By Patricia Reaney
George Segal, a Great Neck native and Oscar-nominated actor who sparred with Richard Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” romanced Glenda Jackson in “A Touch of Class” and won laughs in the TV sitcom “The Goldbergs,” has died at the age of 87.
“The family is devastated to announce that this morning George Segal passed away due to complications from bypass surgery,” his wife Sonia Segal said in a statement on Tuesday.
Charming and witty, Segal excelled in dramatic and comedic roles, most recently playing laid-back widower Albert “Pops” Solomon on the comedy series “The Goldbergs.”
“Today we lost a legend,” Adam F. Goldberg, who created the TV series that was based on his own life, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
“It was a true honor being a small part of George Segal‘s amazing legacy. By pure fate, I ended up casting the perfect person to play Pops. Just like my grandfather, George was a kid at heart with a magical spark,” Goldberg added.
Segal‘s long time manager Abe Hoch said in a statement that he would miss his friend’s “warmth, humor, camaraderie and friendship. He was a wonderful human.”
Segal‘s acting career began on the New York stage and television in the early 1960s. He quickly moved into films, playing an artist in the star-studded ensemble drama “Ship of Fools” and a scheming, wily American corporal in a World War Two prisoner-of-war camp in “King Rat” in 1965.
Two years later he earned an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor in the harrowing, marital drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
“Elizabeth and Richard were the king and queen of the world at that moment and there was a lot of buzz about it,” Segal told The Daily Beast in 2016. “For me, there was a great satisfaction of being involved with it.”
But it was in comedies that Segal cemented his star status in a string of films in the 1970s with A-list directors and co-stars such as Jackson, who won an Oscar for her performance in “A Touch of Class.”
Segal played a lawyer in the 1970 dark comedy “Where’s Poppa” with Ruth Gordon, a gem thief along with Robert Redford in 1972’s “The Hot Rock,” an out-of-control gambler in Robert Altman’s “California Split” and a philandering Beverly Hills divorce attorney in Paul Mazursky’s “Blume in Love” in 1973.
He starred opposite Jane Fonda in “Fun with Dick and Jane,” fell for the charms of Barbra Streisand in “The Owl and the Pussycat” and played Natalie Wood’s husband in “The Last Married Couple in America.”
“I always try to find the humor and the irony in whatever character I am playing because I think of myself as a comedic actor,” Segal said in an interview with the online movie journal filmtalk.org in 2016. “So that makes drama a lot more fun for me by not taking it so seriously, you know.”
He credited an early appearance on the late-night talk show “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” for his switch to comedic roles.
“It was the first time that the people who make movies saw me doing comedy and having this funny interchange with Carson,” Segal told the Orlando Sentinel in 1998.
He said he considered himself lucky in a business that he compared to gambling because you’re always waiting for your lucky number, or a great part, to come up.
He also had a life-long passion for the banjo and performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1981 with his group, the Beverly Hills Unlisted Jazz Band.
HITS AND MISSES
George Segal was born on Feb. 13, 1934, in Great Neck, Long Island in New York. Although his ancestors were Russian Jewish immigrants, his family was not religious. In interviews Segal summed up his Jewish experience as going to a Passover Seder at Groucho Marx’s house where the comedian asked, “When do we get to the wine?”
Segal was a shy child but said he felt free on the stage. After seeing the film “This Gun for Hire” when he was 9 years old, he knew he wanted to act. Following a stint in the Army and graduating from Columbia University with a drama degree, he made his film debut in “The Young Doctors” in 1961.
Two of Segal‘s most acclaimed performances – in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and as Biff Loman in the 1966 TV movie of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” – were in roles that actor Robert Redford had turned down.
“I owe Redford a lot. I think I may have thanked him when we did ‘The Hot Rock,’” he told Variety in 2017.
When Segal‘s film career waned in the 1980s he appeared in TV films and series before returning to the big screen in supporting roles that included “Look Who’s Talking” in 1989 and 1996’s “The Cable Guy” with Jim Carrey.
He found a younger generation of fans as a women’s magazine publisher in the hit TV comedy “Just Shoot Me!,” which ran from 1997 to 2003.
“He could make characters who should have been jerks seem lovable,” producer Steve Levitan, who worked with Segal on “Just Shoot Me,” told Variety in a 2017 interview.
Segal said he did not contemplate retirement because people kept offering him interesting roles.
“Being in your 70s is OK but, when you get to your 80s, you get creaky,” he told Variety. “I’ve got my second wind — although I’m not going as fast as I used to.”
(Additional reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Bill Trott and Edwina Gibbs)