I suppose there is a whole generation of people (maybe two generations) that know and love George Segal for his work on the sitcoms The Goldbergs and Just Shoot Me.
This retrospective is probably not for them.
My first memories of George Segal are from Look Who’s Talking in 1989. And if you’re a big fan of that movie, again, this piece might not be for you. The film gave me a less than favorable impression of Segal as hammy and over the top. To be fair, this is a film with Bruce Willis voicing a talking baby with John Travolta and Kirstie Alley trying desperately to find some way to not be upstaged by the tough-talking tyke. Subtlety was not in order.
My perspective of Segal would soon change, though. One year later, I was running a record/video store putting myself through college. On a particularly mild summer day, me and my Australian Shepherd, Dusty, had to leave the house due to a neighborhood gas leak. So I leashed Dusty up and we took a walk to the record store, which was just a few blocks away. The owner of the joint (Dan) often brought his dog in, so I knew there was a good chance he’d let us hang out there until the coast was clear of noxious fumes.
I took Dusty into his office and she borrowed Dan’s German Shepherd’s dog bed, and we set up shop in the cramped back office. Dan came back and told me he had a movie for me to watch to keep me busy. He popped the tape in the VCR, and the title eventually came up.
I had never heard of the film before and to be quite honest, I often found Dan’s taste in film to be… questionable. Basically, if it had a guy holding a gun in it, it was probably for Dan. Even Dusty had a more nuanced approach to film. As the opening credits rolled, I saw George Segal’s name pop up and I’m pretty sure I actually winced. I was working with limited information, but I thought: Seriously? The guy from Look Who’s Talking? But Dusty and I didn’t have anywhere else to be, and the office chair reclined—worst case scenario, I figured I would get a good nap out of it.
Then Segal appeared onscreen. And this Segal wasn’t the silly fellow from a talking baby flick—this was a striking, fit young guy, and he was completely magnetic. As Corporal King, Segal played a variation of the “man who knows how to get things” in prison. But this man’s confinement took place in a Japanese POW camp during World War II. Corporal King is a shifty character, often making you question whether he has any real character at all. British director Bryan Forbes adapted King Rat from a James Clavell novel, and his sharp screenplay never quite lets us get our footing with Corporal King until very late in the game.
King not only finds a way to get black market goods into the camp, but often uses the Japanese guards to do it—which brings disfavor from fellow prisoner Peter Marlowe (played by James Fox). Segal leans into King’s ambiguity. Depending on your viewpoint (or maybe just where you are in the film), you will find King to be clever (always), disreputable (sometimes), or perhaps even honorable. George Segal is an absolute revelation in the film. He is both off-putting and sympathetic—often simultaneously. But more than anything, Segal is a movie star.
Of all the things I expected King Rat to be, a full-fledged repudiation of everything I thought George Segal to be was not one of them.
Of course, I had some digging to do after that. I discovered Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, where Segal would go toe-to-toe with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and prove himself equal to their measure. Woolf came out just one year after King Rat in 1966 and earned Segal his only Oscar nomination, in the category of best supporting actor.
After the one-two punch of King Rat and Virginia Woolf, Segal had a significant, decade-plus run as an A-level film star. He played a harried detective on the trail of Rod Steiger’s serial killer in No Way To Treat A Lady. He was the lead in Carl Reiner’s polarizing comedy Where’s Poppa? He was Barbra Streisand’s romantic foil in The Owl and the Pussycat. To name a few more, he was a fellow thief alongside Robert Redford in The Hot Rock, the title character in Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love, and the object of Glenda Jackson’s affection in A Touch of Class (for which Jackson won the Oscar for best actress). He played a degenerate gambler across from Elliot Gould’s degenerate gambler in Robert Altman’s California Split. He top-lined Fun With Dick and Jane along with Jane Fonda. And in 1977, he made one of the greatest B-movies ever playing Harry Calder, a cop chasing down a man who rigs rollercoasters to derail (no shit).
That was pretty much it for Segal on the A-list. Aside from an occasional strong supporting performance (especially in To Die For and Flirting With Disaster), Segal was largely seen in second and third tier films like Carbon Copy (across from a very young Denzel Washington), and a bunch of other stuff that I either can’t remember or would rather not.
Segal would find new stardom on TV in the aforementioned Just Shoot Me and The Goldbergs. For what it’s worth, I’m happy he had steady work for the remainder of his career.
But the George Segal I will remember best is the handsome, crafty, duplicitous, and more noble than he’d like to admit Corporal King. On a sunny afternoon, evading the threat of a gas-based explosion, I was introduced to the real George Segal. The one who jumped off the screen like he was propelled from a cannon, and proved to me that you should never, ever look at an actor’s work through a single lens.
George Segal died yesterday. He was 87 years old.