George Segal: a defining face of 1970s Hollywood with a late-career resurgence

George Segal was the handsome, easy-going, romantic comedy player of the 1970s, pretty much the male equivalent of Goldie Hawn, with whom he starred in the 1976 western romp The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox. His A-list Hollywood career began and ended with the decade itself and, in a way, defined the 1970s, or at least a part of it. He had a string of leading-man roles opposite top leading ladies, including Glenda Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda, Goldie Hawn, Jacqueline Bisset and Natalie Wood – before he got embroiled in a nasty legal dispute with producer-director Blake Edwards over dropping out of his comedy 10. This briefly soured his reputation in the film business, ended his hot streak and ushered in another shooting star of Hollywood romantic comedy, Dudley Moore.

Related: George Segal, TV star and Oscar nominee, dies aged 87

While the moody presences of the Hollywood new wave, such as Robert De Niro, Warren Beatty and Al Pacino, might have entranced critics, Segal’s light, dapper touch with funny and romantic dialogue was endearing to heartland moviegoers, who preferred entertainment at the frothier end of the spectrum. Segal was the kind of good-natured and presentable actor the Hollywood studio system used to produce, and still did – only now the men came with longish feather-cut hairstyles and Coppertone tans. Like Steve Martin, Segal was a sure-fire hit on late-night TV talk shows thanks to his genial sense of fun and goofy way of playing the banjo.

One of Segal’s best performances, however, was for new wave auteur Robert Altman, in the 1974 film California Split, a dark buddy movie, with Elliot Gould, about two men who bond over their shared passion for – and addiction to – gambling. Segal shared something else with Gould when his time at the top of the movies came to an end: just as Gould became famous in the 90s to TV audiences as Monica’s dad in Friends, George Segal found his own second act as the roguish silver fox on TV shows such as Just Shoot Me! and The Goldbergs.

Segal’s breakthrough came in the atypically serious and perhaps typically theatrical role of Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966, playing a young biology professor who, with his wife, arrives at a dinner party and finds himself caught in the drunken hosts’ marital crossfire. Segal coolly held his own against the deafening histrionics of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He was also an amoral black-marketeer in Bryan Forbes’s second world war satire King Rat (1965), one of the blood-spattered mobsters in Roger Corman’s The St Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and a thief in the caper The Hot Rock (1972) alongside Robert Redford.

But his real skills were revealed in other movies, such as Carl Reiner’s cult black comedy Where’s Poppa? (1970) about a harassed middle-aged man trying to euthanise his ageing mother by scaring her to death, and the syrupy romcom Blume in Love (1973).

But the apotheosis of the Segal’s career and the veritable definition of his brand, came with A Touch of Class in 1973, in which he played a jetsetting married American businessman who comes to London and is entranced by the haughtily gorgeous Glenda Jackson, known to American audiences for her Emmy-award-winning performance as Elizabeth I (beamed into US homes on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater). They had what everyone agreed was chemistry, and the title was ironic and yet not ironic. The characters’ chaotic and wisecrackingly absurd (and extramarital) affair was anything but classy – yet there was real love there, with the blue-blood Brit conferring class on Segal, whose essential decency conferred it right back.

Segal, right, with Elliott Gould in California Split.
Segal, right, with Elliott Gould in California Split. Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

This is the movie from Segal’s heyday that has dated the most; his cheeky ladies-man routine was always an inch away from being a little seedy and dandruffy, and his later comedy with Natalie Wood, The Last Married Couple in America, is another Hollywood attempt to stay relevant in the era of the sexual revolution, with a hint of swinging. Posterity may tend to favour Segal’s darker, non-romcom material: the sci-fi thriller The Terminal Man for director Mike Hodges in 1974 and Altman’s gambling drama.

Segal is Hollywood’s forgotten star, a super-celeb whose stock price plunged in the Reagan era but who worked continuously in the decades that followed his golden era: cameos in comedies such as Flirting With Disaster and The Cable Guy, and a weird, uncredited walk-on in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For. It was TV, not the movies, that could absorb his image transition into twinkle-eyed, lovably incorrigible oldster. But in A Touch of Class, California Split and The Terminal Man, George Segal was the face of the Hollywood 1970s.