On the Elliott Gould Craze

I imagine many people, like me, grew up watching Elliott Gould in the ’70s, little dreaming the nature of his career in the previous decade. I’m here to tell ya about it!

Broadway Elliott Gould

Born Elliott Goldstein in Brooklyn (no surprise there) in 1938, Gould spent his first decade in show business as a BROADWAY guy. His early shows were Rumple (1957), Say Darling (1958-59), Irma La Douce (1960-61), climaxing this period with his starring role in the hit musical I Can Get It For Your Wholesale (1962), which put him on the map. In 1963 he married another up and coming Broadway star by the name of Barbra Streisand. They make sense as a couple, right? When they were young at least, before she became a God on Mt. Olympus. But in the early years, they were roughly peers. In 1964, Gould did the TV production of Once Upon a Mattress with Carol Burnett and Jack Gilford. He then returned to Broadway for Drat! The Cat! (1965) and Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders (1967), later producing and starring in the 1971 film version of the latter with Alan Arkin.

While he’d had a supporting role in the 1964 comedy Quick, Let’s Get Married, Gould’s first starring screen part was in the burlesque drama The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) with Jason Robards and Bert Lahr. Then came two smash hit comedies: Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) and Robert Altman’s MASH (1970), where he created the role of Trapper John (a very different conception from both Wayne Rogers’ and Pernell Roberts’). By now he had a well-established image as a renegade, a counterculture smartass with leading man status. In his next film Getting Straight (1970) he played a Vietnam vet who becomes a protester, cementing that public image.

Just as they were both becoming major stars, Gould and Streisand separated in 1969, divorcing in 1971.  After a string of films that weren’t such hits, including the sexy comedies Move and I Love My Wife, both in 1970, and the Bergman romance The Touch (1971), Gould attempted to self-produce A Glimpse of Tiger, an adaptation of a novel by Herman Raucher, who’d written Summer of ’42. Apparently he melted down, punched the director, who quit or was fired, and scared co-star Kim Darby with his behavior (he was taking psychedelic drugs) and had gotten very deep into his character, to the extent of never dropping it. The studio called in security personnel and after less than a week the film was shut down. Rumored to be crazy, this hurt his career momentum drastically though not fatally. He had seemed to be on track to be as big as, say, Robert Redford, but it was probably never to be.

After pulling himself together, Gould continued his association with Altman as the star of The Long Goodbye (1973), and the co-star of California Split (1974), while also making cameos in Nashville (1975) and The Player (1992). In 1974 he co-starred with Robert Blake in Busting, which became the basis for Starsky and Hutch. He reunited with Donald Sutherland in S*P*Y*S (1974) and joined an all-star ensemble in Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976). He stepped WAY out of type as a military officer in A Bridge Too Far (1977), then had another hit as a doomed reporter in Capricorn One (1978), which I believe is the only time I recall seeing Gould in a cinema in a leading role in a first run film. He then starred in Hammer Horror’s last film, the unsuccessful 1979 remake of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. I think of Gould’s period of plausible Hollywood movie stardom ending sometime just after The Devil and Max Devlin (1981) with Bill Cosby. The ’80s were the era of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Eddie Murphy. Hairy hippies like Elliott Gould were rapidly sidelined during the Reagan era.

A VERY vivid memory I have from this era is Gould’s hosting of the opening show of the ill-fated season six of Saturday Night Live, which I wrote about here. It was Gould’s sixth and final time hosting SNL and it seemed like everything had changed overnight. Certain things were not to be taken for granted anymore.  At this stage Gould starred in some short-lived TV series. First there was E/R (1984-85), a different show from the longer-lasting, similarly named ER which debuted a decade later, though this one was also a drama set in an emergency room. He then had a recurring role on Dee Wallace’s 1986 sitcom Together We Stand a.k.a. Nothing is Easy.

Gradually, Gould managed to reestablish himself in major projects as a supporting player. He had a great part in Warren Beatty’s Bugsy (1991), had a recurring role on Friends (1994-2004), was in American History X (1998), has been in all of the Ocean’s 11 movies (2001-present), did a memorable 2005 episode of Poirot, was in Contagion (2011), and had a recurring role on Ray Donovan (2013-16). And much else, of course.