Tough Variations on a Warm Personality

Tough Variations on a Warm Personality

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Feb 13th 2018

“When the movie industry was shaken up like a kaleidoscope in 1969/70 there emerged strange new patterns,” historian David Shipman wrote in his The Great Movie Stars: The International Years, “and George Segal was discovered to be one of the big new names. He certainly hadn’t been before, though he’d been in films for almost 10 years. Segal hadn’t quite had the breaks – not great parts in smash-hits that [Dustin] Hoffman and [Elliott Gould] had. He represented – rather than projected – the new hero. He offers to others in the same situation as himself a care and an honesty, with only a wry backward nod to the age of chivalry. Still, as Pauline Kael said [reviewing 1970’s Loving], ‘He has the warmest presence of any screen actor. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Segal – not just Segal the actor but Segal the person who comes through in the actor – and this is an immense advantage to the movie, because even though he plays a mediocre, failed artist, we like him to start with and can’t dismiss him without dismissing almost all his humanity.’” Audiences bought that through the intervening years – particularly the 1970s, wherein a string of variably snappy and oddball – but always observant – comedies (The Owl and the Pussycat, Where’s Poppa?, Blume in Love, A Touch of Class, California Split, Fun with Dick and Jane) fanned the flame of that inherent warmth in interesting circumstances. As the elder-generation ensemble member of the current, five-seasons-old TV comedy favorite The Goldbergs, banjo virtuoso Segal, celebrating his 84th birthday today, is grateful for the work and the ongoing audience affection. Before his knack for comedy came to the fore in his screen work, the Great Neck, NY, native enjoyed a two-year period of dramatic heavy-lifting in acclaimed all-star productions (1965’s Ship of Fools and 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, scoring his only Oscar® nomination) and noteworthy historical war sagas (1965’s King Rat and 1966’s Lost Command). Two Twilight Time offerings from this subsequent late-’60s period show Segal’s tougher side. 

Producer-director Roger Corman invited Segal to unleash his rat-a-tat id as the murderous Bugs Moran Gang gunsel Peter Gusenberg in the veteran moviemaker’s one-and-only major studio feature, the explosive docudrama The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), sporting a devilish grin and a hair-trigger temper in this flashy retelling of the events leading up to the legendary Chicago mob rubout. In the formidable company of a cast-against-type Jason Robards as Al Capone and a fiercely combative Ralph Meeker as Capone rival Moran, Segal swings for the fences as he plays rough with the women in his life and the beleaguered speakeasy owners he menaces. With lean, mean precision, “Corman’s film deals in facts, names and dates: a plain man's history of how four of Al Capone’s gang came to shoot down seven of Bugs Moran’s in the Chicago garage on St Valentine's Day 1929,” The Spectator’s Penelope Houston wrote at the time. “But the film never looks plain; there's a relish for detail (cut glass and carnations for mobsters' conferences; gunmen driving down rainwashed streets), which makes for style. It's a cool, violent film, romantic in a disciplined, disenchanted way about its battling gangsters.” Two years later, for producer David L. Wolper and director John Guillermin, he’s still a tough guy with an attitude, yet one with a conscience, as Lt. Phil Hartman, the world-weary squad leader tasked by his officious superior officers to lead the vital mission to take The Bridge at Remagen (1969) in the waning days of World War II as allied forces advance on retreating yet still defiant Nazi troops. Amid the macho maneuvers and hardware deployments, TT’s Julie Kirgo zeroed in on Segal’s warmth factor, writing in her film notes: “Brutal, funny, sarcastic and tender, he is the commanding officer of everyone’s dreams: tough but caring, and damn well braver than anyone else. His agony as he is forced to view his company being picked off, one by one, is terribly moving – as is his obvious love for each and every individual he commands.” While the film depicts this decisive, game-changing Rhine River encounter from both American and German perspectives, Segal and fellow lead players Ben Gazzara (as Segal’s conniving rouge of a sergeant) and Robert Vaughn (as a duty-bound, strategic-thinking German major) give the film a riveting human focus and driving momentum, which The New York Times’ Howard Thompson seconded: “In a generally well-performed movie, Mr. Gazzara, and especially Mr. Segal, who is superb, make rough and real warriors, for all the basic familiarity of the characters. Mr. Vaughn, as the tense commander across the water, is excellent.” 

By way of tribute and stimulating one’s memory of an enviable career resumé, check out Phil Nugent’s thoughtful consideration, for The High Hat website, of The Forgotten Actor: George Segal, accessible here: http://www.thehighhat.com/Nitrate/009/nugent_segal.html. Then have a blast by spinning the TT hi-def Blu-rays of The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (offered here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/28535/THE-ST-VALENTINES-DAY-MASSACRE-1967/) and The Bridge at Remagen (reduced to 33% off original list during our current limited-time MGM Sales Promotion through February 28). Another Segal movie from his golden ’70s run debuts later this year.