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George Segal Recalls Best Kisser From Rom-Com Heyday

Variety logo Variety 2/14/2017 Marshall Fine
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Call it what you will: hype, puffery, marketing, buzz.

Nearing 83, actor George Segal has been around long enough to understand how this game is played. So when he was offered the chance to get a star on the Walk of Fame on Feb. 14, Segal figured, “Why not?”

“This is good publicity for ‘The Goldbergs’,” he says. “It’s all ballyhoo. I respect the ballyhoo.”

Now in its fourth season, “The Goldbergs,” Adam F. Goldberg’s ode to growing up in 1980s Philadelphia, has provided a continued platform for Segal, whose career is in its seventh decade. What is the secret to his longevity?

“It beats the shit out of me,” Segal says with a laugh. “I’m just so lucky to still be alive.”

The Walk of Fame ceremony is the day after his 83rd birthday. “I’ve always considered myself to be a lucky person. When I’m asked about the ups and downs of my career, I mainly see a lucky guy.”

“When I see the people who’ve gotten this honor, I think, it’s way past time for George,” says Jeff Garlin, who plays Segal’s son-in-law on “The Goldbergs.” “He’s one of the great ones.”

Segal’s regular appearances playing senior rascals for two decades on “The Goldbergs” and “Just Shoot Me” highlight the comic talent that served him as one of the movies’ most popular leading man of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But they only tell a portion of the story of his career.

In fact, at least part of his break came from another rising young actor who rejected two major roles that Segal ended up winning.

“He was a guy at the top of the movie game — and there he was, on my show.”
Steve Levitan

“I’d worked with Mike Nichols in ‘The Knack’ Off Broadway — so when Robert Redford turned down the role in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,’ Nichols asked me to do it,” Segal says. “And I also got Biff in ‘Death of a Salesman’ [opposite Lee J. Cobb] because he said no. I owe Redford a lot. I think I may have thanked him when we did ‘The Hot Rock’.”

Beside Nichols, Segal worked with many of the major directors of the 1960s and 1970s, including Robert Altman (“California Split”), Paul Mazursky (“Blume in Love”), Sidney Lumet (“Bye Bye Braverman”), Ivan Passer (“Born to Win”), Herbert Ross (“The Owl and the Pussycat”), and Carl Reiner (“Where’s Poppa?”).

“It was such a great era — they don’t make those character-driven movies anymore,” he says. “I can’t imagine someone making ‘Blume in Love’ today. It was another generation, with a kind of innocence that doesn’t exist today.”

A leading man in romantic comedies, he played opposite everyone from Barbra Streisand to Goldie Hawn, Jane Fonda to Glenda Jackson. Asked who the best kisser was, Segal laughs.

“Ruth Gordon, because she kissed me on my ass,” he says, recalling a memorable “Where’s Poppa?” moment.

“I remember him in the ’70s, that era that was still a pretty old-school, somewhat sexist era, though they meant no harm,” says Steve Levitan, executive producer of “Modern Family” who worked with Segal on “Just Shoot Me.” “He could make characters who should have been jerks seem lovable.”

When serious movie offers began to dwindle in the 1980s, Segal kept working — in smaller roles and on TV, including a couple of short-lived series. In the past 20 years, Segal has carved out a solid career as a comic featured player. He earned a pair of Golden Globe nominations playing fashion-magazine editor Jack Gallo on “Just Shoot Me,” which ran for seven seasons on NBC.

“We had a character who needed to be a bit of a rogue, but who always got his way because he was charming,” Levitan says. “George is so lovable and such a charmer that you could believe him in this role. He was a guy at the top of the movie game — and there he was, on my show.

“George knew his way around a joke — and he’s an amazing laugher. That was one of my favorite things: We had to keep paper towels on hand for the table-read because George would laugh so hard tears would come.”

Adds Garlin: “When I can make him laugh hard, it feels really good. Plus I have to pinch myself — that I’m actually in a scene with George Segal.”

Why keep working at his age? “Because they keep asking me,” Segal says happily. “Being in your 70s is OK but, when you get to your 80s, you get creaky. I still play the banjo practically every day. I noodle away and it gets me out of my head. Hey, it’s all borrowed time, right? I’ve got my second wind — although I’m not going as fast as I used to.”

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