Peter Bart: George Segal Was As Real As He Looked Onscreen For 60 Years

Fun With Dick And Jane
George Segal and Jane Fonda in 1977's "Fun With Dick And Jane" Everett

Jane Fonda felt the scene as written would be flat, and the camera was about to roll. “I’m going to play it while peeing on the toilet,” she suddenly told her co-star, George Segal. The surprised Segal paused for a moment, gulped, then promptly re-created his dialogue, embellishing the exchange and the scene moved forward and with greater energy.

The year was 1979, the movie Fun with Dick and Jane, and the studio later tried to kill the scene — until discovering that test audiences applauded it. The moment was classic Fonda but also classic Segal, an actor who, over a long career, always found ways to enhance the performances of his remarkable co-stars, from Barbra Streisand to Elizabeth Taylor, while also helping filmmakers deliver hits.

Segal, who died this week at age 87, was a gracious, thoughtful man, who, while a star for over 60 years, never resorted to bluster or name-dropping. His remarkable range was reflected in the list of directors who hired him, from Stanley Kramer to Carl Reiner, from Robert Altman to Mike Nichols. “He looks real,” the dour Kramer once commented. “That helps.”

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“I always sensed my career would be surreal,” Segal once told me. It began with Segal cast as a conniving American prisoner of war in King Rat and ended with The Goldbergs. “I always sensed I would end up playing a grandfather named Goldberg,” he said.

Segal first received wide attention as Nick, the edgy young husband in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), adapted from the Edward Albee play. He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for the film. He then went on to films including Bye Bye Braverman, co-starring Jessica Walter — who also died this week — and directed by Sidney Lumet (1968); Where’s Poppa? (1970) for Carl Reiner; and The Owl and the Pussycat, in which he played a nerdy writer opposite Streisand in 1970.

I recruited Segal for Fun with Dick and Jane, as its producer, and vividly recall his calm and tactful handling of a hyper Jane Fonda. He would offer smart comedic ideas reflecting his years in improv and also patiently coached Ted Kotcheff, a Canadian making his first Hollywood film, on the realities of working at a big studio. “Always listen, but never really listen,” he advised.

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I first got to know Segal when he was a student at Haverford, a Quaker college. He was a good student but, other than grooving on his banjo, never gave a glint of his theatrical ambitions. He struggled through the usual ordeals of a neophyte actor, working with The Premise improv group then landing small roles in The Young Doctors and The Longest Day.

He calmly explained to interviewers that, despite advice from agents, he would never change his name or fix his nose. He was one of Hollywood’s busiest actors through the 1970s before hitting a quieter time in the late ‘80s, ultimately moving to successful TV roles in Just Shoot Me! and in The Goldbergs, playing Pops Solomon.

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After two marriages, he wed Sonja, a gentle and quite brilliant woman who’d been my college classmate at nearby Swarthmore. Sonja’s son was a restauranteur in Northern California, and she and Segal spent all their time there when he was not shooting movies or TV.

But he was determined to keep working. He had a gift for being both funny and poignant and until the end, was determined to fulfill that gift.

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