Elliott Gould: The Heeb Interview
By Linda Burnett
What seem like eons before Seth Rogen found himself and his head of curly hair on the cover of Playboy, Elliott Gould was gracing the cover of Time and being touted as a new kind of sex symbol. Over his prolific career (“I really love to work,” says Gould), he’s gyrated hips with Elvis Presley and rubbed noses with Barbra Streisand. He was Robert Altman’s go-to guy and Ingmar Bergman’s pupil. And yes, he was also Ross and Rachel’s dad on Friends. If you can’t rattle off at least three of the best movies of the Twentieth-Century that he stars in, then you’re probably too young to even watch an R-rated flick. Lucky for you, the 68-year old actor is back with the April 7 DVD release (Virgil Films & Entertainment) of The Caller, a quiet, introspective indie film built on big ideas—guilt, memory and responsibility. He plays a lonesome, bird-watching private investigator hired to spy on a soon-to-be assassinated corporate executive (Frank Langella). I sat with Gould in his Los Angeles home (full disclosure: Gould is my dad’s cousin) and chatted with him over tea and assorted ruggelah.
You’ve starred in iconic films—MASH, The Long Goodbye, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, for which you were nominated for an Oscar – and were directed by world-renowned auteurs. What was it like to work with a relatively newbie director such as Richard Ledes on The Caller?
I’ve worked with first time directors before. The first one was Paul Mazursky on Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. And I worked with my beloved son Jason on two short films that he directed. And the first thing that Ingmar Bergman directed on film was a milk commercial for the theatres. Everyone has to start someplace. In The Caller, it wasn’t up to me to do anything but play my part. There was not very much of any improvising; when I worked with Robert Altman, he would just let me play.
You seem to gravitate toward mustached characters that prefer to observe rather than be observed, such as the PI in this film. How did the project come to you?
I’m told that it was a French story, called The Telephone, and that it had been commissioned to be made into a screenplay and was transposed into an English project by Richard Ledes. And when I received the letter asking me to consider it, it was called The Telephone, then it was called On The Hook. I thought And You’re John Doe would be a fascinating title for this piece in relation to not knowing who we are, and that John Doe, in my mind, would be the audience, would be the observer.
In past roles, you’ve displayed a terrific knack for ironic comedy. Despite, the film’s serious tone, you still managed to bring that to The Caller.
I always see things as being funny. And one of the reasons I’ve always appeared as being funny is that I would play a character who didn’t know in a world where everybody knows what’s going on. Here, my character, a serious person, doesn’t know what’s going on, which makes him seem funny. By the way, how do you like the shirt I’m wearing? I like it. I think it’s a nice color. A nice blue. It’s from the film.
I was recently re-watching some of your classics like Getting Straight with Candace Bergen. Has anyone ever told you you’re a handsome version of Woody Allen?
No, but it’s funny that you bring up Woody. I was conceived where Woody was born in Far Rockaway. Now, I think that Woody Allen is great looking. Woody wanted me to play the title role in Deconstructing Harry. Well, he played it because I was already committed.
Many people see you as synonymous with Jewish. Why do you think that’s so?
Because I am. There are some things I wouldn’t debate.
Women of all generations seem to swoon over you, on and off screen. If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have used your charms to become?
Law interests me more than anything—the law of nature and the law of gravity, and medicine…to be a doctor, to work with people. Sometimes I think I don’t like to act, but I do love to play. I’m so interested in character, in integrity and commitment and reliability and things like that. I know I’m in the right place. I’m happy.