which I didn’t know, which is all about you, Joey, and it’s about the story of Billy the Clerk. And I’m thinking this is the hippest, funniest guy I’ve ever met in my life. Because he told this story beautifully and built it. I was so completely involved. And it’s based on my movie,Invitation to a Gunfighter, which I was in with Yul Brynner, and I have no idea that there is this simultaneous story going on with Joey who was also in it. So, [to Joey], that’s who you were in my eyes when he was telling the story. I had a vague memory of the poker games. I wasn’t in them.
JOSEPH WALSH: Right. Brad Dexter was in it. I was playing cards every day on the set. Brad Dexter was very funny. Yul would get him in every picture. That was his friend.
GS: Because he saved Sinatra.
EG: He saved Sinatra from drowning …
GS: He saved Sinatra from drowning, and Sinatra would call Yul and he’d say, “You got something for Brad?”
JW: Here’s the story. I’m in Invitation to a Gunfighter. I think I’m playing Billy the fucking Kid in this picture. I think I’m one of the stars of this picture. It turns out I’m Billy the Clerk. So now I’m saying: “Room 310.” I almost hit the director at that moment. I said, No don’t ruin your career right now because he’s really in my face. So, cut, print. Let’s go. That was it. I went back to play with Brad Dexter. Let’s get the poker game going again …
GS: Billy the Clerk. It’s a classic show business story. Because, talk about gambling. It’s all so sad — the whole thing.
JW: Brad, we got very friendly. We’d play poker every day because there’s endless waiting for whatever, especially with the amount of work we had to do in that picture, which wasn’t much. Brad told me: “You know I do every picture with Yul? It’s in his contract almost.” And I say, “Oh that’s great you have a friend.” And he says, “Well … it’s kind of half great. He likes it because I play gin, and he beats me for most of my money.” [Laughs] I said, “You gotta be kidding.” And he said, “No. I gotta play gin. And I lose a lot of my salary on every picture I do with Yul.”
EG: I just saw him in The Asphalt Jungle. I didn’t realize he was in The Asphalt Jungle.
GS: Brad Dexter?
EG: Yeah, Brad Dexter. He was the private detective who worked for Louis Calhern who got shot by Sterling Hayden. It’s a fabulous movie.
GS: He brought a quiet menace with him, Brad Dexter. He was always behind his eyes. You didn’t know what he was thinking. Not much, maybe … [Laughs]
KIM MORGAN: Did you see that Quentin Tarantino has taken over the New Beverly theater and programming himself for three months? And the double feature he’s going to open the theater with in October is [pointing to Elliott] Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice [pointing to George] and Blume in Love.
GS: I’ll be goddamned.
EG: That’s wonderful of him. Really touching.
GS: He came to the Mazursky breakfast table, and all he talked about was Blume in Love.
KM: Yeah, he loves that movie. Well, damn, he loves so many things. We both share a mania for Ralph Meeker.
GS: Nice! I was in a Ralph Meeker movie!
JW: You were?
GS: Damn right! The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Oh, I loved him. He was great. The Dirty Dozen. They were really getting drunk those two, Marvin and Meeker. And I remember him closing the door in the Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer movie. Closing the drawer on the guy’s hand! Uh …
KM: Percy Helton! I think that’s how he became a hunchback. [joking]
GS: He really was. He was a hunchback. And with that high voice. [Imitates voice]
EG: The first time I remember seeing you, George, you were singing with Mike Nichols in Sardi’s. It was the time when The Knack was off Broadway. And I was just: This is George Segal. You were very handsome.
KM: Elliott and Joey: you two met in Children’s Professional School, correct?
JW: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. First time I saw Elliott, he was coming off the elevator. There he is — he’s in his shorts and he’s got a mask on and he’s got a speargun. He’s a frogman. It was April Fools’ Day.
KM: How old were you?
JW: Fourteen or 15.
EG: Fifteen or 16. Probably just to take the liberty of Seniors’ Day. I was a senior. They skipped me in Brooklyn. They skipped me.
JW: I remember saying to you as you were coming out of the elevator, I said, “You’re in big trouble, kid.” This kid thinks he’s coming to this school … Let’s put it this way: he was the last person I thought I was going to become best friends with.
KM: You two have been friends for so long. Joey, you told me that you and Elliott would go to movies together all the time and saw Psycho together. And Kubrick’s The Killing.
EG: Oh, yeah. Many times. Timothy Carey Jr. Peanut butter, right.
JW: Elliott and I were kids. All we knew was, whoever directed this picture is great. And then we got his name. I actually wrote a piece called “Stanley Who?”
EG: Mazursky had worked for him.
JW: But that was a great discovery. And, again, Timothy Carey.
KM: Timothy Carey, Sterling Hayden of course, Vince Edwards, Elisha Cook Jr.
GS: I worked with him later, Elijah Cook Jr.
EG: He was so great.
JW: Was he in The Black Bird with you?
GS: He was in The Black Bird with me.
EG: When he was young, Joey was a significant star. [He co-starred with Danny Kaye in Charles Vidor's Hans Christian Andersen. Here's Joey with Kaye in an iconic moment.]
GS: Oh, yes, yes.
EG: I mean, unapproachable. I mean, how do you do that? And with television. I mean, it was like, the keys to this industry.
JW: I’ll tell you George. This’ll flip George out. First of all, Milton Berle, you remember the show very well, how big he was. Guess who went up against him? Yours truly.
GS: Really? In what?
JW: With The Frank Sinatra Show. Cast in The Frank Sinatra Show. But nobody is watching The Frank Sinatra Show, they’re all watching Milton Berle and now I’m unhappy because I’m not on The Milton Berle Show.
GS: This was live?
JW: This was live. Everything was live. Your career was always on the line back then.
EG: What a career.
EG: The Texaco Star Theater … There was nothing else but that and The Ed Sullivan Show on Sundays …
JW: And Your Show of Shows …
EG: Texaco Star Theater … That’s when we were doing the bar scene inCalifornia Split, we say, “Captain Midnight!”
JW: With Sinatra … there I was in the 1950 show. Joey Walsh. I was there. I was absolutely crazed about Ava Gardner. And she would pick Frank up on the weekends. Frank would get after me a little bit. He would say to me, and he was giving me a little shit, in a little way, he’d say, “What are you doing this week, kid? What are you doing on this show this week?” And I’d say, “I don’t know Frank. I just show up since I have a contract. So you want me to sing ‘The House I Live In’?” And he says, “Yeah.” So anyway, the show is all over. Ava’s picking him up. And I decide I’m going to buy him a tie as a going-away present. I buy him this tie, and I give it to him. A little later, I remember that I forgot something and that I have to go back and tell him. So I go back to the dressing room. It’s completely empty. Just my tie is hanging there.
EG: Aww …
JW: [Laughing] Poor little kid. This Slim Jim you buy for a buck and quarter. I give it to Frank Sinatra.
KM: So you, George, and Elliott were both in movies with Sterling Hayden [Loving and The Long Goodbye].
JW: I loved Sterling in the movies, but I never met him personally. [To Segal and Gould] Did you love Sterling?
EG: I loved him. Dan Blocker was supposed to play the part. He was a very good friend of Altman’s. Dan Blocker died and the picture almost went south. And so then we were talking about John Huston, who I loved. Bob cast Sterling Hayden. So Sterling had been in Ireland doing something with R. D. Laing, the poet and philosopher who wrote a book called Knots. And so I asked to spend a little time, a moment alone with Sterling in the house where we shot, where Kathryn and Bob lived, down in Malibu. So we spent that moment alone. And so I knew that Sterling knew that I knew that Sterling knew that I knew that Sterling knew that I understood him. So I just loved him.
KM: Did you ever read his book Wanderer?
EG: Yes. When he kidnapped his kids, right?
JW: I liked the way he wanted to live his life, Sterling Hayden.
EG: I visited him on his péniche, which is like a barge. He had it in France on the Seine and I saw him there. And then he had it sent to Northern California and I visited him there too. He was a great guy. I think he worked in the Yugoslavian Underground during World War II.
JW: Did he really? Wow. Okay.
KM: And what’s interesting in The Long Goodbye is this somewhat modernized Marlowe [into the 1970s], from what Bogart or Powell did but …
EG: Oh, Humphrey Bogart was perfect. Our Marlowe was not perfect at all.
KM: No, of course. But that’s what I love about it. And that Sterling Hayden, who is now an icon in film noir, he’s really this counterculture type of guy in real life. He fit perfectly in that Altman universe.
EG: The Long Goodbye has held up too. Not dated. I’m thrilled that it’s held up.
KM: It feels more modern than movies now.
GS: That it opens with that cat. Oh, that’s just fabulous. To take that time and to open with that. At that time, at the top of a movie.
EG: [Laughs] Yeah, and the guy’s sleeping. Oh, Bob. Oh my God [sigh]. We thought Bogdanovich was gonna do it and he couldn’t cast me. He couldn’t see it. And David Picker gave it to Bob Altman. And Bob was in Ireland finishing Images with Susannah York and he called me from the White Village and he said, “What do you think?” I said, “I’ve always wanted to play this guy.” And he said, “You are this guy.”
KM: Casinos are like movie sets. You know, an enclosed world of playing, making money, losing, performing, with the big star and the character actors and the extras. Rules and chaos at every turn. It’s a separate universe that anyone off the street walking into feels immediately intimidated or confused by.
GS: Yes. I like that analogy. It’s a lot like that. We are the living embodiment of a sequel to California Split 2. I mean, this is it.
EG: The level of risk what you’re talking about is for sure …
JW: And they split … these two magnificent actors in this picture, these characters, they split. The beauty, certainly aided with Altman too. And then the idea of gambling. We’ve all been to Vegas. Do you ever watch the faces there? Do you ever watch the people who have never gambled? They are so excited. And you pay for that excitement. But to look underneath, underneath all that, there is a trap. There is a sadness. And for the George character, I always thought, this is the kind who would always end up in trouble. He gambles because something is missing in his life. I didn’t even know what that was. What was missing. Even when I was writing. And we didn’t need to know. His gambling is a way to kill the something that’s missing. Whereas Elliott’s character gambles as a way of life. His emotional content for everything and the laws that he steals time away … these are the words, “I steal time. I can’t steal any more time.” And to see that come together as a writer, and to see the two actors pull that off to such an extent, I’m not even that amazed anymore. You watch it again and it’s not dated at all because these feelings and these things are never gonna stop. In the world of gambling, they will never stop. These emotional feelings.
EG: I take nothing for granted. In our life, I was George’s character. I was Bill Denny, right?
JW: Right, right.
EG: That’s what we lived so …
JW: And … in our life, right. He did Bill Denny and I’m Charlie Walters. That’s how we lived it.
EG: Then it’s a matter of responsibility and so my evolution in relation to Bill Denny in not knowing what to do and not knowing what he was going to do and where I was coming from. Oh, yeah. And I have remembrances almost as far back as an infant. I mean, three and a half, I’ve already had a couple of memories. So it’s really interesting because as I said, it’s not about gambling. It’s not about gambling at all. It’s about staying alive.
KM: And I think that it’s so inclusive in the gambler’s world, and they get everything that you’re saying.
EG: Oh, they love it. And they can relate.
KM: But I think some people outside of gambling can too. Anyone who’s had a substance abuse problem, anyone with a freelance life. It’s a gamble.
JW: Oh, yes. And show business. If you go into show business you could be broke forever and waiting on tables and you have no other skills.
KM: And so, I mean here’s part of the timelessness (and how modern it still feels today). It certainly received good reviews at the time, but the movie has increased in popularity, I think. It’s always been popular for those who love Altman, but it’s moved up. Anyone I talk to, they love it. A favorite Altman. I think my favorite. If I had to choose.
JW: Your favorite and Ken Burns’s favorite movie. And Mike Leigh was there at the Telluride screening. He loves it too.
KM: And, apparently as I heard before, Robert Morley?
JW: George, you told me that, that he loved, on a plane …
GS: No, no, I was in two movies, I was in two things with him.
KM: Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?
GS: Yup, yup, yup.
KM: I love that California Split was Robert Morley’s favorite movie.
GS: He had a bookie come with to the set. His bookie. They do that in England. He would come to the set. So, he was a veteran.
KM: So, yes, it obviously speaks to a lot of people …
EG: Well, Altman’s work does. Altman’s work is fundamentally all in the now. It just works. Even with MASH. Cause, again, I don’t think we were crazy about MASH when it first happened. Well, I loved doing it, it was great. I remember seeing it, it had a sneak in San Francisco with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I thought what? But now when I see it I see — every time I see it I see something I haven’t seen before.
GS: You know how I got California Split?
GS: I came out of a screening of MASH in New York City in a screening room and I said to somebody, “That’s the greatest movie I ever saw.” Or some words to that effect. That remark got back to Altman and that’s how it started, how I came to get the part. Guy McElwaine, I was his client. He had to talk and talk and talk to get me to do it and finally I did it. And he wouldn’t let up on it because he was so convinced I’d be right in it and I didn’t see myself in it at all. I didn’t gamble and I wasn’t interested. It would be like putting me in a hockey film. But he was so convincing and obviously I’m so glad I did it. But back to MASH… that was before anybody even knew what it was. I mean, nobody’d seen it then.
EG: I think Mike Nichols who you know very well was somewhat flummoxed because Catch-22 was supposed to be the picture.
GS: It was the demise of Catch-22.
EG: I only had very limited contact with Mike Nichols. He said to me, I grew up with improvising. I said, well, why don’t you do some in the movies? But then looking at Catch-22 now — it’s a flawed masterpiece. But itis something of a masterpiece.
GS: But Catch-22 was it. That was the war novel to beat all war novels. It caught that spirit of it all. And out comes MASH, which was informal. They had all the antic players in Catch-22, Alan Arkin and Bob Newhart. Wonderful. Marty Balsam. They had a great supporting cast. Everybody. But then came MASH.
EG: [Working on MASH] sometimes Bob would get flustered. We were fighting the clock and he has got to do it a certain way by a certain time otherwise you go into golden hours. And I remember the scene in MASH — and it was actually around that scene that Sylvester Stallone, who I’ve only met a couple of times, said he doesn’t admit that he was ever an extra in any movie but he admits that he was an extra in MASH. And when I told that to Bob he said, “No. I don’t accept that Sylvester Stallone was in my movie. I don’t accept it.”
EG: So that day we have a really complicated, delicate crane shot and we’re fighting time for lunch. And, you know, it’s all the surgeons are working triple shifts and we’re talking non-sequiturs and there was the script and then we go to lunch. We were at the Fox Ranch out in Malibu, and Bob said to me, “Why can’t you be like someone else?” And I had my lunch on a tray. And he pointed to Corey Fischer, you know, and said, “Why can’t you be like him?” Who was a part of The Committee, an improvisational group that Altman hired. And I shook my lunch, I threw it up and I said, “You motherfucker. I’m not gonna stick my neck out for you again. You know and I know where I come from. I know precision, I know repetition. You’ll tell me what you want and that’s what you’ll get.” And he said, “I think I’ve made a mistake.” I said, “I think so.” He said, “I apologize.” I said, “I accept.” And that’s when Paul Lewis the production manager for Getting Straight came out to meet with me for the movie which was my next picture. And Tarantino said it’s a part of his library. He’s got Getting Straight there.
KM: Yes, he loves that movie.
EG: Mike Nichols and, if I can take the liberty, Mike Nichols and I double-dated once with me and Barbra and Nichols and Zohra Lampert. The four of us.
GS: I was in a movie with her.
EG: Which one was that?
GS: Bye Bye Braverman.
EG: Oh, that’s right. That was wonderful. What a good picture.
JW: I had left New York before the Barbra thing.
EG: Just before, I was in the chorus. I was in Irma la Douce.
JW: Yes. And Elliott had written to me … You had written something to me that I remember. You wrote, there’s a girl in the show, she’s dynamite. She’s terrific, I’m falling in love with her. I said, oh good, my friend is involved with a girl. That’s good! I knew at the time, you had one schoolyard crush …
EG: Oh my God, I had crushes but, just like that, I couldn’t find myself. There was no one there to calm me. I told Ingmar [Bergman] about it, you know.
GS: What had Ingmar seen you in that got his attention?
EG: He had studied … but Getting Straight. He said, when he saw Getting Straight.
GS: I’ll be damned.
JW: Oh, so that’s how Ingmar Bergman came about?
EG: Yeah, also I was really hot. So, you know, I mean …
KM: What was it in Getting Straight that he responded to so much?
EG: He said it was a scene in Getting Straight — there was something where my character was in such a rage. There was just a rage in me. It would almost be like me facing the Tea Party right now, you know. There was just a rage and an insult and Ingmar said to me, “You showed great restraint in that scene.”
JW: Taking an American actor, that was a big deal at the time.
EG: Oh God, yeah, everybody in the universe was up for it. [For The Touch] I almost didn’t do it. I said, but how can I say no. You know, let’s see if I can …
KM: You almost said no? To Bergman?
EG: Well, here’s the deal. I was making a living for my family for the first time. And you know, and I didn’t understand anything. We had Begelman and them but they were in it for what they could get out of it. I didn’t know. I didn’t understand myself. I didn’t know anything about meaning. You know, if I could do something for my family but even then you get to the family. You’re more educated formally than the rest of us, George? Dartmouth, right?
EG: Columbia? I met somebody who was at Dartmouth. I have his card. I like to get it clear.
JW: I’ve got a few dollars on Columbia.
GS: Oh right, yeah.
EG: So that sort of worked out. But it was tough. Oh yeah, making a living. I don’t know how I’m gonna act with the best actors in the world with Bergman. I mean, Bergman didn’t write scripts like we do with indication of direction; it’s like a novella. I thought, oh my God, I can’t expose my ignorance to that, but I can’t say no. So they had him call me in the West Village. [Does Bergman voice] “Hellloooooo. Little Broooootherssssss.”
JW: What did he say?
EG: [Bergman voice] Liiitttttlle Brottttthhhherrrrrr.
JW: Little Brother?
EG: Little brother. He called me that. And so my hair stood up. And I thought, oh, I can trust me with him and him with me. It’s like I talk to a dog or a baby. And so I came. And, whoa, that was really interesting.
KM: You really liked him …
EG: I loved Ingmar. He showed me Fellini’s The White Sheik. He said with Fellini, there’s always music. Fellini will endure and survive. So, working on The Touch, we met in his office, read everything, I met with the whole team. And it was more than that. I’m doing this to see if I can work with the finest actors in the world, Max and Bibi. And then I had a week off so I went to Paris and that’s where Peckinpah wanted me to do Straw Dogs.
EG: Do you know this?
EG: Straw Dogs. And so he called me, I was at L’Hôtel in Paris and downstairs in the lobby on the phone Peckinpah said, Elliott. You do read between the lines, don’t you? And I said, Sam, I live between the lines. And until such time as I understand the lines it’s way too terrifying for me to think where I live. Now that I’ve started to learn how to work with this instrument, you know, where we can get ahead. Like how I said to Warren Beatty, we’re fucking elderly. Elderly, you know, we are elderly. But our spirit is not.
GS: Well what about Peckinpah?
EG: He just wanted me. But there was Danny Melnick, was, you know, and one of the reasons I didn’t do it is in terms of Jack Brodsky and David Begelman. Because Bobby Kaufman, you remember him? He said, “You’re a moneymaking machine.” And just doing so many things and I didn’t know how to stop. Because Altman also wanted me to do McCabe & Mrs. Miller. And I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it. I did I Love My Wife, which means a lot to us. Not the picture, but the concept.
EG: Oh my God, so that’s where Altman had said with McCabe: “You’re making the mistake of your life.” And I knew there were two reasons. One, I’m being pushed by the boys to do I Love My Wife. And I thought we all know I do. I’m married to Barbra at the time; there was no question about that. But they wanted me to do, at that time, “The Candy Man” in Gene Wilder’s production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And me in my putzdom said, “Yeah, I’ll do it, but I want to be Elliott Goldstein. Nobody knows Elliott Goldstein. Introduce me as Elliott Goldstein.” They said, “No, we want Elliott Gould. I said, well. So I didn’t do it.” In my career … there was a big, big logjam which had to do with business people who were here before I understood myself, I felt I couldn’t allow myself if I had the opportunity to be a slave to early success. I want to always continue to grow, you know. I’m very grateful.
But these are mistakes that you gotta make to find out where things are at … For me to be out here and to have to come into contact with people who are running the show, people who are in charge, I don’t know … that’s different. Because that’s how I got into so much trouble. But I had to crack the egg. I had to. I had to. I had to.
JW: No mistakes. It happened exactly — the only way it could happen is the way it happened.
EG: I agree, I agree to that too. I don’t disagree. You might say that that was gambling but gambling to come out here and not know what you are.
GS: It takes time to catch up to yourself. That’s what you said.
EG: So, the week I had off from going back to work with Bergman and when I had that conversation with Sam Peckinpah, I went to Sorrento, the Sorrento Film Festival for a screening of Getting Straight and they sat me next to George Stevens and I didn’t even realize I’m sitting right next to George Stevens. I win best picture. I beat out Jon Voight. I never expect to win anything. But that’s also what it’s not about, right? It’s not about winning, and so I realized, I’m sitting next to this guy where, I could just start to talk to him, we would have perhaps devised a picture.
KM: George Stevens’s last movie, it was a gambling picture. Strange movie I actually really like, The Only Game in Town with Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty.
EG: I know! Right, right. I don’t think the movie worked. Frank Gilroy wrote that. Oh, it’s so weird because Frank Gilroy wrote it and, we were friendly, it was a play first and I went in to read for the play and there was this speech and Willie Mays’s number, I’m sure it was number 24 and they didn’t have it right. And I said, “Listen you know, I understand, but Willie Mays’s number was 24 and not the number you have in the script.”
JW: They had Willie Mays as a different number in the script? They blew the number?
EG: Yeah …
JW: That’s like not having Jackie Robinson as 42. You don’t have his number wrong! I mean, I’ll be offended if you don’t have number 4, Duke Snider.
EG: And number one.
JW: Come on! You give him a bad number on that. Forget that.
EG: So, this guy Douglas Slocombe. You know Dougie?
GS: Cameraman, cameraman.
EG: Dougie … Douglas Slocombe … [mimics a stutter] talked like that. I used to call him Dougie-the-the-the-v-v-v-v-v-very-Slocombe, and, now he had shot Indiana Jones, he had shot Julia for Fred fucking Zinnemann, he had shot the sequences that Steven Spielberg shot in India for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A major, big-time cinematographer. And he says to me, “How did you escape?” And I said, “Well, first of all, I think you’re paying me a compliment so thank you. But there is no escape. No one escapes life. How I was able to endure and survive is that I hid in my worst fear, which was darkness. And even my beloved parents when they would project a conscious thought to me that was less than positive or divine I withdrew deeper into my worst fear. And I lived in darkness forever until I learned to see through it into the light.”
JW: Your parents could have been easily my parents.
EG: Our parents. But like when you said there are no mistakes. Just think about that then. Because it was necessary. I live with a picture of Sigmund Freud. I can analyze just about anything. I’m studying. I’m trying to get to know my father. My mother, she was extremely influential to say the least.
KM: There’s a lot of family here. It’s interesting that you had worked with George, Joseph, you grew up with Elliott, you know each other’s family and share mutual friends. And, Joseph you’ve talked about Butch Cavell who is in Invitation to a Gunfighter and he’s also in California Split.
JW: Yes, he is. He’s also one of the poker players.
KM: And so all of these people end up in the movie. Just all of these interconnections in life show up in that movie.
JW: Yes. It does interconnect.
I don’t care what people think! If I have a sense that I want to know what someone thinks, I will ask them. Otherwise, if I don’t ask, I don’t want to know. Everybody is their own character.
— Elliott Gould
Honoring the 40th anniversary of Robert Altman’s "California Split," I sat down with screenwriter Joseph Walsh and stars George Segal and Elliott Gould at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles to discuss the picture and much, much more. Forty years have passed since the film, but these guys have known each other for 50-plus years. Here continues part two of our conversation.
ELLIOTT GOULD: Do you know the original title, the first one that I knew, toCalifornia Split?
GEORGE SEGAL: No.
JOSEPH WALSH: The way that name came out was, Altman and I were down scouting all of Gardena and all of the card clubs, and wondering if we could build it ourselves because we couldn’t get the time from them — it would be four hours a day. And some gambler there asked us what we’re doing. And I said, “We’re going to do a gambling movie,” and he misunderstood because I said, “We’ll open with lowball rather than high,” and he says, “Oh. California Split, you mean?” And Altman and I looked at each other and … “California Split.” What do you think?” That’s high-low poker. That’s what it’s called out here. And that’s how it got its name. We had no idea if it was right or wrong. That just sounds good.
KIM MORGAN: And we talked about this in Telluride, but I’d like to repeat it, just in the history of the film in that it started — you worked with Spielberg before that …
JW: MGM bought it. I’ll give them credit. Danny Melnick and that team. Bought me producing it. Bought Steven directing it. Deal made. And then, of course the smiling cobra Jim Aubrey comes into it. Which you see, no accidents. How it evolves. Because I don’t know how they’re playing the roles then and how Altman directs it. I had lunch with Steven later, and he said, “Let’s talk about California Split” two and a half years after not doing it, right? And I said, “Okay.” Waiting … And he says, “You know. I would have definitely made more money with this film.” Beat. Beat. “But I could never have made a better picture.”
EG: Donald [Sutherland] and I came in to see Bob. You were in the office, Joey. You and Bob over there on Westwood Boulevard. And Donald and I were coming in. Nothing to do with Split … and Bob said to me, “There’s nothing in this picture for you.” And it sort of hurt my feelings because that’s not necessarily what consciously I was there for. You and Bob were there sitting in this office alone. I just was coming back with Donald because there was a pirate picture that Bob had in mind about two guys. So then, when McQueen couldn’t do it, then Bob called me and asked me if I would.
GS: Well, he talked to me about who was going to play the other guy. He had said words to this effect: “I worked with Elliott enough,” something like that. And he was going with Peter Falk.
GS: In my conversation. And then he called and he said, “I’m going with Elliott.”
EG: Oh really?
GS: Yeah. So it was like he was wrestling in his own mind about it. As if, “I don’t want to be associated with this guy with every fucking movie I make.”
EG: Yeah, he would say that to me sometimes.
KM: How did you feel about that?
JW: Probably hurt a little bit?
EG: No … I mean … Let me see, I mean, you can transcend that. The thought hurts. The feeling doesn’t hurt. You know? The feeling sometimes can be, it might be insulting if there’s any ego there, but there’s barely any ego here. Because when he called me I was in Munich doing another B movie with Trevor Howard. I was in Munich, and Bob said, “Would you play the other guy?” And I said, “What does Joey think? This is Joey’s picture. This is Joey’s life. “ And I said, “I’ll do anything you want me to do. But I have to know that it’s okay with Joey.” And he said, “It’s okay.” And I said, “Where’s Joey?” And he said, “Joey’s playing poker.” [To Joey] You were playing poker when he called me. And I said, “If it’s okay with Joey and this is what you want. My God, of course I would.”
JW: Yeah. And, of course, it was the reverse for me because him being the Bill Denny to my Charlie Waters in life, I couldn’t get it. I could see Elliott playing the George role, but I couldn’t see Elliott. When we were growing up, he was the reticent one and I was the one always getting in trouble. “C’mon. Don’t worry about it. You bet your money. Give me your 60 dollars out of your tap dance money. Don’t worry …”
EG: Yeah. My father’s car … oh my God! In Florida.
JW: I would overwhelm him with the reversal. But as Elliott said even before the picture began, it was one of his great lines. Elliott said, “Joey, what you’ve never understood is you have always been the Charlie and I’ve played the Bill to your Charlie for years, ever since we were kids. But to the rest of the world, I’m the crazy one.”
EG: I mean it. And even right now, it’s great for us. As far as the chemistry [goes] because I know how I work when I have the opportunity and I can be free. And I took freedom. Especially on Split, I knew it. Altman, I always had Altman in the crosshairs. Always. Because even with The Long Goodbye he told me he was afraid of me. That I would just go further than he might consider, but he trusted me and had confidence in me, even when I’m always in character.
JW: When George was set to do it, at that point, you were never really going to do it.
EG: Robert De Niro had been mentioned.
JW: Well, De Niro I brought in but, uh, Bob when it got to that point … he didn’t get De Niro at all. We couldn’t find the right combination to pitch the script. Back and forth, it went on for two months. I had seen Mean Streets. I saw it in the afternoon in the theater across the street from New World. I said, “I just saw some guy, this guy is ridiculously good. The guy could be a great Charlie.” And so Altman said, “Bring him in.” He came in. Bob tried to explain California Split and it was such … [laughing] my skin was crawling. The pitch was so bad. So I jumped right in front of Altman and I said, “Bob [De Niro], here’s California Split. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And of course his eyes were coming alive and that’s what it was.” But Bob explained it, [in ho-hum voice] “Well, it’s two guys. They gamble. Um, um, um …” My head was just going down.
GS: Well that means Bob didn’t want him. That’s a way of expressing he didn’t want him.
EG: What Bob said to me, and he didn’t say it very much, when he asked me to do it, he said, “Because I know, if I give you a nickel, you’ll stretch it more than anyone else would consider.” And I thought, conceptually that sounds interesting and good, you know. It’s almost like, thematically, I’ll stay alive and figure something out and keep it going and that’s sort of what it’s all about.
JW: Well, because Elliott would go … I never feared the one-armed piccolo player.
EG: [Exclaims] Oh my God!
KM: You almost didn’t do it. You were afraid to do that scene.
EG: Of course I was! And so then when we came to the day, and I trust, you know, and Altman says, “Let’s not do it.” I said, “No, let’s do it. Give me a chance. Joey wrote it. It means something to him. It means a lot to him and it’s funny, let me take a shot at it.” Altman was not going to do it.
JW: They didn’t let me know which was interesting because I thought it was a brilliant stroke of writing. This is the one thing I thought so hard about. “How do I get George to take control now?”
KM: Especially since he’s so angry with him [Elliott], you gotta do something to disarm him.
JW: That’s right. He’s been let down by his love, basically, in this film, and Elliott, not in a dream, he gets the reality. He has to stand on his own two feet. I knew it wasn’t about dialogue. And I kept writing it over and over again; I’d say, “Yeah … Oh … that’s terrible.” That’s not gonna bring George back. It’s gotta be physical. And I thought, “Oh, the one-armed piccolo player!”
EG: Oh, it’s great.
JW: When your friend is doing something this outrageous … so he never told me this. That they might not shoot it.
EG: Never told you what? That there was a question?
JW: You told me after it. But I didn’t know about this. He said to me later on, “We almost didn’t film the one-armed piccolo player.” And I said, “What?!” He said, “Altman came to me and said, no I don’t have to do it and I guess it was the thing with a movie star with a trick penis, I don’t know the thing. Maybe he didn’t want to do such a thing in the movies.”
KM: Well, that was kind of rare then …
JW: It never was in my mind! I thought, “It’s gonna work! It’s gonna work!” I said, how’s George? He’s so upset, he’s hawked his car, he’s hawked his things, he’s going to Reno and Elliott has disappointed him infinitely too much, right? It was your moment, and it’s a tough moment for George to play, and George plays it fabulous.
KM: Well, it’s always hard to laugh. To make that look real. But it had to be real, right?
GS: Well, I was really laughing.
EG: Well, we didn’t do it too many times. That was the thing with Bob.
JW: No, no. We only did it once or twice.
GS: I don’t remember doing it twice. I think we did it once.
KM: It seems like Altman had a nice balance where he would allow these great scripts and lines and then he’d allow improv and chance and then take risks too …
GS: Yes, he did. And I got along with him really well. He was a pleasure. It was fun to come in every day. It was like a party. It was so civilized back then. There were no long hours. It was relaxed. That’s why those movies from the ’70s were so good. We were all relaxed and enjoying what we were doing. They’ve taken that out of us now with the 20-minute lunches and the onerous long hours … it’s all different now. It’s all about money now. From the creative point of view, it’s different. It’s work. But it’s also fun to work so there’s that. I’d rather work than not work. But, those ’70s, what we’re talking about were transcendent. It was also, you were allowed to participate. You participated in the creation of the film — the directors encouraged that. That’s not what happens now. There’s Ben Affleck and George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino and they are having a good time and being so artistic and you can feel it in their work and it’s more like the 1970s with them. But they are calling the shots. And they are in their prime. Some wise person said, a movie star gets 10 years. Some, like Dustin Hoffman, are the exception and they get leading parts beyond those 10 years, but it seems to hold true most of the time, even when you look back into the ’30s. There were some like Spencer Tracy and others who came all the way through, but on average, about 10 years was about all you got. And those were also, always, your sexy, sexual years.
EG: I have a question. I have a question for you, George and Joey. When we were doing the film I believe there was a sequence of you, [George] in a car driving …
GS: That was down Wilshire, hitting all the lights.
EG: And why wasn’t that in the picture?
GS: I don’t know. It was brilliant. They had stuntmen at every light on Wilshire.
EG: You’re missing every light?
GS: And the wait for the red lights and I went through all the red lights and as we’re skidding because they were coming out of the side streets. They had a green light. Just risking it.
JW: And I wanted to do that because that was part of you leaving and him frustrated and the girls and all that so we took the risk and the craziness.
GS: That was great.
EG: I wanted to see that. The energy in that.
JW: No, but here’s what happened. We’re going to the scene with the light, George’s scene. He’s taking chances, he’s building something up. The anger, the upset that he’s been on this kind of string-along with a friend and it doesn’t seem like he has a friend out there. All of that stuff is building. So he runs all of these lights and he manages to go through every red light. And, at the end, it’s a very dramatic thing. George, you actually rip the antenna off of the car, which is symbolic of ripping himself off. Bob says to me at one point, and George can probably fill in this story because I always suspected George wanted that scene in. But, Bob said to me, “Don’t you think it’s overdramatic? Maybe that scene?” I said, “It’s pretty dramatic Bob. I understand that but I have a feeling that you might need this from this character.” But I wasn’t fighting hard for it because Bob made his points. And I thought, okay. Now, we’re going to leave it out. Okay. So then … here comes Mr. Begelman on the phone: “Oh, Jesus! You know, we’re hearing about this scene! Where’s this scene?” And Begelman’s pleading. “Put this scene in! C’mon. Put this scene in. We all like this scene where George runs the lights.” And Bob’s saying, “Eh … I don’t know.” And of course there’s the money. Bob’s saying, “It’s going to take money and time.” And they say, “Bob. We’ll pay it. Columbia will pay for it out of our pocket; we’ll pay the extra money. Put it on your budget, we’ll take care of it.”
EG: So what happened?
JW: Well, here’s what happened. Here’s what I learned. You force anything on Bob Altman. You don’t do that. You don’t force anything on Bob Altman. And I know because I saw the dailies of that scene. You guys never did see the dailies but I did watch the dailies of it. And let me tell you, it was as bad as a scene as you could see. I was like, “Bob. You don’t shoot like this.”
EG: He didn’t shoot it well?
JW: Oh, he didn’t shoot it well at all. He didn’t put any attention into anything. It was dead. Dead. Terrible. Dead. And Bob said, “You see? I told them. The scene stinks. It’s no good.” I didn’t want to get into it, but I was thinking, “Bob. You’ve sabotaged this scene. This scene could have been very dramatic. This is a scene Spielberg would have loved beyond everything. Give me a shot at this scene.” Steven later said to me, “You know when they go on the streak? That’s one gigantic orgasm. I would have made that 32 minutes of orgasm. You’d be on the edge of your seat by the time the two guy’s are at the finish with this.”
EG: [So to the ending of California Split.] As far as when Bob came up, he’d say, “We can finish the picture up here to save you time and money and not to go outside” [like in the original script], and that’s when we made up the ending.
JW: Well, the ending had been made up. It just happened. That’s vivid in my mind.
EG: Fine! One of us has a mind, that’s okay. [Laughing]
JW: I was a young producer at this point, so when Altman does something, and calls something: that’s the end of it. That’s it. I got how dynamic it was and how interesting it was, but I’m thinking, you know, as Elliott says, “There’s never any doubts.” See, I never had any doubt about that character. He would always take the best price he can so when, in my original script, when he yells out: “Charlie what are you going to do with your life?” And Elliott, for love, shuts the car door on him, takes him to the airport, makes sure he’s okay, and, again, George yells out, “What are you going to do with your life?” And Elliott says, “I’m gonna take the best price I can.”
EG: “I’m gonna take the best price I can!” Oh my God!
JW: And freeze-frame on him. So, had we filmed that ending that would have played also.
EG: Oh, sure, and with Phyllis singing …
JW: But back to the change. It’s vivid in my mind that scene and what happened. I can give you the dynamics of all the people. I’m close to the scene. Watching this unbelievable scene, the ending. And then Elliott [after changing it] runs over to me and says, “Joey. I’m sorry. I don’t know where that came from.” And I’m saying, “It’s okay Elliott. It’s interesting. It’s very interesting.” At that moment, now George comes and says, “It’s fantastic! It’s fantastic. This is it! I’ve never understood this movie before. I’ve never understood this movie before until now.” I said, “Great. George, I know. It’s very interesting.” Both of them are here, in this moment, right? And I’m thinking, “Okay. I know one thing: Don’t get carried away in the moment. We have it. We could shoot the other scene. We’ll have both.” And then …
KM: And Elliott, you spin the wheel … It’s just … it all fits.
EG: It’s so interesting how the three of us had that.
JW: And then Altman comes in, and George drove it at that moment I must tell you. George says, “Bob! You know we don’t have to go any further! This is it!” Bob is wavering and he’s listening to George at that point and I’m thinking, “Okay. I hope … let’s get both. Let’s get both.” And Bob said: “That’s it. Right. That’s it. It’s a wrap.” And he yelled out, “Wrap! Finish!” And Elliott and George, they completed that scene beautifully, I mean, fabulously, I mean there was never any more than that one take and that’s it, boy. And that was the moment that, flashing back, look at all these combinations.
EG: My father used to count stitches in the garment center. He was a buyer and he had a magnifying glass and part of his job was to count stitches to see how fine the material was. And so when Bob came to me and said, “Can we finish up here,” my mind was like, my father’s being a production manger and “Yes, we could.” But on MASH, the same thing happened where we had built this set and we’re near the end of the picture and it’s when Hawkeye and Trapper are going to go to Tokyo and that’s where we’re gonna play golf. And Bob said, “Let’s not. We don’t have to do that. Let’s not do it.” And I said, “But the sets are built, we’re all ready to do it, we’re all rehearsed, shoot it, and then see it, and then if you don’t like it or if it doesn’t work then don’t use it.” Because I feel I could have gotten him to do that. By playing that little game. But I don’t play that game. I could have …
JW: But interesting what happened. Only in Hollywood. The perfect story. Who got buried for that? For California Split? The young producer. Guy McElwaine calls me and says, “You are getting crippled at Columbia right now. They are saying, ‘You cost this film 10 million dollars.’ Right there.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” And he says, “The ending. By switching that ending, you cost that film 10 million dollars.” Because to them, and [to me] you loved the new ending, but to moviegoers at the time they loved these two guys. They loved them. So the idea that he was still protecting the future of George and you saw the future of the two of them, and to change it, they said, “You pulled the goddamned rug out on the audience.” They weren’t expecting it. I did notice that when we screened it at Tennessee and I went to different cities and every time, everybody was roaring with the movie, they loved it. Well, the ending came and everybody trudged out of the theater and nobody was talking to each other. We kept watching this over and over again. They don’t know what to say; they’re shocked with this ending. They were shocked. And they didn’t know what to do with it!
EG: Awww … [feels bad] I could hit myself over the head with this bottle.
JW: No, you can’t! Because [to me] she says it’s brilliant and there’s no question! Everyone loves it
KM: It is brilliant.
JW: And gamblers get it even more. Dick Shepard, who’s a closet gambler. He says to me, after the film, “Look Joey, I do this every week, on the QT. I go every week to Vegas and I gamble for a lot of money. It’s my outlet.
GS: Excuse me. He was married to one of the Louis B. Mayer granddaughters, Dick Shepard.
EG: He produced Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
GS: [Speaking very quietly and carefully] Dick Shepard, he would get out of bed, after his wife went to bed, and he would go to the airport and go to Vegas for four hours, take the flight back, and then get up.
JW: See, I didn’t know he ever told you that. I didn’t know the details. But he says, [whispers] “The ending of California Split, it’s so brilliant. That’s exactly right. It means nothing to me. What does it mean even when you win? I’ve always left with this empty feeling.”
GS: Then he was an executive at Warner Brothers.
EG: Yeah. He ran Warner Brothers. And then he became an agent again, and we were talking about that, and he said, “Why me?” and I said, “I don’t know anybody else! I know you.”
JW: Here’s the one I wanted to tell you. Why California Split goes down. This is again, young producer and even Altman didn’t even know this,California Split is carrying on. Every big city. It’s going for seven to eight weeks. It’s getting incredible reviews, right? Incredible reviews, everybody’s carrying on. So now we’re saying, “Okay. We’re gonna make some money out of this picture.” We’re really gonna make it. The picture is working all over the place. Runs eight, nine weeks, breaks records in New York. Now, it’s gonna open worldwide with all the theaters coming in, right? So now we go in, and suddenly … this is the true story why we got hurt on the picture and why it’s not been seen as much. Runs for a week taking tap out business in every theater around the country. One week later. It’s pulled in every theater around the country. And what is it replaced by? The Last Detail. Which opened in ’73, which they lost money with. And now they put in The Last Detail to get the money. Why did they do that? It’s because what we didn’t know was that Begeleman called us in the middle of California Split and said, “Guys, gotta do me a favor. I gotta sell half of California Split to Persky-Bright, it’s a tax shelter group. I need the money. I have no money, I need the money to do Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Which, by the way, was the first film that [David] Begelman ever greenlit — a gambling movie — California Split. Very interesting, right? That the guy who wrote Indecent Exposure he didn’t mentionCalifornia Split. I mean, talk about gambling. Think about what Begelman did with Cliff Robertson. But anyway, The Last Detail opened a year before and went down the tubes; we were selling out the first week. I’m frantic. I got conned again. I called Altman in Nashville. I said, “Bob, they sold the movie in every theater and they put in Jack Nicholson’s Last Detail. This is unbelievable! This is happening! And Bob said, “Well, get on the phone to them! Get on the phone with them. You’re the producer.” Right. Okay. Get on the phone, I get all the figures, I say, “Here it is. Every city. We’re selling out eight or nine weeks.” They say: “Settle down, Mr. Walsh!” I said, “Settle down, huh? What is this? I don’t know what you guys are trying to pull here but this is so wrong. And that’s how they dealt with California Split. It was a tax shelter group.
"Non-gamblers tend to look at gamblers like an amusing freak show. We tend to look at them like they barely exist. We match their interest in us, with disinterest in them. Sounds cold, but being a gambler and a wonderful person has its difficulties. Our concentration is so diverted. We barely know who we are half the time, and you want us to recognize our problem?"
— Joseph Walsh, "Gambler on the Loose"
Honoring the 40th anniversary of Robert Altman’s "California Split," I sat down with screenwriter Joseph Walsh and stars George Segal and Elliott Gould at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles to discuss the picture and much, much more. 40 years have passed since the film, but these guys have known each other for 50-plus years. Here continues part three of our conversation.
ELLIOTT GOULD: Bob had the 20 dollar gold piece that I gave him on Split, because I bought a gold piece for all of us.
JOSEPH WALSH: And you gave me one of your shoes from it. Laminated. And you gave the other shoe to Altman. You know the spectator shoes he wears through all of California Split? Elliott gave me the left shoe, all bronzed, and I still have it.
KIM MORGAN: May I get back to your performance, George? Because, again, you did not gamble, you didn’t know the world of gambling, and you said when you read the script it was kind of foreign to you.
GEORGE SEGAL: Yes, as I said, I had to get talked into it.
KM: So, you’re performing this as something as a fish out of water. What were you pulling from yourself to do this? You’re always on the outside. You are drawn into Elliott’s world, and yet you always remain an outsider. And you’re a darker character in that you really do reveal that you have a problem. By the end, it means nothing. It doesn’t make you happy, nothing.
GS: Well, that’s what I brought. I brought that. That discontent. I’m not competitive. Those guys who play poker, they really want to win. It’s not fun losing. It’s not fun winning. I enjoyed my foray into the world of poker, but I’m also happy to be out of it. There’s a feeling of loss. And trying to fill a void, which just makes a bigger void. But these three guys, these two guys, Joseph, Elliott, and Altman.
EG: These three guys! That’s pretty good!
GS: They kind of folded me in. They understood that. You don’t have to announce it to me, it’s quite clear. And Altman got that guy like me. Two weeks before took me around. Taught me gambling, taught me cards. All that stuff. It still didn’t sink in, but, as Elliott said, it was never really about gambling. It was about what was going on inside. And that was plenty because Altman creates an atmosphere where it frees you up and there’s no restrictions. We came from that school also.
JW: And so did Bob. And Bob was definitely a gambler. Oh my God.
EG: Well, you know, when we were doing Ocean’s Eleven, and this is my first experience with Soderbergh, and it’s 1:20 in the morning and we’ve got the whole gang there. Clooney, everyone. And I don’t like to get tired. If I’m tired I’m like an animal in the forest, I’m vulnerable. So I just know what I have to do, what my words are. And Soderbergh comes up to me and says, “The ink on the face. Was that an improvisation?” And it’s like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” And then I’m thinking, “Okay. Well, now wake up.” I think, “Oh yeah, The Long Goodbye. The Long Goodbye.” I said, “Yes, it was. Was that behavior okay for you?” He said, “Yeah, but it was totally unexpected.” And I said, “But that exhibited the kind of confidence and trust Altman had in me, because movies, it’s about time management and about money and time. Once I committed to it, I committed to it. It wasn’t in the script, when the police were roughing me up, putting the black under my eyes, and then we went even further and did Al Jolson. If I had stopped or had any fear, it would have cost us 25 or so minutes of production time. It’s trust.”
KM: George, on a side note, but very important one and so wonderful in the picture, I love when you sing “Rufus Rustus Johnson Brown.” It’s a charming and pertinent refrain in the movie, and I also loved that you wound up recording that with the great Harry Nilsson. How did that come about?
GS: He was the best. He has a sweet voice that just blows me away, and it’s completely without artifice. He just does it straight. He was a fan of mine, and he stopped by and, just like that, we sat down and played together. He had a Harpo coat on with all those inside pockets filled with Jack Daniels and stuff, and he was on his way to do a session with John Lennon, when John was here in LA. And then we bonded and we became good friends.
KM: That’s wonderful. You keep playing music too. In fact, you play with my doctor. [To Elliott and Joseph] We have the same doctor.
GS: That’s right! We do. Yes, I have played banjo with him. He’s a master musician. A great multi-instrumentalist. This is the first gig I’ve ever gotten through a doctor. [Laughs]
JW: Getting back to George’s thing, I wanted George because I knew he didn’t understand the gambling thing, the loss. So, I got Amarillo Slim, I got Sailor Roberts, Elliott and me, all of these people, all good players and two killers. And I put three other plays in with George. I told George you gotta play in this game because you should have the experience to lose and you’re up against murderers row. And it’s okay if you lose [a little] and play with your own money because I wanted George to experience that one moment when you lose. I wanted George to get the experience of it. How does the loss affect his ego? Does it affect him as a man? Is it the money? I wanted his feeling, like, he would come back after losing about 6,000 dollars saying, “Wow that was weird.” He was a little boy compared to these guys. I wanted whatever was going to affect him.
EG: I remember! That’s also very historic. I mean, that’s a bigger loss than any 6,000 dollars because as you’re telling this and, as a studio, we would never let you lose your own money. You know? That wouldn’t be right, but then, if it was, we’re going to give you the money back. It wouldn’t be the same feeling that you’re talking about.
JW: Yes, yes. I didn’t want him to get his money back. I wanted it to be real. And what happens? George wins all the money that night! So then, he gets no sense of this is what happens when you lose [laughs]. But George, of course, brilliantly understood. He played the loss, the loss of a friend, everything he lost. He didn’t need that. But I thought he needed it. But that’s George’s backfire because he wins the money that night. I couldn’t believe it. In a real poker game.
GS: But Amarillo Slim helped me. I felt really good about the connection I made with Amarillo Slim and how he’d nod to me with every hand. I guess he’s telepathic. That was a remarkable extrasensory type of thing — the bonding that we made across the table. I won because he was telling me what to do from across the table. He’d instruct me not to bet or to bet just by nodding his head. And how he knew what cards I had I have no idea. It was extraordinary.
KM: He did not want you to lose!
JW: Slim, by the way, greatest introduction to Amarillo Slim. Meet him the first day we’re in Reno. He comes down for breakfast. I say to Slim, “I’m gonna give you a bet, Slim, you can’t refuse. A keno game was about to start. “I’m gonna bet you 200 dollars right now, I’m gonna pick one number, and I’m gonna take even money [400 to 200], and without a hesitation he goes right into his pocket with his big bankroll that he used in the picture, but he always carried about 8,000 dollars in hundreds [on him] … and he said, “Okay, all right. Your funeral, son.” And I put the 200 dollars up, and I say, “Number nine.” First number that’s called is number nine. I take the 400 dollars, put it in my pocket. Slim looks at me and says, “You are one spooky bastard, son.”
JW: And then Slim says, “Okay. Next game? We’ll do it again?” And I say, “No Slim, you got one chance. I gave you one chance, and I gave you the best price. You lost.” And then he said, “Well then we’ll get along fine.”
EG: He was nice. I liked him.
KM: There’s that scene between you and George, where you play Sparky.
JW: That was quite a moment. That was quite a day.
KM: That changes the tenor of the film. Everything starts to get a little darker. Sadder. Scarier for George. And you showed up on crutches. And you really had sprained yourself but it makes the character …
JW: A little more dangerous? [Laughs] I had sprained my leg playing a basketball game. Don’t play ball after 25 years. They got me into some basketball game … a couple of agents … I called Bob that night and said, “Bob I can’t walk” and he said, “Use the crutch!”
KM: But Sparky is based on a real person.
EG: Oh my God, I knew Sparky.
JW: Yeah. Cocaine. Three lanes of traffic. He was also living at Liberace’s house.
KM: What? Liberace?
JW: He had bought it from Liberace, and he calls me — the guy was very sharp. Loved that I call him my bookmaker Sparky. “California Split is after me,” but he was a very dapper little guy. At the end, with the cocaine, he’s calling all tense [in clenched, nervous, angry voice]: “Joey! I got to get to the racetrack!” A guy who was once so smooth: “You gotta get me thousands of dollars!” I said, “I wish I had thousands of dollars. What are you talking about?” He says, “I can’t miss the third race! Get it from someone. Call people! Call! Call people!” I say, “I’m not calling. Stop it. Relax! I can’t get the money for you at the racetrack.” Same guy about two weeks later, crashed over on the 405, went through the barrier, crossed over two lanes, killed himself. I don’t know. He killed other people …
JW: Sparky and his whole thing. And that was that cocaine craze at the time. He was going nuts. My ex went up there with the kids, no less, and visited Sparky at his house when he was doing it, and I said, “I don’t know why you ever went up there.” Little dapper guy, that drug, doing it all day long … [makes sound] “scheeew …” [to George and Elliott] You remember that drug. It was around everybody. Everybody’s doing it. It was sociable, like drinking a Coca-Cola at the time in the ’70s, right? [Laughs] Everybody had a little vial.
KM: There were scenes inspired by your brother, Charlie, right?
JW: Yes. My brother Charlie who is still alive today, Ed, you know, who was my older brother, played the heavy in it, but Charlie is still the same. Perfect. Same fun loving …
EG: What a guy.
JW: Goes to the track, gambles, loves it.
KM: And the scene, the punch that Elliott takes in the bathroom, that was based on your brother Charlie, right?
JW: Based on Charlie. Jimmy Caan was there so that was actually authenticated. Jimmy Caan told me that story a long time ago. He says, “I’m with your brother in a bar and we get into a fight and your brother gets hit with a punch that’s unbelievable from this guy, a sneak punch. He says, “The most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.” Charlie’s nose is totally broken, blood gushing and all he’s saying on the way down is, “That was the greatest punch I’ve ever been hit with. Jesus, what a punch. Perfect. Oh, my god.” And the guy is saying, “Get out of here.” And [Charlie’s] saying, “Ah no, no, no … I said it’s the perfect punch, but you’re not going anywhere. I’ll be up on my feet in a second.” And so I knew that’s the scene I wanted to play … the same Charlie Walsh who, when he made a big score at the track gets held up, and he gives him half the money, and he did that exact scene [from the movie] … Some guy at the racetrack held him up, and he said, “No. Fuck this. Take half the money now get out of here you fucking bum.” And that’s exactly my brother because he would never be able to handle that. “I’m not gonna give it to you! Get outta here. Shoot me now. Go ahead, take the 700 dollars.” So, yeah, I used everything I could think of to put into the characters so I had the sense memory, and those kind of things always stuck with me. And so it worked great, both those scenes. By the way [to Elliott], you told me that Altman wanted to cancel that fight scene in the bathroom, with Ed.
EG: No. I didn’t know about that.
JW: Maybe Ed told me. Oh yeah, Ed told me. I was at the track at the time. Ed said we’re not getting it. I said, I knew it because Altman is afraid. Because of The Long Goodbye, he got hit with terrible press for smashing that girl in the face. Everybody said that’s probably the ugliest scene they’ve ever saw in a movie, that scene with Mark Rydell.
EG: Maybe Ed was someplace close to the moment because there was never a question, that scene. That scene was really important. Oh, it’s so funny. What does he say when the guys come in …?
JW: Oh, yeah, call an ambulance, a man lost a race. Tried to kill himself.
KM: [To George] The seven dwarves riff … you started that …
GS: I had an idea. It turns out I was wrong. The idea was, I’m gonna bet that I can name the seven dwarves but …
EG: Like a Gatling gun!
GS: … And then, not be able to. And see where that would go.
JW: And then Elliott with Dumbo.
EG: Not in that cast. Dumbo wasn’t in that cast?
KM: The improvisation continues through the entire film … with the elephant.
EG: Oh sure …
JW: When Elliott rubs the trunk. That was a continuation of what you guys created. Yeah, I wrote almost all the scenes in the movie including all the interior scenes. But the one scene that happens to be my favorite scene in the move, the seven dwarves, I didn’t write it! I said in Telluride, that one scene was my favorite scene, and I didn’t write it!
EG: Yeah, but it’s so the spirit of your script … I remember when Joey first went out to California and a few of us, didn’t we chip in a few dollars to help you get out?
JW: Yeah, I think you did.
EG: And then I got a letter from Joey saying, “It’s really tough out here. It’s really tough to get work. I’ll tell you how tough it is: it’s so tough out here that Bambi is having to do The Yearling.”
KM: The actresses in the movie. They were so unique and lovely. How was it working with them, Gwen Welles and Ann Prentiss?
EG: Oh, it was great.
KM: And they have their own comedic camaraderie too.
GS: Yeah, yes!
KM: And I love that the movie never judges what they do. That they’re prostitutes. They’re human beings and they’re actually really charming and funny too. Which is rare for a movie even now.
JW: Split has no judgment. That was key for me. No judgment.
EG: Ohhh, it’s so sweet! And then there’s Helen Gurley Brown …
KM: Helen Gurly Brown! That scene! You don’t mock her. You call her a classy lady. You flatter her. You’re so nice to her!
EG: [Laughing] Oh yeah … That’s how he is. You’re a very attractive woman. My mother used to wear hats like that … and he was so great.
GS: We loved it. We loved the actor, Burt Remsen.
JW: Burt Remsen … who I told you only came to one thing. He walked in the office. We were trying to think of who was going to play Helen Gurley Brown. No accidents? Burt walks in that day, and we both [Altman and I], one of us looks at each other and — “You thinking what I’m thinking? Why not?”
KM: And he had taken some time off before this because of an injury, correct?
JW: Yeah, it was terrible. That crane fell on him. But his thing was great. We gave him the role right away — we said you can do it. He comes in, he wants to talk to us, and he’s very serious. “What is it, Burt?” He said, “I know you want me to do Helen Gurley Brown, but I’ve got to have a little stipulation here. I hate to put the pressure on you guys and I hate to make a foul play here, but, I’m serious now. I got to be as pretty as I can be. “ And we said, “Absolutely Burt. Elegant. We’re gonna make you elegant.” And he said, “That’s important to me. I can’t be some stupid-looking woman. I want to be pretty.”
EG: That’s so sweet. Because we hardly ever really talked about it, and, I mean, as far as the whole journey of this, George was always in, you were always in, and then from me I feel so fortunate to have been there to be able to play his heart. To play that guy and then to play it with you, which was so interesting because I know it wasn’t a matter of making things easy or difficult, but I have to go with my foot on the accelerator almost every moment but I’m always there for you. Always.
JW: And they were both so unafraid. You know.
KM: I think the reason I love it so much, and a lot of young people so much, all ages love it, because you’re not acting like, I guess how upstanding adults should act, but at the same time, you ARE men. It’s different from current indie movies and, maybe, bromance comedies today, it’s so much more complex and real and still larger than life … and you’re real men. You’re not boys. And I love that you live with those two women.
EG: Through two women?
KM: You live with two women.
EG: Oh, you live with two women. I thought at first you said, through women. Interesting …
KM: You live with those women. You sympathize with those women. You know their lives are tough but you also don’t condescend to them.
EG: No! We don’t. Are you kidding?
KM: And, George, your character really doesn’t either. You’re more curious or maybe baffled. And it’s so sad and funny when you try to romance beautiful Gwen Welles.
KM: At the same time it’s really funny and charming that they’re looking for the TV guide at that moment. Which is rude, I guess, but they don’t really mean it that way … Because she really did like you, George.
GS: She really did. But there was no second act with her. There was nowhere to go.
EG: That scene. I remember that robe that Charlie had; it was a robe I think I got it at Turnbull & Asser, and when she’s in bed and he’s smoking and you, Joey, give me an opportunity with the whale and the cigarette. Oh, you know, and she’s saying you’re saying this to make me feel good. I wound up giving that robe to Jennifer O’Neill. [Laughs] I thought that was the least I could do since I couldn’t marry her.
JW: Has anyone had a cigarette in his mouth better in that scene?
EG: Ahh … you let me do it! It was her! It was her, and it gives him an opportunity to be a little bit of Belmondo. What brings it out is this amazing young woman.
KM: Speaking of great leading men like Belmondo. Some of the leading men, you worked with, we’ve talked about many with Elliott and George. Joey, you with both Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum in Anzio, two of my favorite actors of all time. And then, of course you guys yourself are icons. I don’t want to butter you up but …
EG: [Sighs and leans on Kim] Ahhhh …
JW: I have some great Mitchum stories. I’d play poker; I have no money at the time. I was making 1,000 dollars a week to be in this picture. By the fourth or fifth day, Mitchum adopted me. He said to me that night, he said, “I watch you every day and you son, are fucking double tough. Fuckin-A. You’re double tough, kid.”
EG: Double tough is great.
JW: Here’s a great story with Mitchum. He loves me, right? So he says, “Kid, what are you doing after this?” And I say, “I don’t know. I’ll be slumming for a job.” And he says, “I’m gonna try to get you in El Dorado.” He was trying to get me Jimmy Caan’s role.
EG: Right. Good part.
JW: Yes! Great part.
EG: I would have loved to have seen you in that.
JW: Anyway, Bob goes out on a limb and so after a while, I’m learning by myself and I’m thinking, he’s a big movie star. So I start to lose confidence and I become self-conscious. What am I gonna do, follow Robert Mitchum every day? He’s gotta do his own work. So he calls next New Year’s Eve, for his party … and finally, I don’t call him anymore. Right? I don’t even get back after a while. Elliott’s now doing a picture with him and finally you’re on location, he’s down there.
EG: Yeah. I was with him all week.
JW: I had just gotten involved with EST [Erhard Seminars Training] at the time. And I’m like, Jesus, Mitchum is right here, he comes out of his trailer, and I say, “Bob! Great to see you!” And he says, “Why didn’t you call me?” And he’s pulling me in.
EG: He was having grass. He would give us lunch every day on the set, and a little grass …
JW: But so I go into this dressing room and now the fear of being confronted by EST. I say, “Bob, I gotta go. I will call you.” And he’s looking at me and I’m trying to explain myself but he’s never heard of EST and he says, “What?” I say this thing. I can’t be late. It’s almost the stupidest thing you ever heard, right? And it goes on and on and that was it. Somehow, I hurt his heart. Somehow, because when I visited him on the set of Matilda, a man who practically adopted me, I went over to Bob and he said [casually, like he doesn’t really know me] “Hi.”
EG: Oh no!
JW: He said, “Hi.”
EG: Oh no …
JW: He said “Hi, Joey” and I walked away.
EG: Oh no, that was a total misunderstanding!
JW: Oh, it was a total misunderstanding.
KM: That’s sad.
KM: George, you must have so many stories. Elizabeth Taylor …
GS: Well, yes. So we’re on our third day of Virginia Woolf. And our producer, Ernest Lehman was a notorious tightwad.
EG: Ernie Lehman? He was a tightwad?
GS: Oh my God.
EG: But he was like a friend!
JW: A tight friend.
GS: So we’re standing around and Elizabeth says, “I haven’t gotten a gift. Usually I get a gift.” And she says, “You see this ring? It’s an emerald.” A huge green ring. She says, “You see this? Ray Stark gave me this ring forNight of the Iguana and I wasn’t even in that movie.” So, the next day she got a big broach from Ernie Lehman.
JW: Did you get her some flowers?
EG: You know my story with Ava Gardner, right?
KM: Nooo …
JW: Recall that one again.
EG: When Barbra and I were living at 32nd Park West, and one night, however it happened, Ava Gardner and George C. Scott came to visit us. And he was so drunk and they were together and they had done The Bible with John Huston and so there was just the four of us sitting there and Ava Gardner says, we’ve got to get back to the Regency Hotel, a friend of mine is there, why don’t you come with us? So, we did. We went back to the Regency Hotel and after a little while there was a knock on the door and it was Frank Sinatra with his hat on, and the coat over his shoulder. It was Frank Sinatra like that, out of one of his albums. They were friends for life.
GS: Here’s a little thing. Begelman and Richard Benjamin and Mel Brooks are all in Begelman’s office because Begelman was the head of MGM at the time and they’re discussing the release of My Favorite Year, which Benjamin directed, and Mel Brooks produced. So, Begelman sneezes and Begelman says, “I really get off on sneezing.” And Mel Brooks says, “Wait till you come, you’ll dance around the room like an Indian!”
EG: Oh Mel, he’s a great guy.
JW: Back to Robert Mitchum — Mitchum’s thing, his philosophy. Big hill in Anzio, right? Running down a hill. Bob’s got to run down this hill. And it’s a long shot from about a thousand miles away. And I say to him, he’s a big movie star, and I say, “Bob? Why would they ask you to do that? The camera is two miles away, running down this ragged, jagged thing.” And he says, “Because they’re fucking stupid, Joey.” And I say, “But why do you think you’ll do it, Bob?” And he said, “Because they’re fucking stupid I’m gonna run down that fucking hill, fuckin-a, jack, and if I fracture my ankle or something, they’re fucking out of luck so fuckin-a man. I am doing this. Proving their stupidity.”
JW: Classic line, Bob Mitchum says to Peter Falk who’s in Anzio. We’re going to the scene across a minefield, he never talks in this movie that I could see at all, never to Peter Falk. Peter Falk, I’ve known him for a thousand years, I talk to him all the time. In the middle of the scene, I’m here, Mitchum’s here, Falk is here, Mitchum turns around to Peter Falk and says, “Do you eat mice?”
EG: Do you eat what? Mice?
JW: “Do you eat mice?” That’s the only time he’d talk to Peter Falk. And then later, Peter says to me, “What the fuck? Do I eat mice? What is that about? The man never says a fucking word to me and he asks, ‘Do you eat mice?’” I never knew what Bob meant. I should have asked him.
EG: Reni Santoni … I visit him occasionally and he sends his love to you. He’s talented. He’s quite talented.
JW: Reni. From Anzio.
EG: He said you took him to school for poker. That you actually took him to school for poker.
JW: I took them all to school for poker. That’s why Mitchum called me “Double Tough.”
EG: That’s who you are.
KM: George, you only worked with Altman once. Did you want to again?
GS: Yes. As a matter of fact, he called me down to be in Nashville. Elliott was in it. He cut me out. Oh sure, I would have worked with him any time, ever. He was so great … I love that kid — who I was back then. I’m always amazed to be there at all. But that, even now, that never wanes. It’s always the first day of school when I work. I love it. I don’t know if it’s going to be there tomorrow. I’m always amazed I’m there. That I’m here. That always keeps it fresh for me.
EG: When Arthur Laurents called me shortly before he died — he was a very smart guy — he said to me, “How have you survived? How could you still be as good as you are? After everything you’ve been through?” And I said, “I don’t think that way, you know? Thanks for the compliment,” but my response is that simply, my mother never gave up. I have no choice. In terms of my father, and that little beat in there, “Do you think I can?” No? You gotta let the audience know that you’re not finished, that so long that one of us is living, I’ll come back around. I will come back around. And it works that way. Life is a reciprocal thing. It’s like a tide in an ocean. But it’s great after 40 years, what we’re talking about here is still vital. It’s still vital. It’s really great.