The best review ever received by Elliott Gould – renowned actor and star of M*A*S*H and The Long Goodbye, not to mention Ross and Monica's dad on Friends – was from Groucho Marx. The two of them had become close in the comedian's latter years – so close, Gould says, "he used to let me shave him". One day Marx asked Gould to change a lightbulb in his bedroom. Gould took off his shoes, stood on the bed and replaced the broken bulb. Marx told him: "That was the best acting I've ever seen you do."
Gould, now 81, has been telling the story for decades – but it is clear even in our pixelated video call that it still delights him. "Isn't that great?" he says, his distinctive nasal, New York baritone now deepened with age. As we speak he is sitting at a computer at a friend's house in Los Angeles, relaxed in a blue hoodie, with a seemingly bottomless mug of coffee before him. In isolation on either side of the Atlantic, neither of us has anywhere to be. And after more than half a century in Hollywood, in which he went from leading man to exile and, eventually, fixture – Gould could fill days, not just hours, with his stories. Even without his eight-year marriage to Barbra Streisand.
In a prolific list of credits, Gould has no single iconic role. You might choose M*A*S*H, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice or The Long Goodbye, but there are also Little Murders ("close to a perfect picture," says Gould), Capricorn One, American History X, the Ocean's 11 franchise – or Friends. (The week before our interview, Gould was due to reprise the role of Jack Gellar in Friends for HBO Max's long-awaited reunion special, but the pandemic delayed production.)
Many have seen Gould more recently in Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 medical thriller that has had a coronavirus-inspired resurgence. Gould plays an epidemiologist based on the real-life expert Dr Ian Lipkin of Columbia University, who consulted on the film. The pair remain friendly and Gould says Lipkin gave him advice on his plans to travel to Seattle and Italy: don’t go. (The scientist was diagnosed with the virus shortly afterwards.)
So Gould is "sequestering" in his friend's house and happy to tell the story of his life, even if by way of many freewheeling divergences, from Netflix recommendations to gnomic theories on human nature. Gould admits his thinking is "not always linear". Some memories take time to retrieve: "I flush it out as we're talking." But once they emerge, they are precise, both in detail and dialogue, such as his "little date" with Elvis Presley.
Back in the 1970s, Gould asked to meet Presley in his Las Vegas dressing room. They were at close quarters, Gould recalls, made all the more so by the conspicuous, gilded .45 automatic in Elvis’s belt and the watchful presence of his manager, Tom “The Colonel” Parker, as well as the singer’s father, Vernon. It was clear to Gould that they would not let their “cash cow” out of their sight and he said so, urging Presley to “leave ‘Elvis’ here and come out, be a free spirit”. “Elvis says to me, with his gold gun in his belt: ‘You’re crazy, man.’ I said: ‘Elvis, I ain’t crazy. I’m scared, just like you.’”
Gould was born Elliott Goldstein in Brooklyn in 1938, the only child of Bernard and Lucille – non-orthodox, working-class Jews. Their marriage was troubled (they eventually divorced after 27 years), but they were ambitious for their son, putting him through stage school.
He was a shy, fearful child, who loved to get lost in radio dramas, Sherlock Holmes stories and Pinocchio, but struggled to express himself. His parents worried that he was slow to develop. One of his earliest memories is being told, when he was two: “You don’t know how to feel, and you don’t know how to think, and we’ll tell you.”
“I didn’t know that there was a difference between thinking and feeling,” he says. “Now I realise, because I’ve been able to understand myself, and having been afraid for so long – I didn’t want them to think I was stupid.” Yet he also credits them with his success: “My mother never gave up – I have no choice, I have to be this way.”
As a young boy he did not enjoy performing, but it brought him out of his shell. “I thought that if I memorised routines, perhaps I could be able to communicate.” His tap dance teacher made a particular impression on the 12-year-old Gould. “He just pounded me mentally. When I wept, he did not treat me like a baby and he got through to me.” Later, the teacher gave him a copy of Webster’s dictionary, to which he still routinely refers.
In 1957, aged 19, Gould made his Broadway debut in the musical Rumple, at the Alvin theatre. “It smelled great,” Gould remembers, inhaling the memory. “I could go to the theatre and feel I have some place where I belong.” A few small parts followed. Then, in 1961, he was cast as the leading man in the musical I Can Get It For You Wholesale, “which was so unlikely!” he says, with feeling. He sat in on the final audition of the “brilliant” Barbra Streisand. Gould says he saw elements of himself in her, that same inhibition from childhood: “She presents herself the way I feel about myself.”
I interject: did he fancy her? Gould goes quiet and I wonder if our video connection has cut out. Then he says: “She’s so beautiful, are you kidding?” After her audition, Streisand gave him her phone number aloud; Gould memorised it, and called her. Streisand invited him to see her sing but he declined. “I said: ‘You’re so good, I think you’re going to be in the show – we’ll see if we get to know one another then.’”
Streisand was cast as Gould’s character’s secretary, Miss Marmelstein; the part was enlarged to do her justice. Shortly after the play closed in early 1963, after a stellar run of 300 performances, the pair married. A year later Streisand was the toast of the business in Funny Girl, with an album at No 1. Gould has likened their marriage to both a souffle and a “bath of lava”. Streisand has been working on a book for some time, says Gould, and will often call him to draw on his recollections. “And I don’t spin. It’s so precious to me, that it has to be absolutely right.”
Gould’s picture of their marriage has Streisand putting her career above their family life and him rebelling against the limits of it. They divorced in 1971, five years after the birth of their son Jason and following a two-year separation. Streisand later called Gould to ask why they had grown apart. He told her: “We didn’t grow together, and you made yourself more important than us, and all I care about is us. We made it very fast, and no one has what we have.” But, today Gould says: “I couldn’t play the part. I had to be able to find myself, to be able to be myself. I couldn’t let myself live in a mould.”
In 1969, Gould starred in Paul Mazursky's wife-swap comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. His performance secured him his only Oscar nomination, for best supporting actor. A string of hits followed: Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, in which Gould cast himself as Trapper John McIntyre, and the student protest film Getting Straight. It was around this time that he got his second-best review – from Muhammad Ali, who told him: "You do what you do as well as I do what I do."
In 1970, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, hailed as “the star for an uptight age” for his (as he explains it now) “unexpected success” at a time of political upheaval. Later I ask him if the current US administration causes him some distress. “Some distress? Oh my goodness,” he replies, pulling his hands down over his eyes theatrically. “It’s not just that and it’s not just him.”
He struggles to simplify his views: "I can't even get an acceptable definition in my Webster's dictionary." But as a unionist, an idealist and a devout Jew, he believes "it's all of us together, or none of us". He says he intends to study politics more, though he seems to avoid talking about it where possible. Shooting the 2013 television drama Ray Donovan with Jon Voight, a Trump supporter, Gould told him: "No politics, Jon." (When they work together "it can be like Laurel and Hardy on acid," he adds.) He recalls a similarly loaded phone conversation with Jack Nicholson, who said to him: "I love being American, Ell." Gould agreed, making reference to Canada and Mexico. Nicholson shouted back: "No, no, no! Just America!"
“I thought, Gee, that’s rather Trumpish, isn’t it? Diversity is essential to me. It’s essential to all of us.”
In 1971, Gould was still cresting the wave and had just returned from Sweden, where he shot The Touch: the first English-language film for legendary director Ingmar Bergman. The director has largely dismissed the picture, but Gould was honoured to be chosen as his first non-Scandinavian leading man and sees working with the demanding director as a transformative moment. He recalls: "Bergman said to me, outside a 2,000-year-old church near Stockholm: 'You've gone beyond your limits and you'll have to live more to understand what you've done.' "At that moment, I didn't know limits."
He was a bankable star, with a tendency to push back against authority. “I can be very aggressive, or equally shy and repressed.” He was also at times a compulsive gambler. The 1974 drama California Split, said by some to be the best film about gambling ever made, was semi-autobiographical. Decades later, spending time in casinos for Ocean’s Eleven, Gould says he realised those days were behind him: “As much as I love to win, I hate losing more, and there’s nothing I need that I can win.”
He has always denied ever having had a drug problem: on national television, in 1988; on the phone to Streisand (his response, in summary: “Bullshit”); and to me. “I had a reality problem,” is his oft-repeated quip. “Of course I smoked marijuana. I don’t do that now, because I’m centred and balanced and I don’t want to alter that.” As for “mind-expanding drugs” – mescaline, psilocybin, acid – Gould says: “I had some experience with that and did some work behind it.” He remembers telling Bergman (then in his 50s) about it. “He said it was interesting to him, but that he felt he did not want to do it at that time.” Was that experimentation part of his pushing back against directors? “No. No. No! But still, I saw too much – I knew too much.”
After making The Touch, Gould says he “should have stayed out of work for a while”. Instead, in 1971, he took on A Glimpse of Tiger as co-producer and star. The film was never made (though it was later retooled as What’s Up, Doc?, starring Streisand), but its story is infamous. Just five days in, production was shut down, following reports of Gould’s erratic behaviour and power struggles. His co-star Kim Darby was so frightened of him that security was hired. Gould says now that he tried to reassure Darby that he was “really very sweet” and that she could ask for “time out” at any time – “but it couldn’t work that way”. Of his attempt to undermine the director, Anthony Harvey, he says. “We didn’t communicate and I behaved very badly.”
Gould says he was “not sufficiently developed” to harness his newfound vision and naive about the demands of a production. “I wouldn’t compromise. I couldn’t. And I had to find out for myself, taking a chance, not knowing if I would ever get back. It’s pretty fabulous, to take the chance … and not be enslaved to one’s success,” he says. But the financial toll on Gould was significant and the fallout so disastrous that he was considered unfit to work for two years.
In 1973, M*A*S*H director Altman threw Gould a lifeline, casting him as Philip Marlowe in his updating of The Long Goodbye. “Altman says: ‘You are this guy,’” says Gould, exhaling as though he still can’t believe his luck. The studio insisted that he take a psychiatric test, as well as the standard physical. Gould says Altman’s faith extended to allowing him to improvise a scene where Marlowe paints his face with inky fingerprints at a police station. “It exhibited the confidence and trust that Altman had in me, because it would have taken 25 minutes to clean me up.”
The same year he married the actor Jenny Bogart. They went on to have two children – and two divorces. “Jenny married me three times,” says Gould. Though they are no longer living together, he says he “will be married to Jenny for ever – until she can do better”.
Gould’s likably loopy Marlowe trumps Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell for many – but to an entire generation he is Mr Geller from Friends. He almost didn’t take the part – “There wasn’t much in it for me” – but wound up doing 22 episodes in the show’s 236-episode run. He remembers it as a “very good experience” and feels fortunate to be part of its enduring success.
Oddly, as Friends reruns onwards into the future, it may come to define a 50-year career that, Gould does not deny, has had highs and lows. Looking back, Gould says it would be “disloyal” to other crew members to regret any film he has worked on. “Sometimes things work, sometimes things don’t work, and we learn from it.” Even the 1978 Matilda, playing opposite a man in a cheap and unsettling kangaroo suit? He is tickled by the memory. “Oh, it wasn’t very good.”
We have been talking for three hours; even Gould is surprised that there is still coffee left in his mug. These days, he takes pleasure from nature, his children, his grandchildren and reflecting on life. He has been asked to direct but seems unhurried. Gould points to “career”, in his prized Webster’s dictionary, as having derived from a Spanish word meaning “obstacle course”.
“I see it as a circle,” he says. “Sometimes, when people ask me: ‘How’s it going?’ I enjoy saying: ‘It’s going round.’ It always goes around.” He sounds like his favourite critic. – Guardian