“California Split,” 40 Years Later, Part III: An Interview with Elliott Gould, George Segal, and Joseph Walsh in Three Parts
By Kim MorganDecember 16, 2014
Non-gamblers tend to look at gamblers like an amusing freak show. We tend to look at them like they barely exist. We match their interest in us, with disinterest in them. Sounds cold, but being a gambler and a wonderful person has its difficulties. Our concentration is so diverted. We barely know who we are half the time, and you want us to recognize our problem?
— Joseph Walsh, Gambler on the Loose
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. 40 years have passed since the film, but these guys have known each other for 50-plus years. Here continues part three of our conversation.
EG: Bob had the 20 dollar gold piece that I gave him on Split, because I bought a gold piece for all of us.
JW: And you gave me one of your shoes from it. Laminated. And you gave the other shoe to Altman. You know the secretary shoes he wears through all of California Split? Elliott gave me the left shoe, all bronzed, and I still have it.
KM: May I get back to your performance, George? Because, again, you did not gamble, you didn’t know the world of gambling, and you said when you read the script it was kind of foreign to you.
GS: Yes, as I said, I had to get talked into it.
KM: So, you’re performing this as something as a fish out of water. What were you pulling from yourself to do this? You’re always on the outside. You are drawn into Elliott’s world, and yet you always remain an outsider. And you’re a darker character in that you really do reveal that you have a problem. By the end, it means nothing. It doesn’t make you happy, nothing.
GS: Well, that’s what I brought. I brought that. That discontent. I’m not competitive. Those guys who play poker, they really want to win. It’s not fun losing. It’s not fun winning. I enjoyed my foray into the world of poker, but I’m also happy to be out of it. There’s a feeling of loss. And trying to fill a void, which just makes a bigger void. But these three guys, these two guys, Joseph, Elliott, and Altman.
EG: These three guys! That’s pretty good!
GS: They kind of folded me in. They understood that. You don’t have to announce it to me, it’s quite clear. And Altman got that guy like me. Two weeks before took me around. Taught me gambling, taught me cards. All that stuff. It still didn’t sink in, but, as Elliott said, it was never really about gambling. It was about what was going on inside. And that was plenty because Altman creates an atmosphere where it frees you up and there’s no restrictions. We came from that school also.
JW: And so did Bob. And Bob was definitely a gambler. Oh my God.
EG: Well, you know, when we were doing Ocean’s Eleven, and this is my first experience with Soderbergh, and it’s 1:20 in the morning and we’ve got the whole gang there. Clooney, everyone. And I don’t like to get tired. If I’m tired I’m like an animal in the forest, I’m vulnerable. So I just know what I have to do, what my words are. And Soderbergh comes up to me and says, “The ink on the face. Was that an improvisation?” And it’s like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” And then I’m thinking, “Okay. Well, now wake up.” I think, “Oh yeah, The Long Goodbye. The Long Goodbye.” I said, “Yes, it was. Was that behavior okay for you?” He said, “Yeah, but it was totally unexpected.” And I said, “But that exhibited the kind of confidence and trust Altman had in me, because movies, it’s about time management and about money and time. Once I committed to it, I committed to it. It wasn’t in the script, when the police were roughing me up, putting the black under my eyes, and then we went even further and did Al Jolson. If I had stopped or had any fear, it would have cost us 25 or so minutes of production time. It’s trust.”
KM: George, on a side note, but very important one and so wonderful in the picture, I love when you sing “Rufus Rustus Johnson Brown.” It’s a charming and pertinent refrain in the movie, and I also loved that you wound up recording that with the great Harry Nilsson. How did that come about?
GS: He was the best. He has a sweet voice that just blows me away, and it’s completely without artifice. He just does it straight. He was a fan of mine, and he stopped by and, just like that, we sat down and played together. He had a Harpo coat on with all those inside pockets filled with Jack Daniels and stuff, and he was on his way to do a session with John Lennon, when John was here in LA. And then we bonded and we became good friends.
KM: . That’s wonderful. You keep playing music too. In fact, you play with my doctor. [To Elliott and Joseph] We have the same doctor.
GS: That’s right! We do. Yes, I have played banjo with him. He’s a master musician. A great multi-instrumentalist. This is the first gig I’ve ever gotten through a doctor. [Laughs]
JW: Getting back to George’s thing, I wanted George because I knew he didn’t understand the gambling thing, the loss. So, I got Amarillo Slim, I got Sailor Roberts, Elliott and me, all of these people, all good players and two killers. And I put three other plays in with George. I told George you gotta play in this game because you should have the experience to lose and you’re up against murderers row. And it’s okay if you lose [a little] and play with your own money because I wanted George to experience that one moment when you lose. I wanted George to get the experience of it. How does the loss affect his ego? Does it affect him as a man? Is it the money? I wanted his feeling, like, he would come back after losing about 6,000 dollars saying, “Wow that was weird.” He was a little boy compared to these guys. I wanted whatever was going to affect him.
EG: I remember! That’s also very historic. I mean, that’s a bigger loss than any 6,000 dollars because as you’re telling this and, as a studio, we would never let you lose your own money. You know? That wouldn’t be right, but then, if it was, we’re going to give you the money back. It wouldn’t be the same feeling that you’re talking about.
JW: Yes, yes. I didn’t want him to get his money back. I wanted it to be real. And what happens? George wins all the money that night! So then, he gets no sense of this is what happens when you lose [laughs]. But George, of course, brilliantly understood. He played the loss, the loss of a friend, everything he lost. He didn’t need that. But I thought he needed it. But that’s George’s backfire because he wins the money that night. I couldn’t believe it. In a real poker game.
GS: But Amarillo Slim helped me. I felt really good about the connection I made with Amarillo Slim and how he’d nod to me with every hand. I guess he’s telepathic. That was a remarkable extrasensory type of thing — the bonding that we made across the table. I won because he was telling me what to do from across the table. He’d instruct me not to bet or to bet just by nodding his head. And how he knew what cards I had I have no idea. It was extraordinary.
KM: He did not want you to lose!
JW: Slim, by the way, greatest introduction to Amarillo Slim. Meet him the first day we’re in Reno. He comes down for breakfast. I say to Slim, “I’m gonna give you a bet, Slim, you can’t refuse. A keno game was about to start. “I’m gonna bet you 200 dollars right now, I’m gonna pick one number, and I’m gonna take even money [400 to 200], and without a hesitation he goes right into his pocket with his big bankroll that he used in the picture, but he always carried about 8,000 dollars in hundreds [on him] … and he said, “Okay, all right. Your funeral, son.” And I put the 200 dollars up, and I say, “Number nine.” First number that’s called is number nine. I take the 400 dollars, put it in my pocket. Slim looks at me and says, “You are one spooky bastard, son.”
JW: And then Slim says, “Okay. Next game? We’ll do it again?” And I say, “No Slim, you got one chance. I gave you one chance, and I gave you the best price. You lost.” And then he said, “Well then we’ll get along fine.”
EG: He was nice. I liked him.
KM: There’s that scene between you and George, where you play Sparky.
JW: That was quite a moment. That was quite a day.
KM: That changes the tenor of the film. Everything starts to get a little darker. Sadder. Scarier for George. And you showed up on crutches. And you really had sprained yourself but it makes the character …
JW: A little more dangerous? [Laughs] I had sprained my leg playing a basketball game. Don’t play ball after 25 years. They got me into some basketball game … a couple of agents … I called Bob that night and said, “Bob I can’t walk” and he said, “Use the crutch!”
KM: But Sparky is based on a real person.
EG: Oh my God, I knew Sparky.
JW: Yeah. Cocaine. Three lanes of traffic. He was also living at Liberace’s house.
KM: What? Liberace?
JW: He had bought it from Liberace, and he calls me — the guy was very sharp. Loved that I call him my bookmaker Sparky. “California Split is after me,” but he was a very dapper little guy. At the end, with the cocaine, he’s calling all tense [in clenched, nervous, angry voice]: “Joey! I got to get to the racetrack!” A guy who was once so smooth: “You gotta get me thousands of dollars!” I said, “I wish I had thousands of dollars. What are you talking about?” He says, “I can’t miss the third race! Get it from someone. Call people! Call! Call people!” I say, “I’m not calling. Stop it. Relax! I can’t get the money for you at the racetrack.” Same guy about two weeks later, crashed over on the 405, went through the barrier, crossed over two lanes, killed himself. I don’t know. He killed other people …
JW: Sparky and his whole thing. And that was that cocaine craze at the time. He was going nuts. My ex went up there with the kids, no less, and visited Sparky at his house when he was doing it, and I said, “I don’t know why you ever went up there.” Little dapper guy, that drug, doing it all day long … [makes sound] “scheeew …” [to George and Elliott] You remember that drug. It was around everybody. Everybody’s doing it. It was sociable, like drinking a Coca-Cola at the time in the ’70s, right? [Laughs] Everybody had a little vial.
KM: There were scenes inspired by your brother, Charlie, right?
JW: Yes. My brother Charlie who is still alive today, Ed, you know, who was my older brother, played the heavy in it, but Charlie is still the same. Perfect. Same fun loving …
EG: What a guy.
JW: Goes to the track, gambles, loves it.
KM: And the scene, the punch that Elliott takes in the bathroom, that was based on your brother Charlie, right?
JW: Based on Charlie. Jimmy Caan was there so that was actually authenticated. Jimmy Caan told me that story a long time ago. He says, “I’m with your brother in a bar and we get into a fight and your brother gets hit with a punch that’s unbelievable from this guy, a sneak punch. He says, “The most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.” Charlie’s nose is totally broken, blood gushing and all he’s saying on the way down is, “That was the greatest punch I’ve ever been hit with. Jesus, what a punch. Perfect. Oh, my god.” And the guy is saying, “Get out of here.” And [Charlie’s] saying, “Ah no, no, no … I said it’s the perfect punch, but you’re not going anywhere. I’ll be up on my feet in a second.” And so I knew that’s the scene I wanted to play … the same Charlie Walsh who, when he made a big score at the track gets held up, and he gives him half the money, and he did that exact scene [from the movie] … Some guy at the racetrack held him up, and he said, “No. Fuck this. Take half the money now get out of here you fucking bum.” And that’s exactly my brother because he would never be able to handle that. “I’m not gonna give it to you! Get outta here. Shoot me now. Go ahead, take the 700 dollars.” So, yeah, I used everything I could think of to put into the characters so I had the sense memory, and those kind of things always stuck with me. And so it worked great, both those scenes. By the way [to Elliott], you told me that Altman wanted to cancel that fight scene in the bathroom, with Ed.
EG: No. I didn’t know about that.
JW: Maybe Ed told me. Oh yeah, Ed told me. I was at the track at the time. Ed said we’re not getting it. I said, I knew it because Altman is afraid. Because of The Long Goodbye, he got hit with terrible press for smashing that girl in the face. Everybody said that’s probably the ugliest scene they’ve ever saw in a movie, that scene with Mark Rydell.
EG: Maybe Ed was someplace close to the moment because there was never a question, that scene. That scene was really important. Oh, it’s so funny. What does he say when the guys come in …?
JW: Oh, yeah, call an ambulance, a man lost a race. Tried to kill himself.
KM: [To George] The seven dwarves riff … you started that …
GS: I had an idea. It turns out I was wrong. The idea was, I’m gonna bet that I can name the seven dwarves but …
EG: Like a Gatling gun!
GS: … And then, not be able to. And see where that would go.
JW: And then Elliott with Dumbo.
EG: Not in that cast. Dumbo wasn’t in that cast?
KM: The improvisation continues through the entire film … with the elephant.
EG: Oh sure …
JW: When Elliott rubs the trunk. That was a continuation of what you guys created. Yeah, I wrote almost all the scenes in the movie including all the interior scenes. But the one scene that happens to be my favorite scene in the move, the seven dwarves, I didn’t write it! I said in Telluride, that one scene was my favorite scene, and I didn’t write it!
EG: Yeah, but it’s so the spirit of your script … I remember when Joey first went out to California and a few of us, didn’t we chip in a few dollars to help you get out?
JW: Yeah, I think you did.
EG: And then I got a letter from Joey saying, “It’s really tough out here. It’s really tough to get work. I’ll tell you how tough it is: it’s so tough out here that Bambi is having to do The Yearling.”
KM: The actresses in the movie. They were so unique and lovely. How was it working with them, Gwen Welles and Ann Prentiss?
EG: Oh, it was great.
KM: And they have their own comedic camaraderie too.
GS: Yeah, yes!
KM: And I love that the movie never judges what they do. That they’re prostitutes. They’re human beings and they’re actually really charming and funny too. Which is rare for a movie even now.
JW: Split has no judgment. That was key for me. No judgment.
EG: Ohhh, it’s so sweet! And then there’s Helen Gurley Brown …
KM: Helen Gurly Brown! That scene! You don’t mock her. You call her a classy lady. You flatter her. You’re so nice to her!
EG: [Laughing] Oh yeah … That’s how he is. You’re a very attractive woman. My mother used to wear hats like that … and he was so great.
GS: We loved it. We loved the actor, Burt Remsen.
JW: Burt Remsen … who I told you only came to one thing. He walked in the office. We were trying to think of who was going to play Helen Gurley Brown. No accidents? Burt walks in that day, and we both [Altman and I], one of us looks at each other and — “You thinking what I’m thinking? Why not?”
KM: And he had taken some time off before this because of an injury, correct?
JW: Yeah, it was terrible. That crane fell on him. But his thing was great. We gave him the role right away — we said you can do it. He comes in, he wants to talk to us, and he’s very serious. “What is it, Burt?” He said, “I know you want me to do Helen Gurley Brown, but I’ve got to have a little stipulation here. I hate to put the pressure on you guys and I hate to make a foul play here, but, I’m serious now. I got to be as pretty as I can be. “ And we said, “Absolutely Burt. Elegant. We’re gonna make you elegant.” And he said, “That’s important to me. I can’t be some stupid-looking woman. I want to be pretty.”
EG: That’s so sweet. Because we hardly ever really talked about it, and, I mean, as far as the whole journey of this, George was always in, you were always in, and then from me I feel so fortunate to have been there to be able to play his heart. To play that guy and then to play it with you, which was so interesting because I know it wasn’t a matter of making things easy or difficult, but I have to go with my foot on the accelerator almost every moment but I’m always there for you. Always.
JW: And they were both so unafraid. You know.
KM: I think the reason I love it so much, and a lot of young people so much, all ages love it, because you’re not acting like, I guess how upstanding adults should act, but at the same time, you ARE men. It’s different from current indie movies and, maybe, bromance comedies today, it’s so much more complex and real and still larger than life … and you’re real men. You’re not boys. And I love that you live with those two women.
EG: Through two women?
KM: You live with two women.
EG: Oh, you live with two women. I thought at first you said, through women. Interesting …
KM: You live with those women. You sympathize with those women. You know their lives are tough but you also don’t condescend to them.
EG: No! We don’t. Are you kidding?
KM: And, George, your character really doesn’t either. You’re more curious or maybe baffled. And it’s so sad and funny when you try to romance beautiful Gwen Welles.
KM: At the same time it’s really funny and charming that they’re looking for the TV guide at that moment. Which is rude, I guess, but they don’t really mean it that way … Because she really did like you, George.
GS: She really did. But there was no second act with her. There was nowhere to go.
EG: That scene. I remember that robe that Charlie had; it was a robe I think I got it at Turnbull & Asser, and when she’s in bed and he’s smoking and you, Joey, give me an opportunity with the whale and the cigarette. Oh, you know, and she’s saying you’re saying this to make me feel good. I wound up giving that robe to Jennifer O’Neill. [Laughs] I thought that was the least I could do since I couldn’t marry her.
JW: Has anyone had a cigarette in his mouth better in that scene?
EG: Ahh … you let me do it! It was her! It was her, and it gives him an opportunity to be a little bit of Belmondo. What brings it out is this amazing young woman.
KM: Speaking of great leading men like Belmondo. Some of the leading men, you worked with, we’ve talked about many with Elliott and George. Joey, you with both Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum in Anzio, two of my favorite actors of all time. And then, of course you guys yourself are icons. I don’t want to butter you up but …
EG: [Sighs and leans on Kim] Ahhhh …
JW: I have some great Mitchum stories. I’d play poker; I have no money at the time. I was making 1,000 dollars a week to be in this picture. By the fourth or fifth day, Mitchum adopted me. He said to me that night, he said, “I watch you every day and you son, are fucking double tough. Fuckin-A. You’re double tough, kid.”
EG: Double tough is great.
JW: Here’s a great story with Mitchum. He loves me, right? So he says, “Kid, what are you doing after this?” And I say, “I don’t know. I’ll be slumming for a job.” And he says, “I’m gonna try to get you in El Dorado.” He was trying to get me Jimmy Caan’s role.
EG: Right. Good part.
JW: Yes! Great part.
EG: I would have loved to have seen you in that.
JW: Anyway, Bob goes out on a limb and so after a while, I’m learning by myself and I’m thinking, he’s a big movie star. So I start to lose confidence and I become self-conscious. What am I gonna do, follow Robert Mitchum every day? He’s gotta do his own work. So he calls next New Year’s Eve, for his party … and finally, I don’t call him anymore. Right? I don’t even get back after a while. Elliott’s now doing a picture with him and finally you’re on location, he’s down there.
EG: Yeah. I was with him all week.
JW: I had just gotten involved with EST [Erhard Seminars Training] at the time. And I’m like, Jesus, Mitchum is right here, he comes out of his trailer, and I say, “Bob! Great to see you!” And he says, “Why didn’t you call me?” And he’s pulling me in.
EG: He was having grass. He would give us lunch every day on the set, and a little grass …
JW: But so I go into this dressing room and now the fear of being confronted by EST. I say, “Bob, I gotta go. I will call you.” And he’s looking at me and I’m trying to explain myself but he’s never heard of EST and he says, “What?” I say this thing. I can’t be late. It’s almost the stupidest thing you ever heard, right? And it goes on and on and that was it. Somehow, I hurt his heart. Somehow, because when I visited him on the set of Matilda, a man who practically adopted me, I went over to Bob and he said [casually, like he doesn’t really know me] “Hi.”
EG: Oh no!
JW: He said, “Hi.”
EG: Oh no …
JW: He said “Hi, Joey” and I walked away.
EG: Oh no, that was a total misunderstanding!
JW: Oh, it was a total misunderstanding.
KM: That’s sad.
KM: George, you must have so many stories. Elizabeth Taylor …
GS: Well, yes. So we’re on our third day of Virginia Woolf. And our producer, Ernest Lehman was a notorious tightwad.
EG: Ernie Lehman? He was a tightwad?
GS: Oh my God.
EG: But he was like a friend!
JW: A tight friend.
GS: So we’re standing around and Elizabeth says, “I haven’t gotten a gift. Usually I get a gift.” And she says, “You see this ring? It’s an emerald.” A huge green ring. She says, “You see this? Ray Stark gave me this ring for Night of the Iguana and I wasn’t even in that movie.” So, the next day she got a big broach from Ernie Lehman.
JW: Did you get her some flowers?
EG: You know my story with Ava Gardner, right?
KM: Nooo …
JW: Recall that one again.
EG: When Barbra and I were living at 32nd Park West, and one night, however it happened, Ava Gardner and George C. Scott came to visit us. And he was so drunk and they were together and they had done The Bible with John Huston and so there was just the four of us sitting there and Ava Gardner says, we’ve got to get back to the Regency Hotel, a friend of mine is there, why don’t you come with us? So, we did. We went back to the Regency Hotel and after a little while there was a knock on the door and it was Frank Sinatra with his hat on, and the coat over his shoulder. It was Frank Sinatra like that, out of one of his albums. They were friends for life.
GS: Here’s a little thing. Begelman and Richard Benjamin and Mel Brooks are all in Begelman’s office because Begelman was the head of MGM at the time and they’re discussing the release of My Favorite Year, which Benjamin directed, and Mel Brooks produced. So, Begelman sneezes and Begelman says, “I really get off on sneezing.” And Mel Brooks says, “Wait till you come, you’ll dance around the room like an Indian!”
EG: Oh Mel, he’s a great guy.
JW: Back to Robert Mitchum — Mitchum’s thing, his philosophy. Big hill in Anzio, right? Running down a hill. Bob’s got to run down this hill. And it’s a long shot from about a thousand miles away. And I say to him, he’s a big movie star, and I say, “Bob? Why would they ask you to do that? The camera is two miles away, running down this ragged, jagged thing.” And he says, “Because they’re fucking stupid, Joey.” And I say, “But why do you think you’ll do it, Bob?” And he said, “Because they’re fucking stupid I’m gonna run down that fucking hill, fuckin-a, jack, and if I fracture my ankle or something, they’re fucking out of luck so fuckin-a man. I am doing this. Proving their stupidity.”
JW: Classic line, Bob Mitchum says to Peter Falk who’s in Anzio. We’re going to the scene across a minefield, he never talks in this movie that I could see at all, never to Peter Falk. Peter Falk, I’ve known him for a thousand years, I talk to him all the time. In the middle of the scene, I’m here, Mitchum’s here, Falk is here, Mitchum turns around to Peter Falk and says, “Do you eat mice?”
EG: Do you eat what? Mice?
JW: “Do you eat mice?” That’s the only time he’d talk to Peter Falk. And then later, Peter says to me, “What the fuck? Do I eat mice? What is that about? The man never says a fucking word to me and he asks, ‘Do you eat mice?’” I never knew what Bob meant. I should have asked him.
EG: Reni Santoni … I visit him occasionally and he sends his love to you. He’s talented. He’s quite talented.
JW: Reni. From Anzio.
EG: He said you took him to school for poker. That you actually took him to school for poker.
JW: I took them all to school for poker. That’s why Mitchum called me “Double Tough.”
EG: That’s who you are.
KM: George, you only worked with Altman once. Did you want to again?
GS: Yes. As a matter of fact, he called me down to be in Nashville. Elliott was in it. He cut me out. Oh sure, I would have worked with him any time, ever. He was so great … I love that kid — who I was back then. I’m always amazed to be there at all. But that, even now, that never wanes. It’s always the first day of school when I work. I love it. I don’t know if it’s going to be there tomorrow. I’m always amazed I’m there. That I’m here. That always keeps it fresh for me.
EG: When Arthur Laurents called me shortly before he died — he was a very smart guy — he said to me, “How have you survived? How could you still be as good as you are? After everything you’ve been through?” And I said, “I don’t think that way, you know? Thanks for the compliment,” but my response is that simply, my mother never gave up. I have no choice. In terms of my father, and that little beat in there, “Do you think I can?” No? You gotta let the audience know that you’re not finished, that so long that one of us is living, I’ll come back around. I will come back around. And it works that way. Life is a reciprocal thing. It’s like a tide in an ocean. But it’s great after 40 years, what we’re talking about here is still vital. It’s still vital. It’s really great.
Kim Morgan is a film and culture writer who has written for numerous publications, including Salon, LA Weekly, GQ, and Playboy. Read more on her blog, Sunset Gun.
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