To grow up Jewish in the 1970s was to be in the thrall of Elliott Gould.
Sure, the suburban teenage Semite had his Woody Allen for comic relief and his Paul Newman for confirmation that he was, indeed, a member of a Chosen People, but the sight of the mangy, Jew-fro-covered head of Gould on the big screen during that long-forgotten decade got more than a few movie geeks through adolescence.
Gould’s place in the pantheon of great cinematic neurotics is, of course, the subtext in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s long-overdue retrospective that begins on Aug. 1 with, naturally enough, a screening of Gould’s masterwork: “M*A*S*H.”
The nine-film recap, which runs through Aug. 21 and includes classics like “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,” “Going Straight,” “California Split” and “The Long Goodbye,” is called, appropriately enough, “Elliott Gould: Star for an Uptight Age.”
“That’s actually what Time magazine called me in September, 1970,” Gould said by phone from his California apartment, where he lives alone.
Talking to Gould for two-and-a-half hours, it’s eminently clear that the question-and-answer sessions that follow two of the screenings (on Aug. 8 and 9) are going to be worth the ticket price alone. Indeed, our first question about growing up in Bensonhurst led to a one-hour stream of hyperconsciousness that touched on the obelisks in “2001: A Space Odyssey”; his marriage to Barbra Streisand (1963-1971); his over-protective parents; his intense self-doubt; and the age and gender of his interviewer’s two children.
“My first address was 6801 Bay Parkway, Brooklyn 4, New York,” recalled the 69-year-old actor. “My parents were so overprotective that I couldn’t ever cross the street by myself.”
When did they allow him to do so?
Gould then launched into more memories: of PS 247, of riding the Sea Beach line to 22nd Avenue, of the now-defunct Marlboro Theater (where every movie he saw scared him so much that he had to run from the movie house screaming).
“I was such a scared kid,” he said.
So, naturally, Gould went into acting.
“No, I went into song and dance, because I was shy, repressed, inhibited — but I found that if I learned routines and memorized them, I could communicate.”
The result, of course, was an actor who did more than communicate. He created an entirely new Jewish cinematic archetype.
“He was a superstar,” said Jake Perlin, programming associate for BAMcinematek.
Perlin said that most filmgoers would focus on the three Robert Altman films in the series — “M*A*S*H,” “The Long Goodbye” and “California Split” — but the real gems are Peter Hyams’s “Busting” and Ingmar Bergman’s “The Touch.”
“In both movies, he’s incredibly brave,” Perlin said. “He puts it all on the line. Actors today are so unwilling to play a conflicted or negative character. And when they do, it’s still so neutered. Elliott Gould in ‘The Touch’ is anything but neutered.”
Gould offered his take on working with Bergman, plus his thoughts about the other films in the fortnight-and-a-half of fun:
(1970) Directed by Robert Altman. Starring Gould, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall and Tom Skerritt. Screenings: Friday, Aug. 1–Sunday, Aug. 3 at 2, 4:30, 6:50, 9:15 pm; Monday, Aug. 4, Tuesday, Aug. 5 and Thursday, Aug. 7 at 4:30, 6:50, 9:15 pm.
“It was so fabulous for me to be so free [in creating the role of Trapper John]. That performance was more spontaneous and freer than anything I could do in real life. Altman originally offered me Tom Skerritt’s role. I never question an auteur, but I told him I’d drive myself crazy playing a southerner, so he gave me Trapper John. Good thing, too, because Trapper John gave me the juice and the spirit.”
(1971) Directed by Alan Arkin. Starring Gould, Donald Sutherland, and Alan Arkin. Screenings: Friday, Aug. 8 at 3:30, 6:30 (post-screening Q&A with Gould), 9:30 pm.
“It is really good. I produced it, but Alan Arkin said he didn’t want to play the psychotic detective, so I said, ‘Fine, I don’t want you to give me a f—ing hard time,’ so I said I’d replace him. Once he heard I would replace him, he did the movie and he did a great job.”
(1973) Directed by Robert Altman. Starring Gould and Sterling Hayden. Screenings: Saturday, Aug. 9 at 3:30, 6:30 (post-screening Q&A with Gould), 9:30 pm.
“That movie was my favorite, because it came out when I could not get myself arrested. I was out of work for a year and a half. I thought the script was a little old-fashioned, but I was looking for a job. Peter Bogdanovich [the original director] didn’t want to use me, because he thought I was too young. But then Altman directed, and he called me.”
(1974) Directed by Peter Hyams. Starring Gould, Robert Blake. Screenings: Sunday, Aug. 10 at 3, 6, 9 pm.
“[Sighing] Peter Hyams wasn’t too crazy about me, which is an error; he didn’t get me. But he hired me after seeing me on the Dick Cavett show. I was on without my shoes, and Cavett made a gesture as if my feet smelled. So I demanded that he take his shoes off. Peter said that impressed him.
“Anyway, there’s a great scene when I rush out of the courtroom all pissed off, chewing gum. I’m supposed to pick up this big black guy and throw him into the elevator. I ad-libbed the Pledge of Allegiance. It really works.
“I’m glad Robert Blake got the role. I really wanted to work with him. He was dangerous, and I wanted to understand him.”
(1969) Directed by Paul Mazursky. Starring Gould, Natalie Wood, Dyan Cannon. Screenings: Saturday, Aug. 16 at 3, 6, 9 pm.
“It was a breakthrough for me. On this film, I discovered my first objective relationship. One time, because of union rules, we took a break and the entire set cleared, you know, people getting some fresh air or having a smoke. And I’m just sitting there alone on the set — just me and the camera. I look at the camera, and I say to myself, ‘The camera doesn’t give me problems. I give myself problems. The camera is my friend.’ That’s what saved me — my first objective relationship in Hollywood.”
(1974) Directed by Robert Altman. Starring Gould and George Segal. Screenings: Sunday, Aug. 17 at 2, 4:30, 6:50, 9:15 pm.
“That was semi-autobiographical — though I am the character that George Segal played. I only got the role because Steve McQueen dropped out. On this film, I finally learned how to work with Altman. On ‘M*A*S*H,’ he thought I was my enemy. I said, ‘Don’t look at me — I’m always in character.’ But on this movie, he finally got me.”
(1970) Directed by Mel Stuart. Starring Gould and Dabney Coleman. Screenings: Monday, Aug. 18 at 6:50, 9:15 pm.
“Altman offered me ‘McCabe and Mrs. Miller,’ but my agent wanted me to do this film. Why should I do that? Everyone knows I love my wife [Streisand] — but she just sings too good for me. It’s about a Jewish kid who gets shallower and shallower the more successful he becomes. Instinctively, I know this character, so I constructed a schlubby kid.”
(1970) Directed by Richard Rush. Starring Gould, Candice Bergen, Max Julien. Screenings: Tuesday, Aug. 19 at 7, 9:30 pm.
“This movie gave me an opportunity to get angry [in a role]. Everyone had turned it down. It wasn’t going to get made. I said, ‘I don’t express anger too often, but there is so much pain [inside me].’ Plus, I got to act against Candy [Bergen] and have Harrison Ford be my young, gorgeous carpenter student.”
(1976) Directed by Mark Rydell. Starring Gould, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Michael Caine. Screenings: Wednesday, Aug. 20 at 9:15 pm.
“It was going to be Jimmy Caan and Jon Voight, but when he heard he had to sing and dance, he wouldn’t do it. I almost didn’t get the role because they thought I was crazy. What the f—? Am I crazy? I loved this film, because I’m an old song-and-dance man, and I got to sing and dance on screen.”
(1971) Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Starring Gould, Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow. Screenings: Thursday, Aug. 21 at 4:30, 6:50, 9:15 pm.
“Working with Bergman, I learned that I couldn’t fully accept all the privileges I was given, because I was given them too soon. Bergman said to me, ‘You’ve gone beyond your limits, and you’ll have to live more to understand what you’ve done.’ The great privilege is to be conceived, born and know yourself and everything else follows.”
“Elliot Gould: Star for an Uptight Age” runs Aug. 1-21 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene). Tickets are $11. For more information, call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.