With the back-to-back success of his Oscar-nominated role in the off-beat wife-swapping hit BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE (1969) and the even bigger off-beat hit MASH (1970), Brooklyn’s own Elliott Gould skyrocketed to worldwide fame.
Better known today as Ross and Monica’s dad on “Friends,” or Vegas financier Reuben Tishkoff in the OCEAN’S 11 series, movie buffs generally regard Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) as Gould’s most iconic starring role.
Elliott Gould invited me to his home in west Los Angeles, where he generously spoke at length of his three major collaborations with Altman.
JON: I read that article J. Hoberman wrote last year on THE LONG GOODBYE, and I have to tell you, most of what he wrote about is of very little interest to me. All that stuff about what you meant as a Jewish icon, and all that.
ELLIOTT: Did you see the artwork with it? That picture of me they doctored to make me look more like Borat? I had friends who were really offended by it. The whole Jewish aspect of my early fame, and how unlikely that was; that was Hoberman’s take on it. My take was… well, it was a lot of space they filled. I was flattered by it. But to take a still of me from THE LONG GOODBYE, and make it look like a caricature?
Hoberman’s essay: http://www.villagevoice.com/2007-04-10/film/the-goulden-age/
JON: My beef is it seems more about him than you. Why did he even bother talking to you? I’m interested in process. Your process, Robert Altman’s process, and how they came together. I want to focus on THE LONG GOODBYE, but obviously you first worked together on MASH.
ELLIOTT: BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE was my third film, and the film in which I discovered my first objective relationship, which was with a camera. It does not lie to me, or manipulate me, or patronize me, or judge me. It simply reports what I am and what I’m doing. After that, I went to New York to do a play called The Way of Life, which was being directed by Alan Schneider. We went into rehearsals, and first Alan was fired—so we knew there was trouble—then I was fired. The author, Murray Schisgal, said to me, “Why can’t you be as good in rehearsal as you were when you auditioned?” I said, “My audition was a sampling of what I could bring to this text. You have to be patient, and you have to have confidence in me.” But all the insecurity of production… I could teach a course on that! Anyway, I came out to California, and was asked to take a meeting with Robert Altman.
JON: Had you heard of him before?
ELLIOTT: No. He gave me the script for MASH, and asked if I would play the part of Duke Forrest.
JON: Duke is the southern good old boy. Why did he think you’d be good for that?
ELLIOTT: I don’t know. I guess I had something he wanted for the picture. I told him, “I’m here to work, and I can do that part… but I also know I’ll have my head up my ass the whole time trying to be a southerner. But this Trapper John… I’ve got the juice; I’ve got the energy for it. If you could see me in that, that’s what I’d really like to do.” And that was that. He cast me in the part I wanted to play.
JON: What was it about Trapper John you really grabbed onto?
ELLIOTT: An energy. An irreverence. He was good at what he did. It was just something I knew I could express. And I could play. I love to play.
JON: What kind of prep work did you do before you started? Had you read the novel?
ELLIOTT: No. I read the script, which was by Ring Lardner, Jr., but I didn’t think much of it. As far as I’m concerned, MASH is Robert Altman’s vision. I remember when we showed the picture to Lardner at the studio, he came up to me afterward and said, “How could you do this to me? There’s not a single word in there that I wrote!” And he went on to win the Academy Award for Best Screenplay!
Initially though, Donald Sutherland and I had a problem with Bob, because he was… well, as he once explained to me, “I learned how to put it together in chaos; therefore, I create chaos in which to put it together.” And I just thought, “Hey, you’re dealing with experts and professionals here. Tell me what you want, and I’ll do it.”
JON: What were those first few days of shooting like? When did it first hit all of you that you were venturing into some uncharted dramatic waters?
ELLIOTT: That only really became apparent in the editing process, and how he eventually put it all together. It was certainly unusual to have such a good time. And we had a great time. But if you don’t tell me what to do, I’ll orchestrate my own actions. I’ll interpret the character, working in concert with what everyone around me is doing, but you have to tell me. That’s why we had some problems, because Bob was just doing his thing, and I didn’t get it. I’d never worked like that; I’d never had that kind of freedom before. And he was under a lot of pressure. Everyone had turned MASH down. One day, there was this scene where we were sitting by the brook after a long O.R. shift. Bob was doing a crane shot, and I was trying various things, but it was getting to close to the meal break, so we had to stop. He came up to me at lunch and said, “You’re ruining it for me. Why can’t you be like everybody else?” He was pointing to Corey Fischer. It was the worst thing anybody could say to me. I should conform to other people? Without even knowing myself? I blew up. I said, “You motherfucker! I’m not going to stick my neck out for you again!” It was probably around then that Donald and I complained about him. He’s said we tried to get him fired, but that wasn’t true.
JON: Whom did you complain to?
ELLIOTT: Our agent. Donald and I had the same agent. But as soon as I yelled at him, Bob said, “I think I’ve made a mistake. I apologize.” And I said, “I accept.”
JON: So it was about establishing a level of trust.
ELLIOTT: Oh, it was more than that. Even once we got to LONG GOODBYE, and even CALIFORNIA SPLIT. He used to say I scared him on LONG GOODBYE. Because I wasn’t just filling the space… I was putting stuff into it.
JON: So when you’re in the middle of one of those trademark Altman scenes—a group, or a party, where everybody’s talking at once, and the camera’s drifting around—
ELLIOTT: I understood choreography. I started as a tap dancer.
JON: Okay, well… how did Altman on the set compare to, say, Paul Mazursky?
ELLIOTT: I don’t compare things. What happened over the course of it was that Bob and I really became close. We went on to do a body of work. I said to him once, “Kurosawa had Toshiro Mifune; can I say I’m your Mifune?” He said, “Yes.”
JON: Going back to the script: was it that everyone began by rehearsing the scenes as written, but the more you all riffed on it, the further it got away from what was on the page? Was the script even there on the set?
ELLIOTT: We had the script. (pause) See, this is something I thought about when Susan suggested I talk with you. You have an opinion. You have a view.
JON: I’m just trying to be an observer.
ELLIOTT: Bob said in a magazine that he considered me an enemy. And I’m sure it was because he thought we tried to have him fired.
JON: I heard him say that myself. It was at a Q & A following a screening of GOSFORD PARK. He said you guys tried to have him fired, but that later you came to him and apologized, while Sutherland never did. Whatever the actual chain of events, is it fair to say there was some sparks between you initially, but later you came to an understanding?
ELLIOTT: In terms of me, that’s… that’s what I do. I’m not… in terms of peace of mind, and of being at peace… my relationship with Bob grew, and evolved.
You know, I wasn’t so impressed with MASH when we made it. I used to like Abbott & Costello. They did a movie about World War II; I thought we’d done something comparable. The big studio movie that was supposed to be it that year was CATCH-22, which is considered an imperfect masterpiece—
JON: Oh, I think it’s awful.
ELLIOTT: I remember when they sneak previewed MASH with BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID in San Francisco. I still wasn’t so impressed by it… but it went through the roof. And became this very special breakthrough picture.
And then suddenly I was doing a lot of work. Only I didn’t know I had no judgment! Or perspective. I just knew there were all these opportunities in front of me, and I could express myself, and I should try to do as much work as possible.
JON: When did your perception of MASH start to change?
ELLIOTT: Over the last several years, as I study it, and what it’s about. Leonard Probst of NBC once asked me, “How do you define what’s funny?” Which I thought was too general a question, so he named people like Woody Allen, and Neil Simon, and Chevy Chase—I thought, “Wow, Chevy Chase is in that group?” Anyway, the only answer I could give him was, “What’s real. That’s what’s funny.” He didn’t like that answer.
So after MASH, Bob did BREWSTER McCLOUD, then he wanted me to do McCABE AND MRS. MILLER with him. He sent me the novel, which Fox had bought for George C. Scott, but Bob wanted to do it with me and Pat Quinn. But one of my problems was that I thought we should choose the leading lady together. I also had a problem with his original script, which opened in the present day, then had a 360 degree camera turn, and the real story begins in the Old West. At the same time, Paul Mazursky wanted me to do ALEX IN WONDERLAND, and the system was pushing me to do I LOVE MY WIFE at Universal. And I didn’t have the wisdom to just stop for a while and assess what I’d done, where I was, and how I could best evolve, as a presence on film. So I did I LOVE MY WIFE, which was a very formulaic comedy, but it was interesting to me because… well, my first marriage was breaking up… and my parents had a very troublesome marriage… I was interested in human relationships. I’d been in the dark so long, I thought I had some perceptions I could bring to it. A perspective. A vulnerability. I knew what it was to be a stupid being with a heart. So I turned down McCABE, and Bob said, “You’re making the biggest mistake of your life.” Then I got an offer from Ingmar Bergman, for THE TOUCH, his first English-language picture. Do you know it?
JON: No. I didn’t know Bergman made any films in English.
ELLIOTT: There were two or three. There’s going to be a screening of it at The Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater on November 22nd; you should come. Anyway, when it was finished, I showed it to Bob, and he said, “You don’t ever have to be better than you are here.” Bergman himself was very disappointed by it… not so much in terms of his artistry, but more in the way The Powers That Be presented it.
Then I didn’t work for quite some time. I finally had a meeting with David Picker, who was running United Artists, and he gave me the Leigh Brackett script of THE LONG GOODBYE. I’d always loved the Humphrey Bogart pictures, but that first draft was set in the past. It was like a pastiche: very sweet, and very convoluted. But I needed a job. Peter Bogdanovich was set to direct—
JON: That would have been a pastiche.
ELLIOTT: But he couldn’t see me in the part! Picker told me Bogdanovich thought I was too new; he wanted someone like Lee Marvin or Robert Mitchum. But Picker wanted me, so Bodanovich left. Then Altman heard about it and called me. I told him I’d always wanted to play that guy, and he said, “You are that guy.” That was how it began. He asked me to read the novel, as well as Chandler on Chandler. I did, and discovered I was exactly the same age as the character, and the same height and weight.
JON: I read The Long Goodbye about six months ago. It’s kind of hard to fathom. The movie really nails that elusive quality of it. And Marlowe is a pretty elusive character. How did you begin to imagine filling out the life of this guy?
ELLIOTT: Well, the guy has a life whether there’s a book or not. Then Bob called me and told me the whole opening of the film as he was envisioning it, the whole sequence with Marlowe and his cat. He loved that. He said, “This is what the picture is about!” More importantly, the story was now set in the present.
THE LONG GOODBYE trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeNyD9UFXHs
The next thing was to cast the two main supporting roles, Roger and Eileen Wade. Bob wanted his friend Dan Blocker to play Roger, but then Blocker died… and not only did Bob not have any back-up in mind, he was actually thinking of dropping the project!
Dan Blocker was beloved by millions for playing Hoss in 394 episodes of Bonanza. Altman directed eight of them. He dedicated THE LONG GOODBYE to Blocker.
I thought we should go for John Huston… until Sterling Hayden showed up. My god, Sterling fucking Hayden! I had seen THE KILLING twelve or fifteen times; I knew DR. STRANGELOVE very well.
I wanted to meet him beforehand, so we sat down in that room in the house where we’d shoot it. He’d just come back from Ireland, where he’d been working with R. D. Laing, the famous psychiatrist and avant garde writer. So we talked,,, and I knew that Sterling knew—that I knew—that Sterling knew I understood him! I didn’t know Sterling had kidnapped his children, and went out to sea. He wrote a book about it. I didn’t know he’d fought with the underground in Yugoslavia during World War II.
JON: Yeah, he was an OSS agent.
ELLIOTT: Then Bob wanted to test Nina Van Pallandt for Eileen, which I didn’t quite get, but… if that’s what the Old Man wanted, I would go along with it.
Van Pallandt had never acted before. Formerly half of a Danish folk duo, she rose to fame in the early 1970’s as the jet-set mistress of literary fraud Clifford Irving. She went on to appear in several other films, including AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980).
JON: Which idea seemed crazier? That cat for ten minutes, or Nina Van Pallandt?
ELLIOTT: The cat for ten minutes wasn’t crazy at all. And Nina… no, nothing seemed crazy to me. We went to MGM to do the screen test, and pick out my wardrobe, which was a blue jacket, a mismatched pair of blue pants, a white shirt, and a tie. The tie was key to me. It was a red tie, with very tiny American flags. Which was really how I saw Marlowe: a very unorthodox patriot. I did a screen test with Nina; some written scenes, and some improvisation, and she was fine.
I didn’t want to bring this up until later, but I’ve actually been working for many years on the sequel to THE LONG GOODBYE. It’s based on a short story of Chandler’s called “The Curtain.” I first had a treatment done, and sat with Bob while he read it, and he told Alan Ladd the only person he would to do it with was me. Now Alan Rudolph has written a script, and the working title is IT’S ALWAYS NOW. And it’s not that I have to do it, but that guy is still me. And now he’s of this age, but internally he’s still the same.
JON: Did you see POODLE SPRINGS?
ELLIOTT: POODLE SPRINGS sucked! Bob and I talked about it. Even with that wonderful British writer, Tom Stoppard, it was absolutely fucking horrible!
JON: I asked because it depicts Marlowe as an older man. Would your sequel fit in that lineage?
ELLIOTT: No! IT’S ALWAYS NOW! It’s right now! Fucking Tom Stoppard… this isn’t for you! Nobody has cracked this yet. I’m being very candid with you here.
JON: I thought POODLE SPRINGS was adapted from Chandler’s last, unfinished story. Does “The Curtain” take place after “Poodle Springs?”
ELLIOTT: Aha. You have a very logical mind. No, “The Curtain” came very early, even before he wrote The Big Sleep. We took the story and moved it to the present day. It seems unlikely that I’ll actually get it made, but I’ve got everything in place, except for the money. The Chandler estate is supporting it. Because I played Marlowe once, I have their approval to play him again. They regard THE LONG GOODBYE as the only film that properly represents Chandler, aside from the original films with Humphrey Bogart.
And it means a lot to me to have Alan Rudolf attached to direct. He was our 2nd Assistant Director on THE LONG GOODBYE.
JON: The last picture I saw of his was the one with Julie Christie. AFTERGLOW.
ELLIOTT: That wasn’t Alan Rudolph.
JON: Sure it was.
ELLIOTT: Okay, if you say so. I want to see AFTERGLOW. I heard it’s really good.
JON: She’s very good in it.
ELLIOTT: Originally, Bob and I had talked about doing a series, another Chandler/Marlowe story every other year, all set in the present. Right now, I know Clive Owen is trying to do TROUBLE IS MY BUSINESS with Frank Miller, but they haven’t cracked it. I think Marlowe should live in the same apartment he had in THE LONG GOODBYE. The car I don’t think we need. That was my actual car, by the way. I thought it would be too obvious, Marlowe driving this old car, but Bob loved it. Eventually I gave it away, and now it’s on display at Harrah’s in Reno. I went to see it. They painted it canary yellow, and it’s parked next to the car James Dean drove in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. I don’t want it now. I drive a Honda Civic.
JON: Because there’s so little in The Long Goodbye about the larger circumstances of Marlowe’s life, did you create your own little biography, or backstory for the character?
ELLIOTT: (thinks) When we were shooting the key scene in OCEAN’S 11, where Clooney gets the whole gang together at my place, Steven Soderbergh walked up to me, and out of the blue asked, “The ink on the face. Was that an improvisation?” I’m just standing there, blindsided. Finally, he says, “You know, THE LONG GOODBYE. It just seemed like such unexpected behavior.” And I told him, “That was the kind of space Robert Altman gave me.” That moment came out of the circumstances of the scene. The actor who was playing the detective really shoved me. I didn’t mind him “acting” rough with me, but he wasn’t acting. I still had that ink on my fingers, so I smeared it under my eyes, and said, “I’m getting ready for the big game.” Now I’m committed to that action. I didn’t know if Altman would like it, but I ran with it. So I went from “the big game” to mimicking Al Jolson. That’s an example of an improvised, irreverent moment.
Another was when I brought up Ronald Reagan at the scene at the beach. I was a little drunk there, and I don’t really drink—
JON: I was going to ask about that. Your voice actually goes up in pitch—
ELLIOTT: I was freaked out; I didn’t know what was going on. Until I look at her—and I don’t want to see it the way it wants to be seen, I want to see it for what it is. And she’s crying; being manipulative. All those cops are there, and they don’t know what going on. It wasn’t written that I throw a bottle through a window; it just came out in that moment. And the Old Man just let me fucking go!
JON: It’s an amazing moment. The only time in the picture Marlowe really loses control.
ELLIOTT: Not the only time. I almost died on that beach!
JON: You mean in the surf, just before that? It sure looks dangerous.
ELLIOTT: We did that at about three o’clock in the morning, to catch the high tide. My motivation was simple: I loved Sterling Hayden, and I wanted to save him. I was a pretty good athlete too, so I hit the water that first time, and I’m heading for those breakers… and it suddenly occurs to me that I’m not in a tank at some studio, this is the fucking Pacific Ocean! I’m fully dressed, I’m starting to breathe harder, I’m getting concerned; I’m starting to lose control! I looked to the shore, where the lights were, and the people looked so tiny. Then I’m in the breakers, and I couldn’t feel the bottom, my legs started turning to jelly, and my inner voice said to me—for the very first time, I heard it—it said, “You can’t go down, Elliott. There’s no one here to bring you back up.”
JON: You see it plainly in the film. The camera’s so far back, you can see there’s no one out there with you.
ELLIOTT: It took every ounce of strength and will to pull myself out, and then I had to go up the beach right away and start acting that scene with Nina! And we had to shoot it another two times! I was standing under a hot shower between takes, thinking, “I almost drowned! I almost died!” So we did it a second time, and the third, and each time I came out and had to do that scene, I got a little hotter. And by the third time, man, it was like an out-of-body experience or something!
When I saw that footage in the dailies, you know what made me weep? When Roger’s dog, his Doberman, runs through the water holding his cane. I told Bob that was so fucking beautiful, it was like Da Vinci to me!
JON: I was going to ask about Marlowe’s recurring line, “It’s okay with me.” That was something you improvised, and then it sort of became his catch phrase?
ELLIOTT: All of that talking to himself was not in the script.
JON: Were those after-dubs? It sounds like a lot of your muttering was added in later.
ELLIOTT: No, I was doing it as we made the picture. I said, “It’s okay with me” the very first day of shooting, and Bob loved it.
JON: How did you come up with that trait, his muttering? It’s certainly one of the biggest differences between your Marlowe and Humphrey Bogart’s.
ELLIOTT: He was a guy who lived alone. When he wakes up, he’s like Rip Van Winkle. He has nobody to talk to, so he talks to himself! What does he know? Do you know Nina Foch? She’s a big acting teacher out here. She said to me once, “That picture would have been more successful if you had been quiet.”
JON: Was that something you decided before you started shooting?
ELLIOTT: It all came out in the moments. Beginning to end. Right up until that final moment… which really recalls THE THIRD MAN, I think.
JON: One of the things I love most about the ending is it finally turns “It’s okay with me” on its ear. All through the picture, the line implies that Marlowe doesn’t much care what other people do, but in that last moment, we finally see that in fact it’s not okay with him. He cares very much about what people do. So what you initially introduced as a toss-off becomes the crowning irony.
ELLIOTT: I remember when I first showed it to Donald Sutherland. When it came to the ending, he said, “Oh, I see. It’s all about morality.” The fact that this film has survived, and endured, and come to be considered something of a classic… it’s very gratifying.
JON: Can we briefly touch on CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974), the third and final Altman film you starred in?
ELLIOTT: CALIFORNIA SPLIT was originally supposed to star Steve McQueen, even though the story was drawn from my own life. The guy I lived with back then, Joseph Walsh, he wrote the picture, produced it with Bob, and played the bookmaker. In real life, I was Bill, the character George Segal played, and Joseph was Charlie, the character I played. I used to gamble, and that story was basically our story.
JON: Wow. So that guy pulled you into gambling?
ELLIOTT: I don’t blame anybody for anything.
JON: Well, in the picture, Charlie is clearly this ne’er-do-well who drags Bill, a pretty square guy, into that very seedy world.
ELLIOTT: Right. Anyway, McQueen was insisting on rewrites that didn’t exist, so Bob called me, and I was happy to do it. I would’ve done anything he asked me to.
JON: It’s a sad piece. I’ve seen it twice, and it just made me… well, sad. I don’t know what it is… and, man, it just nails that vibe of 1974—only in 1974 would you get a movie like CALIFORNIA SPLIT!
ELLIOTT: Yeah. It is sad. But funny. Again, because it’s real, y’know? God, I loved the Old Man. And we became such good friends. He was like a father to me.