Elliott Gould doesn’t like the phrase “larger than life.”
“Nothing is larger than life,” the Hollywood legend says during a phone interview. And yet it’s hard not to get that impression while talking with the veteran actor.
Gould has acted in some of the major cinematic touchstones of his era and collaborated with just about everyone. He’s gone from leading man to character actor and survived career highs and lows. And, oh yeah, he was married to one of the most iconic singers in American history.
Gould is in Olympia this weekend to raise funds for the Olympia Film Society’s digital cinema campaign. OFS is in the midst of a drive to convert its Capitol Theater projector from film to digital. Gould will appear with Denise Crosby, his co-star on the Showtime drama “Ray Donovan.”
But, Gould insists, he’s coming for the apples.
“I love your state. You have good apples up there. I could end up moving there.”
Gould often lends his celebrity to good causes while simultaneously disdaining the culture of fame. “My take on celebrity is that some of us have to make a bigger fool of ourselves than others,” he says.
Gould is unfailingly polite, non-linear in his conversation and rails against the trap of the ego. He’s as likely to drop a Hollywood anecdote as he is to talk about an experience with nature, recite Hamlet’s soliloquy or give a shout out to a relative.
“I have cousins in Tacoma. Say hello to the Schoengold family and tell them I’ll be up there.”
On Saturday, Gould will screen the 1970 Robert Altman classic “M.A.S.H.” at the Capitol Theater. Gould played Trapper John McIntyre in the film that was later made into a long running TV series starring Alan Alda.
Like Gould, Altman was just beginning his film career. The director later became known for the improvisational style of directing that he used on “M.A.S.H.”
Gould says Altman let him cast himself in the picture – but after he was offered the part of Duke Forrest that eventually went to Tom Skerritt.
“I said to Bob, ‘I’ve never questioned an offer because all I want to do is work, but I’ll drive myself crazy validating me as an American Southerner. I can do it, but this character of Trapper John McIntyre – if you haven’t cast it, I have what it wants. I’ve got the juice, I’ve got the heart, I’ve got the spirit.”
Gould denies the still-persistent rumors that he and co-star Donald Sutherland, who played Hawkeye Pierce, tried to get Altman fired from the movie.
“We didn’t get his work,” Gould explains. Altman asked the two actors to bond, but that effectively isolated them from the rest of the group, he says.
“Donald and I hung out together through the whole process. And everybody else hung out with Bob. There were one or two scenes in terms of Bob’s style and his way of work that Donald and I just didn’t get, so we were having a problem and we complained. We didn’t want to get him fired. Bob let us reshoot the scene and everything went fine after that.”
Altman and Gould went on to work together in several other films, including 1973’s “The Long Goodbye,” an update of the 1953 Raymond Chandler detective novel. Gould plays Philip Marlowe.
Gould is not the kind of actor who likes to be nailed down on favorite roles, films or comparisons of any kind. But when pressed, he reluctantly admitted that just maybe “The Long Goodbye” is his favorite role.
“It meant a lot to me and it means a lot to me. I grew up with film noir and it was to me like an American jazz piece – ‘The Long Goodbye.’
“Altman gave me so much room to express myself in that character.”
A number of Gould’s early films reflect the upheaval of their era. Though “M.A.S.H.” was set during the Korean War, it came out while the Vietnam War was raging and it’s anti-establishment/anti-war tone is obvious. The 1969 mate-swapping film “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” for which Gould earned an Oscar nomination, is grist from the sexual revolution.
In 1970’s “Getting Straight,” Gould plays a student teacher and a Vietnam veteran at odds with the politics of the day. The film, co-starring Candice Bergen, features a young Harrison Ford.
“When we opened that picture in New York, it was the day of the Kent State massacre. That’s how topical it was,” Gould says of the May 1970 incident in which the Ohio National Guard shot to death four protesting college students and injured nine others.
Gould has been a busy actor despite a time when he either took time off or was deemed too difficult to work with – depending on who is telling the story. He admits he missed a few good opportunities, but he says he has no regrets.
“I’ve made a lot of movies, some are better and some aren’t. But I can look at any one, if not every one, and find a reason for participating.”
After all these years in acting, he says he still finds something new to learn, both about acting and himself.
“I used to believe and think that all this was about being talented, and now I know it’s not really about that. It’s far more about character, and the only way we can develop character is through experience.”
Though he sounds like a wise old sage, Gould says he has a child-like approach to acting.
“What I like about acting the most is that there is a child always alive in me. And the child loves to play and that’s what acting is to me.”
Gould is philosophical about the way Hollywood has changed over the years.
“There’s so much more media. And with media, everybody’s got so many more opinions and I’m barely interested in opinions. I’m not even interested in my own opinions.”
Hollywood has also become more industrialized, more corporate, Gould says.
“A great deal of the romance has dissipated into big business,” he says. “But I don’t want to be nave. I don’t think it’s changed. It’s exaggerated. A charm and an innocence has been sacrificed. But that’s something for us to be aware of and counteract.”
Gould got a late-career boost by playing Reuben Tishkoff in Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven” and its sequels. And he played Ross’ and Monica’s father on the top-rated TV sitcom “Friends.”
“I didn’t think I’d do it and my agents at that point didn’t want me to do it,” Gould recalls of “Friends.” But he agreed to take the part because it was directed by James Burrows. “I had worked for his father when I was a chorus boy on Broadway – Abe Burrows.”
It was when he was a young man on Broadway that he met an even younger Broadway performer: an aspiring singer named Barbra Streisand. The young couple moved in together and married in 1963; their son, Jason, was born in 1966. They divorced in 1971.
“We were so young. I had never been with anybody. She was my first.”
Recently, Jason, a singer and composer, performed with his mother. Streisand, meanwhile, recently told Gould she was overwhelmed by her own legacy.
“I said ‘You’re not supposed to be overwhelmed now. What overwhelms you? You’re Barbra Streisand. You cannot compete with who you were. Let it go.’ I told the same thing to Elvis Presley, but I wasn’t married to Elvis Presley.”
He easily recalls that meeting with The King. “He said to me, ‘How could you and Barbara break up? You’re two of my favorite people.’ And I said, ‘Shut up, Elvis.’ Which might have been an interesting title for a book on Elvis. He had a .45 gold gilded gun in his waistband. He said ‘Hey man, you’re crazy.’”
Gould has no plans to retire. He says working keeps him vital and gives him something to contribute.
“I could not have imagined or dreamed that one like me – Elliott Goldstein from 6801 Bay Parkway, Brooklyn 4, New York... could get to the front and participate and contribute. It’s taken me forever to get here and I want to know that I’ve given it everything. And then as Mr. Gershwin once wrote, ‘who could ask for anything more?’”
GOULD, Crosby APPEARANCES
7-10 p.m. Friday: “Ocean’s Eleven” will be the theme of a fundraising dinner and auction at Goldbergs’ Delicatessen in Bellevue. Gould and Denise Crosby will attend. Tickets are $75.
7 p.m. Saturday: Gould will present the screening of “M.A.S.H.” at the Capitol Theater in Olympia. A question-and-answer session with the actor will precede the event. Tickets are $15, $12 for Olympia Film Society members. Doors open at 6 p.m.
8 p.m. Sunday: Crosby will present the 1989 film “Pet Sematary” at the Capitol Theater with a Q-and-A. A 7 p.m. meet-and-greet will precede the screening. Tickets are $8.50 ($5.50 OFS members) for the movie, or $20 for the meet-and-greet and movie.
Find tickets to all events at olympiafilmsociety.org.Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 firstname.lastname@example.org