I don’t care what people think! If I have a sense that I want to know what someone thinks, I will ask them. Otherwise, if I don’t ask, I don’t want to know. Everybody is their own character.
— Elliott Gould
Honoring the 40th anniversary of Robert Altman’s California Split, I sat down with screenwriter Joseph Walsh and stars George Segal and Elliott Gould at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles to discuss the picture and much, much more. Forty years have passed since the film, but these guys have known each other for 50-plus years. Here continues part two of our conversation.
Elliott Gould: Do you know the original title, the first one that I knew, to California Split?
George Segal: No.
Joseph Walsh: The way that name came out was, Altman and I were down scouting all of Gardena and all of the card clubs, and wondering if we could build it ourselves because we couldn’t get the time from them — it would be four hours a day. And some gambler there asked us what we’re doing. And I said, “We’re going to do a gambling movie,” and he misunderstood because I said, “We’ll open with lowball rather than high,” and he says, “Oh. California Split, you mean?” And Altman and I looked at each other and … “California Split.” What do you think?” That’s high-low poker. That’s what it’s called out here. And that’s how it got its name. We had no idea if it was right or wrong. That just sounds good.
Kim Morgan: And we talked about this in Telluride, but I’d like to repeat it, just in the history of the film in that it started — you worked with Spielberg before that …
JW: MGM bought it. I’ll give them credit. Danny Melnick and that team. Bought me producing it. Bought Steven directing it. Deal made. And then, of course the smiling cobra Jim Aubrey comes into it. Which you see, no accidents. How it evolves. Because I don’t know how they’re playing the roles then and how Altman directs it. I had lunch with Steven later, and he said, “Let’s talk about California Split” two and a half years after not doing it, right? And I said, “Okay.” Waiting … And he says, “You know. I would have definitely made more money with this film.” Beat. Beat. “But I could never have made a better picture.”
EG: Donald [Sutherland] and I came in to see Bob. You were in the office, Joey. You and Bob over there on Westwood Boulevard. And Donald and I were coming in. Nothing to do with Split … and Bob said to me, “There’s nothing in this picture for you.” And it sort of hurt my feelings because that’s not necessarily what consciously I was there for. You and Bob were there sitting in this office alone. I just was coming back with Donald because there was a pirate picture that Bob had in mind about two guys. So then, when McQueen couldn’t do it, then Bob called me and asked me if I would.
GS: Well, he talked to me about who was going to play the other guy. He had said words to this effect: “I worked with Elliott enough,” something like that. And he was going with Peter Falk.
GS: In my conversation. And then he called and he said, “I’m going with Elliott.”
EG: Oh really?
GS: Yeah. So it was like he was wrestling in his own mind about it. As if, “I don’t want to be associated with this guy with every fucking movie I make.”
EG: Yeah, he would say that to me sometimes.
KM: How did you feel about that?
JW: Probably hurt a little bit?
EG: No … I mean … Let me see, I mean, you can transcend that. The thought hurts. The feeling doesn’t hurt. You know? The feeling sometimes can be, it might be insulting if there’s any ego there, but there’s barely any ego here. Because when he called me I was in Munich doing another B movie with Trevor Howard. I was in Munich, and Bob said, “Would you play the other guy?” And I said, “What does Joey think? This is Joey’s picture. This is Joey’s life. “ And I said, “I’ll do anything you want me to do. But I have to know that it’s okay with Joey.” And he said, “It’s okay.” And I said, “Where’s Joey?” And he said, “Joey’s playing poker.” [To Joey] You were playing poker when he called me. And I said, “If it’s okay with Joey and this is what you want. My God, of course I would.”
JW: Yeah. And, of course, it was the reverse for me because him being the Bill Denny to my Charlie Waters in life, I couldn’t get it. I could see Elliott playing the George role, but I couldn’t see Elliott. When we were growing up, he was the reticent one and I was the one always getting in trouble. “C’mon. Don’t worry about it. You bet your money. Give me your 60 dollars out of your tap dance money. Don’t worry …”
EG: Yeah. My father’s car … oh my God! In Florida.
JW: I would overwhelm him with the reversal. But as Elliott said even before the picture began, it was one of his great lines. Elliott said, “Joey, what you’ve never understood is you have always been the Charlie and I’ve played the Bill to your Charlie for years, ever since we were kids. But to the rest of the world, I’m the crazy one.”
EG: I mean it. And even right now, it’s great for us. As far as the chemistry [goes] because I know how I work when I have the opportunity and I can be free. And I took freedom. Especially on Split, I knew it. Altman, I always had Altman in the crosshairs. Always. Because even with The Long Goodbye he told me he was afraid of me. That I would just go further than he might consider, but he trusted me and had confidence in me, even when I’m always in character.
JW: When George was set to do it, at that point, you were never really going to do it.
EG: Robert De Niro had been mentioned.
JW: Well, De Niro I brought in but, uh, Bob when it got to that point … he didn’t get De Niro at all. We couldn’t find the right combination to pitch the script. Back and forth, it went on for two months. I had seen Mean Streets. I saw it in the afternoon in the theater across the street from New World. I said, “I just saw some guy, this guy is ridiculously good. The guy could be a great Charlie.” And so Altman said, “Bring him in.” He came in. Bob tried to explain California Split and it was such … [laughing] my skin was crawling. The pitch was so bad. So I jumped right in front of Altman and I said, “Bob [De Niro], here’s California Split. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And of course his eyes were coming alive and that’s what it was.” But Bob explained it, [in ho-hum voice] “Well, it’s two guys. They gamble. Um, um, um …” My head was just going down.
GS: Well that means Bob didn’t want him. That’s a way of expressing he didn’t want him.
EG: What Bob said to me, and he didn’t say it very much, when he asked me to do it, he said, “Because I know, if I give you a nickel, you’ll stretch it more than anyone else would consider.” And I thought, conceptually that sounds interesting and good, you know. It’s almost like, thematically, I’ll stay alive and figure something out and keep it going and that’s sort of what it’s all about.
JW: Well, because Elliott would go … I never feared the one-armed piccolo player.
EG: [Exclaims] Oh my God!
KM: You almost didn’t do it. You were afraid to do that scene.
EG: Of course I was! And so then when we came to the day, and I trust, you know, and Altman says, “Let’s not do it.” I said, “No, let’s do it. Give me a chance. Joey wrote it. It means something to him. It means a lot to him and it’s funny, let me take a shot at it.” Altman was not going to do it.
JW: They didn’t let me know which was interesting because I thought it was a brilliant stroke of writing. This is the one thing I thought so hard about. “How do I get George to take control now?”
KM: Especially since he’s so angry with him [Elliott], you gotta do something to disarm him.
JW: That’s right. He’s been let down by his love, basically, in this film, and Elliott, not in a dream, he gets the reality. He has to stand on his own two feet. I knew it wasn’t about dialogue. And I kept writing it over and over again; I’d say, “Yeah … Oh … that’s terrible.” That’s not gonna bring George back. It’s gotta be physical. And I thought, “Oh, the one-armed piccolo player!”
EG: Oh, it’s great.
JW: When your friend is doing something this outrageous … so he never told me this. That they might not shoot it.
EG: Never told you what? That there was a question?
JW: You told me after it. But I didn’t know about this. He said to me later on, “We almost didn’t film the one-armed piccolo player.” And I said, “What?!” He said, “Altman came to me and said, no I don’t have to do it and I guess it was the thing with a movie star with a trick penis, I don’t know the thing. Maybe he didn’t want to do such a thing in the movies.”
KM: Well, that was kind of rare then …
JW: It never was in my mind! I thought, “It’s gonna work! It’s gonna work!” I said, how’s George? He’s so upset, he’s hawked his car, he’s hawked his things, he’s going to Reno and Elliott has disappointed him infinitely too much, right? It was your moment, and it’s a tough moment for George to play, and George plays it fabulous.
KM: Well, it’s always hard to laugh. To make that look real. But it had to be real, right?
GS: Well, I was really laughing.
EG: Well, we didn’t do it too many times. That was the thing with Bob.
JW: No, no. We only did it once or twice.
GS: I don’t remember doing it twice. I think we did it once.
KM: It seems like Altman had a nice balance where he would allow these great scripts and lines and then he’d allow improv and chance and then take risks too …
GS: Yes, he did. And I got along with him really well. He was a pleasure. It was fun to come in every day. It was like a party. It was so civilized back then. There were no long hours. It was relaxed. That’s why those movies from the ’70s were so good. We were all relaxed and enjoying what we were doing. They’ve taken that out of us now with the 20-minute lunches and the onerous long hours … it’s all different now. It’s all about money now. From the creative point of view, it’s different. It’s work. But it’s also fun to work so there’s that. I’d rather work than not work. But, those ’70s, what we’re talking about were transcendent. It was also, you were allowed to participate. You participated in the creation of the film — the directors encouraged that. That’s not what happens now. There’s Ben Affleck and George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino and they are having a good time and being so artistic and you can feel it in their work and it’s more like the 1970s with them. But they are calling the shots. And they are in their prime. Some wise person said, a movie star gets 10 years. Some, like Dustin Hoffman, are the exception and they get leading parts beyond those 10 years, but it seems to hold true most of the time, even when you look back into the ’30s. There were some like Spencer Tracy and others who came all the way through, but on average, about 10 years was about all you got. And those were also, always, your sexy, sexual years.
EG: I have a question. I have a question for you, George and Joey. When we were doing the film I believe there was a sequence of you, [George] in a car driving …
GS: That was down Wilshire, hitting all the lights.
EG: And why wasn’t that in the picture?
GS: I don’t know. It was brilliant. They had stuntmen at every light on Wilshire.
EG: You’re missing every light?
GS: And the wait for the red lights and I went through all the red lights and as we’re skidding because they were coming out of the side streets. They had a green light. Just risking it.
JW: And I wanted to do that because that was part of you leaving and him frustrated and the girls and all that so we took the risk and the craziness.
GS: That was great.
EG: I wanted to see that. The energy in that.
JW: No, but here’s what happened. We’re going to the scene with the light, George’s scene. He’s taking chances, he’s building something up. The anger, the upset that he’s been on this kind of string-along with a friend and it doesn’t seem like he has a friend out there. All of that stuff is building. So he runs all of these lights and he manages to go through every red light. And, at the end, it’s a very dramatic thing. George, you actually rip the antenna off of the car, which is symbolic of ripping himself off. Bob says to me at one point, and George can probably fill in this story because I always suspected George wanted that scene in. But, Bob said to me, “Don’t you think it’s overdramatic? Maybe that scene?” I said, “It’s pretty dramatic Bob. I understand that but I have a feeling that you might need this from this character.” But I wasn’t fighting hard for it because Bob made his points. And I thought, okay. Now, we’re going to leave it out. Okay. So then … here comes Mr. Begelman on the phone: “Oh, Jesus! You know, we’re hearing about this scene! Where’s this scene?” And Begelman’s pleading. “Put this scene in! C’mon. Put this scene in. We all like this scene where George runs the lights.” And Bob’s saying, “Eh … I don’t know.” And of course there’s the money. Bob’s saying, “It’s going to take money and time.” And they say, “Bob. We’ll pay it. Columbia will pay for it out of our pocket; we’ll pay the extra money. Put it on your budget, we’ll take care of it.”
EG: So what happened?
JW: Well, here’s what happened. Here’s what I learned. You force anything on Bob Altman. You don’t do that. You don’t force anything on Bob Altman. And I know because I saw the dailies of that scene. You guys never did see the dailies but I did watch the dailies of it. And let me tell you, it was as bad as a scene as you could see. I was like, “Bob. You don’t shoot like this.”
EG: He didn’t shoot it well?
JW: Oh, he didn’t shoot it well at all. He didn’t put any attention into anything. It was dead. Dead. Terrible. Dead. And Bob said, “You see? I told them. The scene stinks. It’s no good.” I didn’t want to get into it, but I was thinking, “Bob. You’ve sabotaged this scene. This scene could have been very dramatic. This is a scene Spielberg would have loved beyond everything. Give me a shot at this scene.” Steven later said to me, “You know when they go on the streak? That’s one gigantic orgasm. I would have made that 32 minutes of orgasm. You’d be on the edge of your seat by the time the two guy’s are at the finish with this.”
EG: [So to the ending of California Split.] As far as when Bob came up, he’d say, “We can finish the picture up here to save you time and money and not to go outside” [like in the original script], and that’s when we made up the ending.
JW: Well, the ending had been made up. It just happened. That’s vivid in my mind.
EG: Fine! One of us has a mind, that’s okay. [Laughing]
JW: I was a young producer at this point, so when Altman does something, and calls something: that’s the end of it. That’s it. I got how dynamic it was and how interesting it was, but I’m thinking, you know, as Elliott says, “There’s never any doubts.” See, I never had any doubt about that character. He would always take the best price he can so when, in my original script, when he yells out: “Charlie what are you going to do with your life?” And Elliott, for love, shuts the car door on him, takes him to the airport, makes sure he’s okay, and, again, George yells out, “What are you going to do with your life?” And Elliott says, “I’m gonna take the best price I can.”
EG: “I’m gonna take the best price I can!” Oh my God!
JW: And freeze-frame on him. So, had we filmed that ending that would have played also.
EG: Oh, sure, and with Phyllis singing …
JW: But back to the change. It’s vivid in my mind that scene and what happened. I can give you the dynamics of all the people. I’m close to the scene. Watching this unbelievable scene, the ending. And then Elliott [after changing it] runs over to me and says, “Joey. I’m sorry. I don’t know where that came from.” And I’m saying, “It’s okay Elliott. It’s interesting. It’s very interesting.” At that moment, now George comes and says, “It’s fantastic! It’s fantastic. This is it! I’ve never understood this movie before. I’ve never understood this movie before until now.” I said, “Great. George, I know. It’s very interesting.” Both of them are here, in this moment, right? And I’m thinking, “Okay. I know one thing: Don’t get carried away in the moment. We have it. We could shoot the other scene. We’ll have both.” And then …
KM: And Elliott, you spin the wheel … It’s just … it all fits.
EG: It’s so interesting how the three of us had that.
JW: And then Altman comes in, and George drove it at that moment I must tell you. George says, “Bob! You know we don’t have to go any further! This is it!” Bob is wavering and he’s listening to George at that point and I’m thinking, “Okay. I hope … let’s get both. Let’s get both.” And Bob said: “That’s it. Right. That’s it. It’s a wrap.” And he yelled out, “Wrap! Finish!” And Elliott and George, they completed that scene beautifully, I mean, fabulously, I mean there was never any more than that one take and that’s it, boy. And that was the moment that, flashing back, look at all these combinations.
EG: My father used to count stitches in the garment center. He was a buyer and he had a magnifying glass and part of his job was to count stitches to see how fine the material was. And so when Bob came to me and said, “Can we finish up here,” my mind was like, my father’s being a production manger and “Yes, we could.” But on MASH, the same thing happened where we had built this set and we’re near the end of the picture and it’s when Hawkeye and Trapper are going to go to Tokyo and that’s where we’re gonna play golf. And Bob said, “Let’s not. We don’t have to do that. Let’s not do it.” And I said, “But the sets are built, we’re all ready to do it, we’re all rehearsed, shoot it, and then see it, and then if you don’t like it or if it doesn’t work then don’t use it.” Because I feel I could have gotten him to do that. By playing that little game. But I don’t play that game. I could have …
JW: But interesting what happened. Only in Hollywood. The perfect story. Who got buried for that? For California Split? The young producer. Guy McElwaine calls me and says, “You are getting crippled at Columbia right now. They are saying, ‘You cost this film 10 million dollars.’ Right there.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” And he says, “The ending. By switching that ending, you cost that film 10 million dollars.” Because to them, and [to me] you loved the new ending, but to moviegoers at the time they loved these two guys. They loved them. So the idea that he was still protecting the future of George and you saw the future of the two of them, and to change it, they said, “You pulled the goddamned rug out on the audience.” They weren’t expecting it. I did notice that when we screened it at Tennessee and I went to different cities and every time, everybody was roaring with the movie, they loved it. Well, the ending came and everybody trudged out of the theater and nobody was talking to each other. We kept watching this over and over again. They don’t know what to say; they’re shocked with this ending. They were shocked. And they didn’t know what to do with it!
EG: Awww … [feels bad] I could hit myself over the head with this bottle.
JW: No, you can’t! Because [to me] she says it’s brilliant and there’s no question! Everyone loves it
KM: It is brilliant.
JW: And gamblers get it even more. Dick Shepard, who’s a closet gambler. He says to me, after the film, “Look Joey, I do this every week, on the QT. I go every week to Vegas and I gamble for a lot of money. It’s my outlet.
GS: Excuse me. He was married to one of the Louis B. Mayer granddaughters, Dick Shepard.
EG: He produced Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
GS: [Speaking very quietly and carefully] Dick Shepard, he would get out of bed, after his wife went to bed, and he would go to the airport and go to Vegas for four hours, take the flight back, and then get up.
JW: See, I didn’t know he ever told you that. I didn’t know the details. But he says, [whispers] “The ending of California Split, it’s so brilliant. That’s exactly right. It means nothing to me. What does it mean even when you win? I’ve always left with this empty feeling.”
GS: Then he was an executive at Warner Brothers.
EG: Yeah. He ran Warner Brothers. And then he became an agent again, and we were talking about that, and he said, “Why me?” and I said, “I don’t know anybody else! I know you.”
JW: Here’s the one I wanted to tell you. Why California Split goes down. This is again, young producer and even Altman didn’t even know this, California Split is carrying on. Every big city. It’s going for seven to eight weeks. It’s getting incredible reviews, right? Incredible reviews, everybody’s carrying on. So now we’re saying, “Okay. We’re gonna make some money out of this picture.” We’re really gonna make it. The picture is working all over the place. Runs eight, nine weeks, breaks records in New York. Now, it’s gonna open worldwide with all the theaters coming in, right? So now we go in, and suddenly … this is the true story why we got hurt on the picture and why it’s not been seen as much. Runs for a week taking tap out business in every theater around the country. One week later. It’s pulled in every theater around the country. And what is it replaced by? The Last Detail. Which opened in ’73, which they lost money with. And now they put in The Last Detail to get the money. Why did they do that? It’s because what we didn’t know was that Begeleman called us in the middle of California Split and said, “Guys, gotta do me a favor. I gotta sell half of California Split to Persky-Bright, it’s a tax shelter group. I need the money. I have no money, I need the money to do Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Which, by the way, was the first film that [David] Begelman ever greenlit — a gambling movie — California Split. Very interesting, right? That the guy who wrote Indecent Exposure he didn’t mention California Split. I mean, talk about gambling. Think about what Begelman did with Cliff Robertson. But anyway, The Last Detail opened a year before and went down the tubes; we were selling out the first week. I’m frantic. I got conned again. I called Altman in Nashville. I said, “Bob, they sold the movie in every theater and they put in Jack Nicholson’s Last Detail. This is unbelievable! This is happening! And Bob said, “Well, get on the phone to them! Get on the phone with them. You’re the producer.” Right. Okay. Get on the phone, I get all the figures, I say, “Here it is. Every city. We’re selling out eight or nine weeks.” They say: “Settle down, Mr. Walsh!” I said, “Settle down, huh? What is this? I don’t know what you guys are trying to pull here but this is so wrong. And that’s how they dealt with California Split. It was a tax shelter group.
Kim Morgan is a film and culture writer who has written for numerous publications, including Salon, LA Weekly, GQ, and Playboy.