'Vanity and ego is horrible'

From M*A*S*H to his marriage to Barbara Streisand, Elliott Gould recalls a VERY colourful career
Elliott Gould opens the door of the modest two-bedroom Los Angeles apartment where he lives alone, says hello in that unmistakable voice and, with his 6ft 3in frame towering above me, envelops me in a bear hug. I haven’t seen him in several months and he looks in fine form, due in part to his careful diet of organic food and daily 7am gym routines. He used to keep a trampoline by his front door but eventually abandoned it in favour of more structured movements.

There’s something of an oversized teddy bear about Elliott Gould. He has an infectious, endearing smile and can be funny and entertaining when he’s not philosophising or pondering the meaning of life. I’m wondering which side of him I’ll encounter today.

‘Would you like some tea?’ he asks. Sounds good, I answer, and he rummages around in his cupboard for some herbal tea. ‘This will work,’ he says, holding up a box of chai tea bags. ‘And it’s decaffeinated. Perfect.’

A water stand emits instant cold or hot water and he fills two mugs (he got it wrong once and filled a mug of tea with cold water), bringing them over to the armchairs on one side of his living room. The other side is dominated by a huge antique desk piled with papers, CDs and scripts. And glass jars filled with sharpened pencils.

‘Before we do anything else,’ he says, going over to his stereo unit and ripping open a wrapped CD, ‘you have to listen to this. It’s Jason and I know you’re going to love it.’

Jason is his son from his marriage to Barbra Streisand (1963-1971). Elliott dotes on his first-born, now a 47-year-old, and is fiercely proud of his achievements, from acting, directing, writing music and singing, to pottery and managing some of his mother’s business affairs. All around the room, mingled with symbols of Judaica, are Jason mementos: a series of pottery items, a massive letter ‘J’ hanging on the wall. And lots of photographs.

After much persuasion from both parents, Jason has now recorded some solo items, which Elliott plays for me. His rendering of my favourite Johnny Mathis song, Misty, is exquisite. Haunting and soulful, it’s different from any arrangement I’ve heard before. Then there’s his version of Nature Boy, Nat King Cole’s classic. Jason’s rendition is powerful and moving. His father leans back in his chair, eyes closed. His pride is palpable.

Nothing means more to Elliott than family: both of them. One is his second wife, Jenny Bogart (divorced twice, they now live apart) and their children, Molly and Sam. The other is first wife, Barbra, and their son, Jason. These days, the couple talk often and have frequent dinners together with Jason.

‘Barbra has said she knows that no one would love or could love our son like me,’ Elliott shares. ‘And I’ll always be here. I’m devoted to us.’ Elliot-Gould-00-Quote01-590

To us? Meaning Barbra? Elliott shrugs. ‘To us, whoever we may be. It’s taken me so long to understand things, to really get here in balance. I don’t care what anybody thinks. I love Barbra. And Jason. And the rest of the family: Jenny, Molly and Sam and my grandchildren – every one of us. Barbra is a wonderful person. I have tremendous admiration for her. And she’s a fine mother to our son.’ He loves what he does for a living – ‘The work is the life; it’s how I learned about the world’ – but these days, unlike in earlier times when he mismanaged his business aff airs, he also regards acting as a necessity. ‘We need me and want me to continue to work to generate the resources for the family, and I have this opportunity now to continue to shovel coal into the furnace.’

Opportunity he certainly has. Having proved himself to be the comeback kid several times throughout his career, 75-year-old Gould is currently in demand. Last year’s hugely successful American detective drama, Ray Donovan, which joined him with Liev Schreiber and his close friend Jon Voight, is currently shooting a second season. He also is starring in Mulaney, Fox’s new comedy series, written by comedy great John Mulaney, in which he plays ‘a very flamboyant gay man’.

Does it ever get confusing, I wonder, working on two shows at the same time? ‘Not at all!’ Elliott is quick to reply. ‘They’re each very diff erent and I love them both.’

He’s just come home from a long filming session of Ray Donovan. Of his role as a high-powered lawyer, he says, ‘Everyone is so nice to me. They embrace me and forgive my imperfections.’

What imperfections, I’m about to ask, but I’m not quick enough. He’s already raced on to another subject. Gould’s loquacious stream of consciousness takes one all over the place. That’s one of the interesting things about him. He keeps you on your toes. You have to be prepared to follow him as he seemingly randomly moves from one tangent to another, yet in his head, always connecting the dots. The challenge is to follow and understand those connections. Sometimes they appear too dense to comprehend, but there’s always a lucid reason behind his thought patterns – even if it’s not always apparent.

It was these formidable mental athletics that caused Robert Altman – one of the directors of M*A*S*H – to say that although Elliott was ‘a genius’, he was totally misunderstood by pretty much everybody and would probably be destroyed for it. Altman was ultimately proved right. There were many who dismissed Gould as crazy, largely because of his close relationship with pot, when he was often described as ‘freaking out’. MASH-NEW-590Elliott and Jo Ann Pflug in M*A*S*H
After a wonderful start in the 1960s and after M*A*S*H, there were a few fi lms that were far from box-offi ce hits. But then Robert Altman cast him in his adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s noir thriller, The Long Goodbye.

Still saddled with a pejorative image by a wary industry, however, before Elliott could embark on the trailblazing role of detective Philip Marlowe, he was forced to undergo a humiliating psychiatric evaluation to determine his sanity. ‘And then they put 19 needles in my head to see if I was sane!’

Apparently the needles, together with almost seven years in therapy, worked, and Gould went on to give one of the fi nest performances of his career, light years removed from the earlier Marlowes of Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum. He attributes that to Altman, who ‘gave me more space than any other director’. The film resuscitated his ailing career.

He interrupts his reverie to ask if I’d like an apple. I decline. ‘Well then, share half an apple with me,’ he offers. I thank him but don’t fancy it right now. This comes as no surprise. There has always been something of the Yiddishe mama in Elliott. Hospitality, concern for and caring about others, is paramount.

Looking back at his career, I venture that it seems as if most of it has been lived on a roller coaster. Elliott doesn’t disagree; he was a tense child – ‘I was very withdrawn, very shy and inhibited’ – largely because he knew his parents had a dysfunctional, loveless marriage, which eventually ended in divorce. His mother put him in a special school at the age of eight to learn elocution and to help him relax; instead, he learnt to sing and dance. He also did a stint as a model, but that dried up when he turned 12 and was no longer quite so photographically endearing.

‘I thought he liked it,’ his mother recalled years later, ‘but maybe it took too much out of him emotionally’, so she enrolled him in acting school. Which for a while was agonising because he was terrified of being judged. In the summer holidays, he performed in the resorts of upstate New York, home to many revered comedians, and eventually was cast in a show at Woodstock, prior to its Broadway run. Then, when he was 18, ‘pretending to be the agent of a kid named Elliott Gould’ (he was and still is a great impersonator and mimic) he landed an audition for a new production called Rumple, and got a part in the chorus for his fi rst Broadway show, following that with another chorus stint in Irma La Douce.

There were other roles before he won the lead in the musical I Can Get It For You Wholesale, in 1962. Before long, he had also won the leading lady, Barbra Streisand. Elliott had always been very shy with girls; Barbra was his first lover and he fell head over heels. He moved into her small flat over a seafood restaurant and little more than a year later they were married.

‘Marriage to Barbra was a fantastic experience,’ Gould has said. ‘It had a lot of chocolate soufflé and things like that, but it was also like a bath of lava.’

While Barbra’s career soared after winning over Broadway with Funny Girl, Elliott’s was slower to leave the runway. But in 1969 he took the role of the swinging philanderer in Paul Mazursky’s sex comedy, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and won himself an Academy Award nomination. Right after that came M*A*S*H, and a new-found friendship, which endures to this day, with Donald Sutherland – ‘he says we’re brothers; we’re bonded, and for me that’s forever’.

His role in M*A*S*H made him an overnight antiestablishment hero, which was enhanced when he played a radical graduate student in Getting Straight. Elliot-Gould-00-Quote02-590

He was riding high, but then came his downfall – on his own production of A Glimpse Of Tiger. Amid tales of his pot habit (‘I never had a drug problem; I had a problem with reality’) and wild behaviour, he reportedly proved so difficult, walking off the project, that the film was shut down after just four days. Gould says he wasn’t being difficult, he was just trying to make his voice heard by people who wouldn’t listen. Either way, he had to pay back the whopping production costs – almost half a million dollars – to Warner Brothers. (Ironically, a revamped version of the fi lm was made a few years later as What’s Up Doc? with Barbra Streisand in the role originally intended for her ex-husband, when the leading character was changed from a man to a woman.)

He didn’t work for two years, until he was cast in The Long Goodbye. Then he was slowly up and running again. A later recurring role on the hugely popular TV show Friends ensured he was back in demand and he won new audiences and plaudits in the Ocean’s Eleven film series. Recently, Gould has averaged three to four movies a year, with television shows taking up much of the rest of his time, and in 2012 he made seven films and one TV series. Acting is important to him but not for the purpose of satisfying his subdued ego: ‘Vanity and ego is horrible.’

This man is that rare individual who is all about humility and modesty. Ask him why he became an actor and he’ll say it was a way of expressing himself in a world that was alien to him. It was also a way of making his world feel more secure. ‘There was a deep dysfunction within my family and I had to act my way through it,’ he explains.

And then he’s gone again, already off in another space and time.

‘I’m fed up with people saying there are only two things you have to do in life – pay taxes and die,’ he refl ects. ‘All you gotta do is live. That’s all. I love life. Life is nature and we have to learn from it and take care of it and adapt to it. And accept the unacceptable. I’m learning a lot and I understand so much more now than I used to. It’s a privilege just to know. But I believe the greatest privilege is to be conceived, born and to know yourself. Everything else will follow.

‘We’re at war with ignorance, desperation and fear. I could not have dreamed that one like me, Elliott Goldstein from 6801 Bay Parkway, Brooklyn 4, New York, could get to the front and participate and contribute – and I’m there.’

Before I leave, Elliott shares a fi nal rumination. ‘I’m understanding just about all of it now; it’s about evolution to me. We must be able to age and we must also be able ultimately to pass on with joy. My beloved soul daughter, Molly, said to me when she was four years old, “It doesn’t matter how long you live, so long as you know you’re living.”

‘And learning,’ he adds, smiling knowingly. ‘And that just about sums it all up.’