George Segal, whose long career began in serious drama but became one of America’s most trusted and well-known comic book actors, first in film and later on television, died Tuesday in Santa Rosa, California. He was 87 years old.
According to his wife Sonia Segal, the cause was complications from bypass surgery.
Sand-haired, conventionally if imperfectly handsome, with a grin that could be charming or complacent, and a forehead that could be sincere or poorly knitted, Mr.Segal walked a line between the main cast and the supporting cast.
He was best known to younger people for his work in comedy ensembles on prime-time network shows where he played the editor of a fashion magazine on “Just Shoot Me!” and a boisterous grandfather on “The Goldbergs,” a loud family show set in the 1980s.
But decades earlier, when he was an aspiring young actor, a handful of dramatic roles brought him to the brink of A-list fame.
In 1965 he starred as a fraudulent American sergeant in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in King Rat, a grim survival drama based on a novel by James Clavell. In the same year he played an idealistic painter whose agonizing and likely doomed love affair with a beautiful bourgeois young woman (Elizabeth Ashley) was one of several storylines in Stanley Kramer’s adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter’s novel “Ship of Fools,” in which a Buffet with class and ethnic conflicts on board a German passenger ship on a transatlantic crossing in the 1930s.
“He looks real,” said Mr. Kramer of Mr. Segal in a 1965 interview with Life magazine, “and he has what John Garfield had.” He can invoke an unsympathetic role. “
From 1966 to 1968, Mr. Segal starred in three dramas adapted for television. In “The Desperate Hours,” he played Glenn Griffin, an escaped convict holding a family hostage, a role made famous by Paul Newman on Broadway and Humphrey Bogart in the movies. In John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” he was George, the wandering farm laborer looking for his friend Lenny (Nicol Williamson), a childlike giant. And he was Biff Loman, the older son of Willy Loman (Lee J. Cobb, who repeated his Broadway role) in Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s masterpiece of a distorted and failed American dream.
“In the role of Biff, the son who rebels against his father’s hollow dreams,” wrote the New York Times television critic Jack Gould, “George Segal gave a performance of superbly controlled intensity that always modulated the outbursts of anger so that that they. ” did not overshadow the young man’s touching agony. “
In his best remembered and best rewarded dramatic role, Mr. Segal played Nick, the young husband, in the film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), adapted from Edward Albee’s grueling account of the marital struggle.
Directed by Mike Nichols, the film starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as a bitter, longtime couple on campus who harbor a mutual deception and turn into a seedy one on a long, damp night entertaining a newcomer Word war embroils biology professor (Mr. Segal) and his wife (Sandy Dennis). All four actors were nominated for the Oscars for the only time, Mr. Segal. (The women won.)
However, starting in the late 1960s, Mr. Segal’s gift of comedy, especially social satire, reoriented his career. He spent most of the decade as a leader in films that aimed at both humor and acuteness in their observations on romance, marriage, friendship, class, and meaningful life.
In Bye Bye Braverman (1968), directed by Sidney Lumet, Mr. Segal played a mortality-contemplated public relations man, one of four Jewish intellectuals who attended the unexpected funeral of a mutual friend. In “No Way to Treat a Lady” (1968), an Arch thriller, he played a detective who was molested by his mother (Eileen Heckart) in order to get married when he tracked down a mother-obsessed serial killer (Rod Steiger). And in “Loving” (1970), one of his many films that featured adultery, he played a freelance illustrator in a career and marital crisis.
One of Hollywood’s busiest and best-known actors in the 1970s, Mr. Segal appeared in films whose comedy and attitude, sometimes out of whack with today’s sensibilities, were characteristic of the decade.
He played with Ruth Gordon in “Where’s Poppa?” (1970), Carl Reiner’s eccentric farce about a man determined to break free from his mother; opposite Barbra Streisand as a nebulous writer who is involved in a prostitute in “The Owl and the Pussycat” (1970); and with Robert Redford in a manic caper of crime, “The Hot Rock” (1972).
In Paul Mazursky’s “Flower In Love” (1973), Mr. Segal played the title character, a divorce lawyer whose wife (Susan Anspach) caught him in bed with his secretary, divorced him and recorded with a renegade musician (Kris Kristofferson). . The film compassionately traces Blumen’s desperate efforts to win back his wife, which he only manages after getting drunk, raped, and becoming pregnant. (The film treats this as a downfall that is adequately corrected by a punch in the nose.)
In the same year he appeared in “A Touch of Class” as a married American businessman in London who happily grapples with a willing divorce played by Glenda Jackson. (The character is far too willing, as far as we know, to deserve the sympathy and admiration the film seeks.) The affair begins in high-level comedy and ends in sadness after the two discover that infidelity is extremely difficult to plan.
And in “Fun With Dick and Jane” (1977), Mr. Segal and Jane Fonda played as a strange pair of anti-heroes, a wealthy couple whose debt-ridden coexistence is threatened if he loses his job as an aerospace engineer and they contact you to crime to support the budget they got used to.
“Not buried very deep in the film, there is a small flaw,” wrote Vincent Canby in the New York Times. “We are asked to like and sympathize with Dick and Jane, played by Mr. Segal and Miss Fonda with a subtle, serious intensity that I associate with a good screwball comedy of the past, and we like them immensely, though the characters are entirely geared towards keeping false values. “
“Dick and Jane” highlighted Mr. Segal’s strength as a comic book actor: he was at his best in his give-and-take roles as a co-star.
Perhaps his most enduring role of the period was in “California Split” (1974), Robert Altman’s lopsided, sometimes exciting, yet excruciatingly melancholy portrait of a pair of low rent compulsive gamblers trolling for the big score.
“Their names are Bill and Charlie, and they are played by George Segal and Elliott Gould with a combination of pristine naturalism and sheer nervous exhaustion,” wrote Roger Ebert in his review. “We don’t need to know anything about gambling to understand the odyssey they take on the tracks, at the private poker parties, in the bars, in Vegas, on the verge of defeat and the place of victory. Your compulsion is so strong that it takes us away. “
George Segal Jr. was born on February 13, 1934 in New York City to George and Fanny (Bodkin) Segal and grew up in Great Neck on Long Island. His father was a malt and hops dealer. Young George played the trombone as a boy and was proficient in the banjo to be able to play in college and then in jazz bands. He also performed magic tricks at children’s parties.
“I was a hopeless wizard so I spiced up the plot,” he told Life. “I would open up with a few quick tricks, then two friends would come and we would start throwing shaving cakes at each other. The kids would always throw cake at each other and everyone would have a wild time. Of course, it was always a one-shot deal and we were never invited back. “
He attended boarding school in Pennsylvania, where he moved to Haverford College and finally graduated from Columbia.
Mr. Segal worked in unpaid jobs (ticket taker, usher, orange soda seller) at Circle in the Square, an off-Broadway theater. He finally appeared there in 1956 in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” and married Marion Sobol, his first wife, on stage on a Monday night when the theater was dark. Shortly afterwards he was drafted into the army.
After his release, he followed the aspiring actor’s path, earned roles on Broadway, and opened doors to movies and television. He was working with an improvisation troupe called Premise when he was cast in his first film role as a young doctor in The Young Doctors (1961) starring Ben Gazzara and Fredric March.
He had a minor role in the World War II film “The Longest Day,” and appeared in 1964 as a boastful woman-man with Brian Bedford in an off-Broadway production of “The Knack,” a comedy by Ann Jellicoe directed by Mike Nichols, who once turned down Mr. Segal for part but later cast him in “Virginia Woolf”.
“When he came in to try it for me a few years ago,” said Nichols in 1965, “I saw a kind of arrogance that I didn’t want. But I’ve learned that he’s not the tough guy he seems to be. What you get with George is manhood and sensitivity, as well as a brain. “
Mr Segal, whose imperfect nose and Jewish family name made him an unlikely movie star in the 1960s, defied proposals to fix both.
“Look, I think there’s nothing like Cary Grant, the Cary Grant from Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story,” he said in a 1971 interview with The Times. “And I think one of the best actors.” Today is Robert Redford and you don’t look much nicer. But I think I like the fact that there isn’t that much artistry today.
“I was glad that Cary Grant was more like Cary Grant than Archie Leach” – Grant’s maiden name – “but I haven’t changed my name because I don’t think George Segal is an unwieldy name. It’s a Jewish name, but not unwieldy. I don’t think my nose is unwieldy either. I think a nose job is unwieldy. I can always recognize them. Having a nose job says more about a person than not having one. “
Mr Segal’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1983. His second marriage to Linda Rogoff ended with her death in 1996. In addition to his wife Sonia, two daughters, Elizabeth and Polly Segal, both from his first marriage and three stepchildren, David, Matthew and Samantha Greenbaum, survive.
Mr Segal’s career was interrupted in the 1980s. He has appeared in several television films and returned to Broadway in 1985 for the first time in 22 years. He played a role played by Jackie Gleason in the films – the manager of an aging boxer in Rod Serling’s drama “Requiem for a Heavyweight” – but that production was discontinued after only a few performances.
Since then, in addition to his successful television series, Mr. Segal has appeared in several small-part films and in recurring roles in television series such as “Entourage” and “Tracey Takes On …” with Tracey Ullman.
“I’m like a cork in the water, am I not?” Mr. Segal observed himself in a 1998 interview with The Times. “I swing around in all sorts of places, although I never know where or when in advance.”
Neil Vigdor contributed to the coverage.