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George Segal - An Obituary

George Segal – Actor

Born February 13, 1934; died March 23, 2021 


George Segal, who has died aged 87, was an actor who rode a wave of grown up comedies during  the 1970s, when Hollywood was exploring some of the new freedoms opened up the decade before. Segal evoked the amorous ambitions of assorted hapless but usually well intentioned roués at odds with their lot. He did this with an understated twinkly-eyed dryness as he sparred gently with a role call of actresses who similarly defined their era. 


He starred with Barbra Streisand in The Owl and the Pussycat (1970); played a suburban bank robber alongside Jane Fonda in Fun with Dick and Jane (1977); and – magnificently – played opposite Glenda Jackson in A Touch of Class (1973). Out of this came a kind of post me-generation focus on romantic shenanigans that took screwball comedy into more intimate areas.


Segal first came to prominence for his Oscar nominated turn in Mike Nichols’ big screen version of Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Segal played Nick, the young university professor who, with his wife Honey, played by Sandy Dennis, are invited back to the home of George and Martha. As played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the older couple proceed to tear emotional chunks out of each other. More than mere spectators, Segal and Dennis held their own with their co-stars histrionics, with Segal producing a nuanced study of  a man caught in the crossfire of someone else’s domestic war.


In sharp contrast to the over-riding seriousness of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Segal released The Yama Yama Man (1967), his first of three albums as a banjo player. Playing the instrument became his party piece on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He also played and sang on The Smothers Brothers TV show, joining his  hosts for a version of Phil Ochs’s Draft Dodger Rag.


Segal had his own mid life crisis as Hollywood forsook subtlety for the blockbuster era, but had a second wind on TV. He embraced his elder statesman status in a series of roles that culminated in his long running appearance as eccentric but lovable grandfather, Albert ‘Pops’ Solomon, in hit sitcom, The Goldbergs (2013-2021). As a last hurrah, it couldn’t have been bettered.


George Segal Jr. was born in New York City, the youngest of four children to Fannie (nee Bodkin) and George Segal Sr, a malt and hop agent. He grew up in Great Neck, Long Island, and was educated at a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania. He first became interested in acting aged nine after seeing Alan Ladd in 1942 film noir, This Gun For Hire. Segal also started playing banjo at a young age. He initially began with a ukulele before realising he was unlikely to play in a band with such an instrument.


 He attended Haverford College, Pennsylvania and Columbia University, where he played in a Dixieland jazz band before graduating with a BA in performing arts and drama. Following a stint in the army, Segal studied at the Actors Studio, and understudied Jason Robards in an off Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s play, The Iceman Cometh.


Segal made his film debut in The Young Doctors (1961), and played numerous small roles on film and TV before coming into his own as a self-centred painter alongside Vivien Leigh and Lee Marvin in Stanley Kramer’s film, Ship of Fools (1965). He played the title role in Bryan Forbes’ King Rat (1965), as a prisoner of war held in a Japanese camp, and another lead in the Harold Pinter scripted spy thriller, The Quiller Memorandum (1966). On TV, he played Biff in Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman (1966), opposite Lee J. Cobb; and George in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1968).


A lead role in Sidney Lumet’s Bye Bye Braverman (1968) continued a golden streak that ran across much of the next decade, beginning with Loving (1970), as an adulterous cartoonist married to Eva Marie Saint; a hairdresser junkie in Born to Win (1971) with Karen Black; and a card shark opposite Goldie Hawn in The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976). Things only stalled when Segal walked out of Blake Edwards’ film, 10 (1979), citing the undue influence of co-star and Edwards’ wife, Julie Andrews. Edwards sued, replacing Segal with Dudley Moore for what turned out to be a huge hit.


Segal kept busy with the likes of comedy drama Carbon Copy (1981), and Look Who’s Talking (1989), but started to shine more in regular roles on TV, from Take Five (1987) and Murphy’s Law (1988-1989) to a lengthy tenure in Just Shoot Me! (1997-2003) prior to The Goldbergs.


Segal released two more records; A Touch of Ragtime (1974) with The Imperial Jazz Band; and Basin Street (1987), released under the name Canadian Brass with George Segal. On stage, there were Broadway and London runs of French writer Yasmina Reza’s smash hit ensemble comedy, Art.


Segal filmed several episodes of The Goldbergs yet to be broadcast. Prior to this, he lent his voice to an animated parody of his breakout role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in a 2018 episode of the Simpsons.


He is survived by his third wife, Sonia Greenbaum, and two daughters, Polly and Elizabeth, from his first marriage to Marion Freed. His second wife, Linda Rogoff, predeceased him in 1996.

The Herald, April 2nd 2021




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