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ELLIOTT GOULD: HIS GOODBYE WAS LONGER THAN HE PLANNED

In the early seventies, Elliott Gould made the cover of Time magazine--a tribute mostly to his smash in "M*A*S*H." By the time I interviewed him for The New York Times in 1973, he seemed to be starring in a real-life drama called "C*R*A*S*H." Happily, he survived and still plays supporting screen roles, most notably in the 2001 remake of "Ocean's Eleven," followed by "Ocean's Twelve" and "Ocean's Thirteen." --Guy Flatley

 

"The studio cut off my legs and then said, ‘Next time, you go out there and win a race for us.’ But what they didn't know is that the mind can grow any kind of legs it wants. I'm the original rubber man, and I'm bouncing right back. I may be starting out at the bottom again, but I'm feeling good. I just refuse to feel bad anymore."

Elliott Gould, who plummeted from the exalted position of superstar to has-been in the absurdly brief span of two years, sits unshaven in the early-morning rubble of his room at the Plaza, re-lights last night's cigar and smiles sadly as he traces his rise and fall -- and what he hopes will be his triumphant comeback as the gently sadistic detective Phillip Marlowe in Robert Altman's forthcoming "The Long Goodbye."

He's wearing a sweatshirt and corduroy pants, his dark curls are tangled, and his nails are bitten almost to the point of no return. And the gloomy tale he tells would be glaringly out of place in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" or "M*A*S*H" or "Getting Straight" or any of those sassy, sexy comedies that made him - for one bright and shiny season - America's favorite schlemiel.

Elliott's blue period began early in 1971, shortly after the mystical but uncommercial experience of toiling in Ingmar Bergman's somber drama, "The Touch." Although the critics were to find him laughably miscast as a moody, mean-tempered archeologist who makes an illicit dig into the marriage of Bibi Andersson and Max von Sydow, Elliott returned from Sweden certain that Bergman had opened the floodgates of artistic expression for him. Thus, it was with a sense of jubilation that he jumped into "A Glimpse of Tiger," an offbeat comedy which he and his producer-partner Jack Brodsky had talked Warner Brothers into backing.

"A Glimpse of Tiger," however, was destined never to be glimpsed by the public. Even before the cameras began to roll, there were rumblings of wrongdoing. It was rumored that Elliott had threatened to thrash his trembling co-star Kim Darby, that he had exchanged blows with director Anthony Harvey, that he was freaked out on drugs and subject to spectacular outbursts of emotion, that he had pulled a disappearing act, that he was no longer the lovable looney we had taken to our hearts.

Today, Elliott claims that it was all a frame-up, that Warners needed a scapegoat and cynically took advantage of his trusting nature. But at the time, he merely agreed to cancel the project and to pay the production costs. "I owe Warners so much', he sighs, "that in my mind they are an eternal urinal that I keep pouring my money into."

Oddly enough, Warners did finally unleash a revamped version of "Tiger." It was called "What's Up, Doc?" and it starred Barbra Streisand in the role that was originally intended for her ex-husband.

"That makes good sense to me," admits Elliott. "At least she made some money out of it."

Money is precisely the thing that Elliott did not make as he drifted about, searching his soul, shooting basketballs, and fathering two children by Jennie Bogart, who had proved a valiant teenage tower of strength to him at the time of the "Tiger" attack When his pocketbook began to feel the pinch, he decided to resume his career -- and it was then that he discovered just how tightly Hollywood can slam its doors.

"I couldn't get work from July until 'The Long Goodbye' and that made me cry," he says, suddenly beaming over his ability to make rhymes out of his rotten luck.

But wasn't there at least a kernel of truth in all those wild rumors? The drug problem, for example?

"I have no problem with drugs."

Not even Marijuana?

"Nobody has a problem with marijuana."

Isn't it a fact that Kim Darby was all but frozen with fear?

"That's her problem; she's been frightened for a long time."

What about those fisticuffs with the director?

"I had a conflict with Tony Harvey, over the concept of the movie, and he was afraid to go to John Calley, the big boy at Warners, and tell him that changes should be made. In the beginning, I made a few wrong choices, and when I finally got the right answers, nobody would listen to me. After eight films and never being late and always knowing my lines, nobody would listen to me. I'm a gentle soul, and in the past I had always deferred to authority. But, this time, I knew I was right, and I had to put myself to the test. The price I paid was a lot of badmouthing and no jobs for two years.

"Warners collected on an insurance policy that said I was crazy," moans Elliott, rolling his beagle-dog eyes heavenward in disbelief. "I made the error of hiring a lawyer who became the instrument to nail me up. I thought I explained things to him, but he must have been listening to some other music. I was innocent and ignorant -- a winning combination -- and they all made a goat out of me."

Elliott takes a deep puff on his cigar and ponders the lessons "Tiger" taught him. "I always had one great fault, which was a need to convince everybody that I was a good guy. I had a real confidence problem, and I would end up doing what others wanted me to do. And if all this is what it took to show people that I am human, then it was worth it."

He appeared so poignantly human to United Artists - the distributors of "The Long Goodbye" - that, in addition to the customary physical examination, they insisted he take a mental test. "They sat me down with a psychiatrist who asked me all sorts of questions and then they put nineteen needles in my head to see if I was sane."

The needles made the point that Elliott was sane, tangible proof that his six and half years on the couch were not spent in vain. "I finally stopped going to my analyst when he began having me explain things to him, and now I'll never have to entertain him again. You know, Freud got us into as much trouble as Christ did; in fact, I've come to the conclusion that Freud was really Mel Brooks."

If Freud were around today, he's probably say that Elliott's psychological troubles began shortly after his birth 34 years ago in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. "I never played much, and I was afraid to feel things," he recalls. And he was emotionally torn by the knowledge that the marriage of Lucille and Bernard Goldstein was made this side of heaven.

"By the time I was three, I knew my parents didn't understand one another, but they stayed together for 27 years. They're divorced now. It's funny - when my father was 17, he was eloping with another girl who was 16, but their families stopped them. Twenty-eight years later, he finally married her and they moved to Florida. A few days ago, I had my mother on one phone, and then my other phone rang, and it was my father calling from Florida. 'Well,' I said, 'I've finally got the two of you together.'"

About as together as Elliott and his ex-wife. "I recently read something Barbra said that pleased me very much. She said we would always be part of each other. She really is a remarkable person. You know something? She doesn't even listen to the radio! She doesn't know what's going on in the world - she doesn't know who Al Green is, and she's never heard the Temptations sing, and I just know she's going to love my saying that about her. But the truth is she's come a long way. Did you see her in 'Up the Sandbox'? She's more refined in that than I've ever seen her before. I'm real proud of Barbra."

Elliott is also really proud of their son, Jason, and of Molly and Sam, the two children he had with Jennie Bogart. And he's proud of Jennie herself (pictured with Elliott at right), who recently turned 20. "Jennie is the best fighter I've ever met. She fights for everything, she fights for life. She's living with our kids now in the house that Mary Astor built in the Hollywood Hills. Molly is 14 months old and probably the most beautiful girl in the world, and Sam was born January 9, in the kitchen of our home. The doctor brought his own table and two ladies to help him. It was 5:15 in the morning. 'Our Town' was on TV, and the birth was as natural as it could be."

Does Elliott plan to make Jennie Mrs. Gould? "I heard your question," he says meaningfully. "The relationship Jennie and I have never has to end, and if I'm in California, it would be natural for me to stay with Jennie and the children. Jennie and I understand one another. Besides, I can be of help directing traffic up there."

And when he's not near the girl he loves? "Right now, I'm by myself," says Elliott. "But if Mary Astor will have me, I'll be hers."

Does he have a favorite leading lady? "Barbra and Jennie and my mother. They're the only ones who have impressed me so far. But I'm looking forward to the day when I can choose my own leading lady."

Are there any candidates out front? "It depends on the situation. Maybe Marjorie Main. I'd love to work with Alexis Smith, or let Alexis Smith work with me."

What would he say to a last waltz in Paris with Barbra Streisand, who is Ingmar Bergman's first choice for his movie of "The Merry Widow"?

"I wouldn't mind that at all. I think a lot of people would be interested in seeing Barbra and me together."

Elliott's girl in "The Long Goodbye" is Nina Van Pallandt, a blue-eyed blonde celebrated chiefly for her role as star witness in the Clifford Irving case. An intoxicating actress, no doubt.

"Nothing new," yawns Elliott, gazing droopily off into space.

Nothing new?

'Well, I mean, Nina is strong, a really good specimen, but she knows who she is and what she can do. We worked real good together. My secret of being a formidable actor is that I seldom act. I'm always me."

Yes, but what about Nina?

"The good thing about Nina is that a lot of people want to see her on the screen. I myself wanted Jennifer O'Neill, because I felt she would draw more out of me. But, after 'A Glimpse of Tiger,' I didn't want to make waves. I figured Altman knew why he wanted Nina, and I was hardly in a position to say to him that I had to have Jennifer. But now I would insist on her."

Elliott is so definite about what should not go into a film that one suspects he yearns to be a director.

"I have been a director all along," he says, winking. "Seriously, directing is my next step. What I'd like to do is something like 'The Three Musketeers,' but in modern dress. I'd shoot it on the post office steps right across from Madison Square Garden. I'm also interested in bringing Shakespeare up to date, making Othello into a player for the Knicks."

For the present, however, Elliott is sticking to acting. United Artists has signed him to star in a comedy thriller called "Busting," and they didn't even make him take the mental. "I play a vice cop, and it's my job to go into gay bars and make arrests, to catch people loitering in the toilets."

You can't help wondering what Gay Lib will have to say about "Busting," and what Elliott will have to say about Gay Lib.

"I bat from just one side of the plate myself," Elliott explains. "The right side; I'm no good on the left. But I say Gay Lib is terrific, very courageous."

Then there's the other Lib - is Elliott aware that "M*A*S*H" was accused of being anti-feminist?

"I wasn't aware of it until just this minute. Why did they say 'M*A*S*H'was anti-feminist?

Because of the cruel treatment of the Hot Lips Houlihan character played by Sally Kellerman.

"Ooohhh...well, we've been cruel to women for a long time. I mean society has; not me. I love women. They're the ones that got us here, you know. I'm all for Women's Lib, it's brave to speak out in a world of truck drivers. But I don't think Women's Lib has anything to do with gender - do you dig what I'm saying? It has to do with both men and women, with breaking tradition."

The untraditional liberation Elliott envisions for himself is a serene time and place where he and his loved ones can come home together whenever the spirit moves them.

"What I want is a farm, a fun farm where Jason and Molly and Sam can play. We'll have an old trolley car converted into a diner...I always wanted to be a short order cook. And there'll be a barn with a full basketball court. It'll be a place for kids and animals and people who don't mind hard work," Elliott says, propping his legs up on the cluttered Plaza coffee table and puffing his cigar. "And I'll be there to entertain them."