The Defense Rests

The Wisdom of the Beard

PJ McQuade Elliot Gould

The Sporting Life of Elliott Gould

A sports-inflected trip through 50 years in show business

Tucked away in the Oscar ceremony of 1976, one of the strongest in the Academy’s history,1 Hollywood glitz gave way to Marty Glickman for one glorious moment. Presenting the award for Best Editing was Brooklyn-born Elliott Gould, who fed the crowd an unscripted update. A millisecond after Isabelle Adjani, with whom Gould shared podium duties, announced “And the winner is,” Gould moved in: “Indiana, 86-68,” he interjected, earning a robust laugh from the crowd.2

Gould, a lifelong basketball fan, exulted when I mentioned this during a phone call this fall. “The NCAA championship game between Indiana and Michigan was that same night,” he recalled. “I listened to the score before we went out to make the presentation — literally in the wings, there was a radio there. The only way I could express something that was alive and real, not just the popularity contest, was saying, ‘Indiana 86-68.’ It got more than a laugh; that got quite a response.3 I haven’t been back to the Academy Awards ever since.”

A one-time nominee for his portrayal of a dissenting swinger in Paul Mazursky’s 1969 sex comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Gould was at the Oscars in 1976, in part, as a representative for Nashville, the fourth film in which he appeared for Robert Altman. In previous collaborations with Altman, Gould’s physical prowess and the reflexes he honed during pickup games in the schoolyards and sidewalks of Bensonhurst provided a crucial ingredient, whether as the street-basketball hustler and compulsive gambler Charlie Waters in California Split4 or the cocksure quarterback Trapper John in M*A*S*H*.

His final Altman moment — he’s glimpsed sitting near Young MC at a banquet in The Player — is a callback to his Nashville cameo; in both films Altman asked him to show up on the fly and play himself. The joke in Nashville, which gets the Criterion treatment this December, is that only a portion of the crowd gathered at the home of Grand Ole Opry star Haven Hamilton, played by a Nudie-suited Henry Gibson, can quite place who Gould is when he glides up in his limousine. Hamilton’s lawyer (Ned Beatty) guffaws when the most obvious small talk — “He was married to Barbra Streisand, that girl that sang ‘People’” — brings the mystery guest into focus.

In an Altmanesque twist of fate, I accompanied Gould on a trip to Nashville this past October — his first time touching down in Music City since shooting there nearly 40 years ago — to witness his speech at an annual NASCAR charity banquet hosted by two towering figures in the world of racing, Michael and Darrell Waltrip.

Hours before the banquet, Gould reflected on his impending appearance and how best to connect with the crowd. “You know the bumper cars at Coney Island?” he asked. “That’s my NASCAR.”

It all felt like a page ripped from Altman’s 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Bucking the Bogey myth, Altman and Gould portrayed the lone-wolf private eye Philip Marlowe as an impartial observer drifting from place to place as if he’d just awakened from a 30-year snooze, earning him the on-set nickname “Rip Van Marlowe.” Like Marlowe, Gould is more lucid than he seems, and like his alter ego, Gould was about to experience Tennessee after a three-decade hibernation.

Elliot Gould But there were no Chandler miscreants in Nashville. The banquet was like a symposium on politeness. Throughout the evening we received firm handshakes from NASCAR drivers with deep, resonant voices who expressed their gratitude for Gould having made the trip. A particularly considerate attorney took me aside at one point and recounted the history of the devastating Civil War battle that took place on these hallowed grounds (the event was held just outside Nashville, among the rolling hills of Franklin, a town named for the Founding Father). For all the shout-outs Gould received from admirers (“Loved you in Ocean’s!”), he was especially heartened by acknowledgements of his current work on the Showtime series Ray Donovan, in which he plays Ezra Goodman, mentor to the eponymous Hollywood “fixer.”

At one point in the evening, somewhere between Wayne LaPierre of the NRA auctioning off a 20-gauge shotgun and Bo Bice going acoustic, Gould leaned in with an impish smile. “There’s an episode of Ray Donovan where someone slips acid in an FBI agent’s drink,” he said. “This is like our acid slipped in a drink.”

Taking a cue from Gould’s scoreboard update at the Oscars, during lulls in the auctioneering I would feed him scores from the World Series opener under way at Fenway. With each update, Gould would nod discreetly and focus his attention back on the presenter onstage, before leaning back in: “What inning?”

Our plan to meet in Nashville was hatched over a ballgame. Earlier that month, I’d spent a Sunday in Gould’s apartment in Los Angeles, where we spoke at length while flipping between a Pirates-Cardinals divisional game, the Manning-Romo shootout at AT&T Stadium, and the main event, the Braves on the ropes against the Dodgers, Gould’s hometown team from both Brooklyn and his adopted West Coast oasis. Gould’s first visit to Ebbets Field was in 1941, when he was only a year and a half old. “My parents told me that whenever something happened in the game, they were in the toilet with me, because I had to pee all the time,” he said. I asked if he recalled his first visit to Dodger Stadium. “The first time I came to Los Angeles was in 1963, the year the Dodgers swept the Yankees in the World Series. Barbra was singing at the Ambassador Hotel, and we flew in from New York. I went to a game at Dodger Stadium and sat with Louis Armstrong.” When I asked if he was serious about Satchmo, he responded, “More than serious, I’m honest.”

At 75, Gould is nothing if not grounded. He’s as content reeling off stories about working with Steven Soderbergh as he is talking about playing the Giant from “Jack and the Beanstalk” in 1983’s Faerie Tale Theatre. (He loved it so much, one day he went home in his Giant makeup.) The first American actor imported to star in an Ingmar Bergman film in Stockholm5 was just as pleased decades later to be Krusty the Clown’s neighbor in Springfield. In another TV appearance aimed at kids, Gould swung a wagon tongue as Mighty Casey in “Casey at the Bat,” and can still laugh years later about how much he struggled to connect with the pumpkin-size baseball on command. But Gould remains especially proud of his percussive “jazz acting” in The Long Goodbye, so much so that he’s had a sequel incubating for years, tentatively titled It’s Always Now. The screenplay, still incomplete but always germinating, is based on a pre-Marlowe short story, “The Curtain,” to which the Chandler estate granted Gould the rights for $1. In true Marlowe fashion, Gould told me, “I don’t think I even gave them the buck.”

As we settled on the Pirates game for a couple of innings, Gould mentioned he’d been chipping away at his remarks for the NASCAR event, and marveled at this particular casting decision. “Last year the guest was Shaquille O’Neal, and now it’s me,” he said. “I met Shaq once before at Greenbrier, a golf course in West Virginia where the government, during Eisenhower’s time, built subterranean shelters for Congress in the event of all-out war.” When I asked if I could tag along in Tennessee, Gould disappeared into another room to call the promoter and make the arrangements, allowing me a moment to check out the framed Al Hirschfeld caricatures lining the walls. When he returned, Clint Hurdle was making a pitching change in the Pirates game. “I like Hurdle,” Gould said. “He chews gum and blows bubbles.”

Elliot Gould Despite being a Dodgers fan, Gould was pulling for the Pirates in the playoffs. “I’m into wishful thinking,” he said. “But the abstraction of rooting for a team, and personalizing it, affects me emotionally, and I don’t want to be affected emotionally by what other people do. Life is not about winning and losing. Even when people talk about luck, there’s a deep part of me that doesn’t believe in it. I believe in timing.”

My conversations with Gould inevitably circle back to sports, reinforcing his resemblance to his character in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming — the father figure who always seems to call at the right time to “discuss the Knicks-Bulls exhibition game” at dizzying length. On October 9, the day after Andy Pafko died, I called Gould for his reaction. “Pafko had the biggest forearms I ever saw. He came up to the Catskill Mountains when I was staying there and hit a softball over the biggest tree in center field. It was breathtaking.” He recounted how thrilling it was when the Cubs traded Pafko to the Dodgers in 1951, and rattled off the other players acquired in the deal: Johnny Schmitz, Wayne Terwilliger, and Rube Walker. “I’d have to look at the roster and tell you who I remember, because I don’t lie. It’s too easy, being inventive and creative, to spin things.”6 He scrambled around for a baseball almanac to verify his claim, but laughed when the only book at arm’s length was The Complete Conversations With God.

Gould so often couches his reminiscences with allusions to sports and sense memories from childhood that his response to whether he had any allegiances to the Brooklyn Nets came as no surprise. “No, none whatsoever,” he said, bluntly. Had the franchise started from scratch and not been a New Jersey transplant,7 would he feel the same way? “What comes to mind is Jell-O,” he continued. “Then I was thinking more in terms of My-T-Fine chocolate pudding, which my mother used to make. She would pour it into little cups and let me clean the pot. That’s Brooklyn to me, that’s home. The Nets? That’s not Brooklyn to me.”

The modest, one-bedroom apartment8 in Brooklyn where Gould (then Goldstein) grew up is a world away from the sleek contours of the Barclays Center, as is Seth Low Park, where he used to shoot hoops in the shadow of P.S. 247. To combat his shyness as a kid, Gould’s parents enrolled him in tap lessons. “The rationale,” Gould explained, “was that if I memorized routines — percussive, rhythmic routines — I’d be able to communicate better through what I’d memorized.” He began performing regularly onstage, making it all the way to Broadway before settling into over 150 screen and television roles. He appeared first as “The Mute” in the Ginger Rogers vehicle The Confession, directed by William Dieterle. Dieterle, like Gould, got his start as an actor in the theater.

“Someone once said to me that theater is the fastest thing on a surface, even faster than hockey,” Gould said. “So I think of acting as sport. Even in Shakespeare, the actors are called the players.” This brought to mind one of Gould’s favorite stories: the time Howard Cosell invited him into the booth on Monday Night Football. “It was the Washington Redskins against the Los Angeles Rams,” he said. “At halftime they had three different people come up: It was me, Ronald Reagan, and John Lennon. When I was interviewed, it was simply this: ‘What do you like about the game?’ And I said, ‘The players.’ That was it. That was the extent of the interview. It was perfect.” I wondered if Cosell was perhaps irritated by such a succinct response. “No. There was no better answer I could give.”

After Gould recited some baseball poems he was especially fond of from an out-of-print book titled Baseballology by Edmund Vance Cooke, published in 1912, we settled in to watch the opening innings of the Dodgers game. When the picture registered on the screen and the scoreboard revealed the Dodgers were already down 4-0, Gould howled “No!” loud enough to pierce my eardrums.

“See!” he shouted. “A score doesn’t fucking matter, and I made it matter!” When the Dodgers finally retired the side, Gould’s anxiety crested. “This is why I don’t gamble,” he said with a sigh. “I remember Walter Matthau invited me over to his place one time, just him and me, and he was gambling. I think it was a Sunday, and the Brewers were playing the Angels in the playoffs. Walter would cover his eyes watching the game; it was too much for him to watch. Then he said to me, ‘You want to look out the same window that Charlie Chaplin looked out?’ I said no thanks. He said, ‘Would you like some chopped herring?’ I said yeah. He said he didn’t have any. ‘Don’t do that,’ I said. ‘Don’t offer me something you don’t have.'” He laughed about the chopped herring — “You know, it’s sorta ethnic” — and added that he knew Liev Schreiber was OK when he saw him eat chopped herring while shooting the pilot for Ray Donovan.

Gould’s brief funk over the score subsided when the Dodgers quickly manufactured a run, followed by a three-run blast from Carl Crawford. “Oh, Carl! What a clutch, great hit,” he marveled. “Brooklyn had a great Carl. Carl Furillo, he played right field. He was called ‘The Reading Rifle’ and ‘Scoonj.'” Gould reached for the phone and dialed up Norman Lloyd, one of his oldest friends in Los Angeles and one of the last living ties to the golden age of Hollywood, to recap the rally. A New Yorker through and through — he’d even dangled from the Statue of Liberty for Alfred Hitchcock — Lloyd was a heckler at all three ballparks in the boroughs as a kid, dating back to the days of Ruth. He informed Gould that he’d played two tennis matches that morning, and won them both — at a month shy of 99, no less. “Your family is coming to town next weekend, right?” Gould asked. “That’s great, I want to come. Maybe I’ll bring some chopped herring.”

In Gould’s hotel suite in Nashville, he played an iTunes set list to help get into the right frame of mind for the NASCAR appearance, pausing every so often to trade Scrabble words with his daughter online or tell me Groucho Marx9 stories. After an hour or so of Nilsson and Lennon’s “Many Rivers to Cross,” Gil Scott-Heron’s “Lady Day and John Coltrane,” and Edith Piaf’s “C’est à Hambourg,” it was time to hit the road for the unknown in Franklin.

Having dutifully made the rounds for several hours at the banquet, Gould was at last called to the stage. His brief remarks felt like a summation of the October days I’d spent in his orbit, a mixture of humility, inclusiveness, and a knack for sports metaphors that transcend boundaries:

The word “career” is defined in the Webster’s Dictionary as emanating from a Spanish word meaning “an obstacle course like a racetrack.” And I believe that on a universal level, we all have the same career. I’ve been in a lot of movies — some are better and some aren’t — but I can look at any one, if not every one, and find a reason for participating, since I’ve lived through all of this, and I’m still working. I also believe that there’s nothing of value other than what we have to share. And it’s one thing to share goodness and accomplishment; it’s another to share a problem. And once people are willing and capable of communicating directly, like this, we can then see that no one of us can have a problem that one of us didn’t have before.

Gould concluded by thanking the organizers and all in attendance who welcomed him so warmly into NASCAR Nation. With the pressure off, Gould was free to watch the rest of the festivities unfold. The headliner that night was country legend Charlie Daniels, who worked his fiddle so hard, the hairs on his bow frayed apart until it began to resemble a whip, which he lashed at his side like a lion tamer between solos. By the time he’d finished “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” he hoisted the fiddle over his head and blew a cloud of horsetail dust into the spotlight. Gould tapped me on the shoulder, his perched brows beckoning me closer. “He’s fabulous, I love him!” he shouted over the hollers from the crowd. “He should be in the sequel to The Long Goodbye.”

Whether that idea comes to fruition is beside the point. Gould leaves traces wherever he goes, like the matchstick streaks that linger on every surface Rip Van Marlowe crosses, before moving on to the next lead.

James Hughes is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has contributed to Slate, The Atlantic, Wax Poetics, and The Village Voice. For a decade, he was an editor and publisher of Stop Smiling magazine and its book imprint.