For a certain generation, Elliott Gould was Ross and Monica Geller’s father Jack on Friends, Liev Schreiber’s boss Ezra Goldman in Ray Donovan and Reuben Tishkoff in filmmaker Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Trilogy. Currently, you can find Gould playing Harry Roberts in the new CBS sitcom 9JKL. His Roberts is the father to Josh Roberts, played by series lead and co-creator Mark Feuerstein (Royal Pains). That said, Gould’s background as an actor dates back to growing up in Brooklyn, attending PS 247 and eventually attending Manhattan’s Professional Children’s School. These early beginnings would lead to later Hollywood success, but when asked what made him want to be an actor, Gould will be the first to admit that becoming a thespian wasn’t the original plan.
“Who said I [wanted to be an actor]? I had an imagination and I would listen to the radio. There was a show on Saturday mornings that I would listen to, called Let’s Pretend. If you go back in history, you’ll find it. I was extremely inhibited, shy and repressed and I wasn’t the only one even though I’m an only child. So I was brought to song and dance school and I thought that while this was not what I had in mind, I didn’t know what I would be,” he recalled. “I had to take the subway into Manhattan to go to the Professional Children’s School and my parents had to pay for me to go there. I wasn’t a great student, although there were some subjects I was deeply interested in, so I could excel in some and not in others. I decided in being true to my parents and their investment in me, because I was all they had, that I would continue to pursue this and I was able to find myself. And that’s how I became an actor.”
Gould’s song and dance skills led to work in the Broadway theatre in the late 1950s, where he made his debut in a 1957 production of Rumple. His first leading role was in 1962’s I Can Get It For You Wholesale, where fellow Brooklyn native and his future wife Barbra Streisand was also making her stage debut. Gould made the leap to film in 1966’s Quick, Let’s Get Married. And while he nabbed a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for his work in 1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, it was his work with director Robert Altman that significantly raised his profile. Starting with 1970’s MASH, Gould and Altman worked on a number of films together including 1974’s California Split and 1973’s The Long Goodbye, a neo-noir crime thriller that found Gould playing Raymond Chandler’s storied private investigator Philip Marlowe. Gould’s relationship with Altman is one he remembers fondly.
“Oh my God, [Altman] was a bit like my father. Not only did he give me all this space. he let me take it. At first, he almost let me cast myself as Trapper [John] because he was talking to me doing the American southerner—the Tom Skerritt role—and he asked how I would feel. I never question work, but I said I’d be very intense in terms of how he’d use me as an American southerner. I could do it. I have a musical ear and I could do it. But this guy, Trapper John, I’ve got what that character has and Bob gave me the part,” Gould explained. “I didn’t know how to work like [Altman] and he didn’t necessarily understand how I work. But then we were able to do some great things together and we had some other things planned to do…even the sequel to The Long Goodbye.”
For someone with such an impressive acting legacy, Gould is incredibly humble and generous, particularly when talking about fellow actors, like his current costar Linda Lavin (“It’s more than just a privilege working with her. She’s very gifted, very giving, very experienced and we are a very funny couple.”). He’s equally gracious while politely declining to name what his favorite roles may have been. As someone whose humility runs deep, Gould’s is unabashed in crediting his faith as something that he’s used as a compass throughout his personal and professional life,
“My belief is that religion is about discipline and I believe in discipline. And in all honesty and sincerity, no one can tell me one is better than any other one. But when it comes to my roots in the tradition, I will not deny it,” he explained. “I believe a grain of pride is good for the heart but no more than that because then it’s blinding. History, what we are and how we got to be—I’ve got several quotations of Albert Einstein in my head and I’m extremely privileged and humbly happy in terms of what I’ve accomplished in terms of making a full circle. It’s very moving to me.”