Elliott Gould, whose most iconic film role was army doctor "Trapper" John in M*A*S*H, says he is in Haifa, at the 25th Haifa International Film Festival, "to serve."
For him, this means, "I'm not here for a vacation. I'm here to do what the festival needs me to do."
Unlike so many foreign guests, who breeze in at the opening and stay for a day or two, Gould was at the opening and will be present at the closing, which will take place on Saturday night. He's also serving as a juror in the Israeli film competition.
Accepting the festival's award for cinematic excellence on opening night, he spoke about being "at war with ignorance, desperation and fear." But trying to pin Gould down about the political implications of this statement would be pointless. In his speech, his press conference and his interviews this week, he has been a charming guest, and also a sincere one. He really does want to serve, and if what people want to hear about is the films he made with Robert Altman in the '70s (M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye and California Split), his work with Ingmar Bergman on The Touch, his transition in the '90s to television (he played Ross's and Monica's father on Friends), or the Ocean's Eleven film series, he'll oblige. He even refers to his "first marriage" a couple of times, knowing that we know this marriage was to Barbra Streisand.
Gould, 71, is a mercurial presence, answering questions with a mixture of humor, candor, self-effacement and guilelessness that often disarms his questioners. Asked whether it's true he is a Buddhist, his expression says it all, and the drawn-out "Noooo," sounds almost like an afterthought. Asked about his memories of his Jewish upbringing in Brooklyn, he says, "Well, I don't remember my bris" - although, he adds, when he appeared on the Larry King show not long ago, a woman who had attended his bris called in.
"I learned my bar mitzva portion phonetically," he recalls, though he says that now he is working to learn the actual meaning of the words he read.
Learning the meaning - and what the meaning means to Gould - is key to understanding what he's getting at as he speaks. He first visited Israel to promote a Menahem Golan film called Over the Brooklyn Bridge in the early '80s and remembers how he visited the Western Wall wearing a knit cap with the word "Dolphins" on it.
"I wasn't promoting the football team," he says, but showing his identification with "a fellow mammal."
Gould speaks of "the wonder of nature" with absolute sincerity, and it would seem that, like his fellow mammal the dolphin, he has developed a buoyancy of spirit that has helped him cope with the long, strange trip that his Hollywood career has been. Gould, who started out as a chorus boy in musical theater, became the epitome of Hollywood cool when he appeared in the Paul Mazursky satire of New Age Southern California trends, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969). But if this film put him on the A-list, his trio of Altman films catapulted him to true stardom. From playing the disaffected doctor in M*A*S*H, he went on to such roles as the slacker-gambler in California Split and the last honest man in Los Angeles, private detective Philip Marlowe, in an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye.
His first meeting with Altman was fortuitous.
"I had been fired from a play in New York, and Altman gave me the script of this movie he said no one wanted to do, M*A*S*H," he recounts.
Originally Altman wanted him for the role of Duke, a Southerner, which went to Tom Skerritt.
"I told him, I'll drive myself crazy trying to play an American Southerner," says the Brooklyn boy. Gould asked for the part of "Trapper" John, which he played brilliantly opposite Donald Sutherland's Hawkeye.
"I considered Bob [Altman] to be the American director. He had been a World War II flyer and he said, 'I'm never gonna let a businessman in Hollywood bother me.'... He gave me the space and room to experiment."
GOULD, WHO peppers his conversation with references to writers he admires, including Michael Chabon and Philip Roth, says he took to working in film right away.
"My first objective relationship was with the camera," he says. After Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, "I understood the camera would never lie to me, it would just reflect me. It wouldn't give me a problem."
Asked whether he feels some kind of a letdown after appearing in the cream of '70s cinema, he says firmly that he doesn't. Altman taught him that "all stories are the same. There is really great acting happening all the time. The time is now."
While that may be, Gould is resigned to the fact that people are still very interested in work from years gone by, such as Bergman's The Touch, in which Gould played a Holocaust survivor archeologist working in Sweden who has an affair with a housewife played by Bibi Andersson. It got some of the most tepid reviews of Bergman's career, but Gould says, "It's a masterpiece, everything the guy did is a masterpiece."
He feels, though, that the film suffered from being all in English. Although it made sense for his character to speak English with Andersson, in the scenes without him, "Everybody should have spoken Swedish."
Still, he has good memories of working with Bergman, who gave him scrapbooks of photos meant to illustrate scenes from his character's life to prepare for the role.
"Bergman called me 'my little brother,'" says Gould, imitating Bergman's accent so it sounds like "leetle." Bergman also told him that as a child, he had dreamed of murdering his younger brother with an ice pick, Gould laughs, and relates a dream that involves Bergman shooting him into the air with a fire hose filled with blood.
Bergman never worked with Gould again because "I had fallen out of grace professionally." Asked to elaborate, he says, "I acted unprofessionally. I had no perspective and no judgment. I thought it was enough to be talented... I didn't know how to play the game."
Throughout his 45-year career, Gould has worked constantly, but after the mid-'70s, he was no longer acting for Bergman or Altman; he made mostly formula comedies or appearances on television shows.
Without even being asked, he addresses rumors concerning his problems with drugs. While not denying that he "experimented," he says, "I didn't have a drug problem, I had a reality problem."
In the '90s, after he was cast on Friends, he moved back into higher-profile movie roles, virtually stealing the Ocean's Eleven film series from such actors as Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Matt Damon. He also works in indie films, such as Mia Goldman's acclaimed drama about the aftermath of rape, Open Window.
Now he is back in shape, both mentally and physically. Separated from his second wife, "my children and grandchildren are closest to my heart." He is proud of the films he has made with Jason Gould, his son with Streisand, and his fondest wish is to "make a living for my family."
While he is happy acting anywhere, he dislikes "TV timing," where everything is geared toward punch lines and sound bites. "But I've learned how to do it," he says.
If he has one lingering dream connected to film, it's to put together and star in a sequel to The Long Goodbye.
"Alan Rudolph wrote a good script. I would love to direct it," he says - although, as he works with festival staff to plan his schedule, he quips that "I can't direct until I know how to make decisions."
Reminiscing about the legendary opening sequence of that film, in which the hero is bullied by his cat into going out in the middle of the night to buy the cat's favorite brand of food, Gould says, "We had two cats, because it took a long time. I had a clicker in my hand so the cat would come to me."
Having shared that piece of trivia, Gould says, "I love to play. If you know what you want, I'm most likely your person. If you don't know, I'm not interested in killing myself.
"I'm a union person," continues Gould, explaining that he sees himself as a craftsman. "I'm the part of the crew that works in front of the camera... I accept the laws of nature, and of gravity... I admire teachers and writers and I will always be a student."
What is his great ambition? "Not to be a movie star, not a director, although that interests me... No, my ambition is to be a great grandfather." â€¢