Growing up in Brooklyn, Elliott Gould used to play hide-and-seek with the other neighborhood kids. “Sometimes,” he says, “I would go around the corner and hide so deep in another apartment house’s basement that by the time I came out, people weren’t playing anymore.”
Over the past 20 years it sometimes seemed Gould was still hiding. After becoming an instant star in films like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) and M*A*S*H (1970), he nearly vanished. But lately Gould, 60, has slowly reemerged, his befuddled charm intact. Since 1995 he has had a recurring role as Jack Geller, father of Monica and Ross, on Friends. Last April he played problem drinker Morton Shulman in The Big Hit, opposite Mark Wahlberg. And in the new drama American History X, Gould plays a Jewish schoolteacher romantically involved with the mother of a neo-Nazi. The film’s director, Tony Kaye, says Gould is “the sort of person who can walk across a road or sit down and drink a glass of water, and his presence just dominates the screen because of what’s going on in his eyes. I can’t imagine what happened to his career. I’ll bet Elliott doesn’t know either.”
As a matter of fact he does. In the early ’70s, “I was so hot I didn’t realize that I had no judgment and no perspective,” says Gould, whose unconventional looks made him the perfect antistar for the counterculture era—but also made him hard to cast when tastes shifted. “I came out here so fast, and I didn’t know how to back up.” He was guilty, he says, of “taking myself too seriously. I’m fairly simple-minded in some ways.”
While he seems now to be more stable professionally, his romantic life remains a bit messy. First there is the matter of first wife Barbra Streisand, whom he married in 1963, after they costarred in the Broadway musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale. She became a household name—and he became known as “Mr. Streisand,” drawing unemployment checks and losing money in poker games. “I haven’t always made a living,” says Gould. “She basically took care of me.” They divorced in 1971 and rarely see each other but remain bound by mutual affection for their actor son Jason, 31. Streisand, says Gould, “is a part of my family.” (Jason, who directed his father in the 1997 short film Inside Out, is “my favorite director,” he says. “I love him very much.”)
As his first marriage crumbled, Gould began dating Jennifer Bogart, the teenage daughter of director Paul Bogart. By the mid-’70s they had married, divorced and had two children—Sam, now 25, a carpenter in L.A., and Molly, 26, a writer in Oakland. Gould was briefly engaged to actress Jennifer O’Neill, then remarried Bogart in 1978. They have been separated since 1989. “He’s very close to all his children and to Jenny,” says Gould’s friend Cindy Williams.
For the past four years, Gould has lived alone in a rented three-bedroom house, with bars on the windows and doors, in a high-crime section of Venice, Calif. He has owned only one home in his life and had to give it up in 1985 for failure to pay taxes. “I still owe the government,” he says. “I really don’t have any money at all.”
Nor does he have a steady girlfriend. Gould claims he’s not emotionally ready to date. “I have to know what my relationship with myself is before I can be anything more to anyone else,” he says, speaking, as he often does, as if he has just come from psychoanalysis. In fact, Gould has been in therapy most of his life. “I see a counselor once every other week,” he says, to help him “in maintaining focus.” Adds Gould bluntly: “I’m still paying for my childhood.”
His overbearing parents—Bernie, a buyer in the textile trade, and Lucille, a homemaker—were Eastern European immigrants who had “a nonexistent relationship,” he says. Well-meaning but manipulative, they focused their energies on perfecting their quirky only child, who was just 8 when they pushed him into a neighborhood dance school. For him it was a fortunate choice; eventually, he says, “I found some kind of salvation in tap dancing.” Gaining confidence, he worked summers at comedy clubs in the Catskills. After graduating from the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan, he made his Broadway debut as a chorus boy in the 1957 musical Rumple. A few years later he landed the starring role opposite Streisand in Wholesale. Moving to Los Angeles, he broke out in the then-risqué Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, playing a swinger caught up in the sexual revolution and winning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. At the ceremonies, he sat next to John Wayne, who ended up winning (for True Grit). “When he was called up,” says Gould, “he leaned toward me and said, ‘You look after [my wife].’ That felt like winning.”
Despite his success as Trapper John in the movie version of M*A*S*H and as Alfred Chamberlain in 1971’s Little Murders, Gould was never nominated again. “I thought I was going to be many, many times,” he says. “I have done so much work.” Indeed, M*A*S*H director Robert Altman cast Gould in three more films—as detective Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye (1973), as compulsive gambler Charlie Waters in California Split (’74) and as himself in Nashville (’75). “When an actor like Elliott Gould goes to play a character,” says Altman, “it comes from deep inside. It’s instinctual.”
But, says Altman, “he got arrogant.” In 1971, Gould started a production company, which promptly went bust, leaving him in debt for seven years. “I took responsibility for it, and I left the industry for a while,” he says. When he returned, he seemed to have lost his eye for a script. “I’m in quite a bit of real junk,” he admits. “I can’t tell you which was the most terrible. There are so many, it wouldn’t be fair to pick just one.” His paychecks reflect his track record: While top stars earn millions per movie, Gould says his biggest was $750,000 for 1981’s Dirty Tricks.
But since winning raves for his role as hoodlum Harry Greenberg in 1991’s Bugsy, Gould has rebounded. He plays himself in the first two episodes of ABC’s upcoming sitcom It’s Like, You Know…, and his coworkers insist he still has the star power of his heyday. Executive producer Peter Mehlman says that on Seinfeld, where he formerly worked for eight seasons, “We had Bette Midler and Raquel Welch and all kinds of big people. I never felt the kind of electricity as when Elliott walked on the set.” Cindy Williams, who starred opposite Gould in the national stage tour of Deathtrap last year, says he’s “adorable. He shares his mirth, his drama, with everybody. You know, if you had him in your house he’d tap-dance for you in your kitchen, whoever you were.”
But far more important to Gould than his career resurgence is his personal development. “It seems to be a contradiction in this world and this business,” he says, “but there’s no room for ego or for vanity. The most important thing is that you are comfortable with yourself.” A recent crisis has helped him find that comfort. Recently his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer (his father passed away 10 years ago); Gould moved her into his house, where she died in September. “I was able to give her the opportunity to die at home, very peacefully,” he says. “She’s more alive within me now than she could be when she lived. It was a privilege to be able to be with her at the end. It put my life in perspective.”
Over the years, he says, he has grown “from terrified child to mature human being.” He now enjoys spending free time alone, “reading, exercising and learning to live with myself.” It is, he says, “as if I’m taking the helm of my own vessel and learning to navigate.”
John Hannah in Los Angeles