Elliott Gould isn’t merely concerned with the task at hand, in this case, talking to me about his new CBS legal drama, Doubt. There’s a friendly aside where, mid-answer, he changes the topic and proceeds to interview me for a couple of moments about my family situation and where I’m from before telling me to carry on.
For almost 30 minutes, he praises the cast and crew on his new show, tells stories from days gone by, and offers a little light philosophy that gives me a sense of the ethos that drives this man who has existed in Hollywood for more than six decades, working as a leading man and a character actor, dancing between roles as a private eye, a mobster, a lawyer, and a father. That last role is one that Gould also plays in real life and it’s one that he clearly takes a lot of pride in as we discuss how it (and being a grandfather) is, to him, the most important thing in the world.
In the pilot episode of Doubt, there’s a scene where Gould’s character, Isaiah Roth, tells his employee (another lawyer played by Katherine Heigl) that he isn’t a father figure, but listening to the man talk you can’t imagine younger actors resisting the urge to just hear his stories.
On the toxic poisons known as vanity and ego, Gould tells me that he has no room for them, but that, “as actors and performers become successful and the audience embraces us, we belong to the audience but we must never forget what we are and how we got here. And I do believe with all of my heart and soul that no one of us is any more significant than the least of us.” It’s a noble view, but not one that he stumbled upon with ease.
“I had no judgment and no perspective,” he says when I ask if he’s always felt that way. “I thought it was about being talented and through the process of trial and error and having had the great opportunities to experience my existence on many levels through many different times of life… we learn it.”
“It’s taken me forever to get here,” he says after explaining his views on celebrity, telling me that, while he sees himself as a little naive, he’ll never act it and that being honest and true is very important to him. “Sometimes, people would stop me in terms of how I am and say, ‘Are you serious?’ And I now can say, ‘I don’t have to be so serious any longer. I know I’m honest.'”
When he asks if my parents are younger than he is, I tell him yes and he tells me that “everything that’s ever happened is somewhere inside the back of our skull. From this moment, this is a beginning. It doesn’t get younger than this,” before assuring me that it is, “so interesting to be alive and to be conscious and to be in balance.” I really don’t know what that last one is like, but Gould makes it sound fantastic.
It’s important to note that while the conversation moved around, it wasn’t scattered. Gould is like someone cooking with all burners lit — four pans and he moves deftly, tending to each simmering thought before jumping back. It’s as impressive as it is enjoyable and illuminating. Here’s a little bit more from that talk.
What was it about Doubt specifically that kind of spoke to you and made you want to jump in to that kind of series — a legal drama?
Let me see. The idea of standing up for people who are under attack, people who are accused and who are alone and defending them, and playing that kind of a seasoned, experienced lawyer; especially under the auspices of Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, and the network. It was an extremely positive and a very good opportunity for me to involve myself.
The character is described as a “Liberal Lion” and he’s obviously an extremely experienced litigator. As you said, he has made a career of fighting for the little guy. Is there anyone that you drew from to help you figure out this character?
Tony and Joan sent us some documentary footage, and I once had met William Kunstler, who was a great lawyer. Maybe, perhaps, he’s part of an image in terms of Civil Rights and that. I had met him once. I participated in a show called The Chicago Eight and I played a man who really existed called Lenny Weinglass. He was the lawyer, and he was the partner of William Kunstler.
There are people, you know. Of course, there are people, and my own experiences as I have learned and follow and have grown to understand what’s going on. It’s been a very rich life and opportunity. I consider myself fortunate to be cast in this so I can bring my own experience and my own feelings and perspective into the character of Isaiah Roth and work with all of the people who are here.
You’ve worked with a lot of people. I’m curious, are there any talents that you didn’t get around to working with…
I don’t think that way, I don’t think that way. I said earlier, I find that ego and vanity is toxic. I understand insecurity. I understand fear. Again, through my existence, I have remembrances… as do quite a few of us from my generation and beyond. I’m very friendly with a man named Norman Lloyd, who is going on 103, and he is one of the two surviving members of the Mercury Theater, which was Orson Welles’ theater group. He did a lot of work with Alfred Hitchcock. I had the great privilege of spending several hours with Alfred Hitchcock around the time we were doing a remake of one of his masterpieces called The Lady Vanishes. I worked with Angela Lansbury and Cybill Shepherd and Herbert Lom in that.
I’m talking about somebody from the generation before mine. Some of them are still here. I don’t think… to me, no one of us can be any more than the least of us. That’s my own belief. That’s what I know. Humility and modesty is such a great asset. Not false humility.
Somebody asked me recently who my favorite philosophers are because I appreciate philosophy. And I took a moment and I said the birds and the bees. Nature. To me, it’s all about nature. The concept of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness moves me deeply in relation to being a father and a grandfather, and knowing what I am and having had the privilege and the opportunity to grow and evolve. Because that’s what it is that we’re doing here. We’re evolving. Or trying to evolve!
It’s a hard road sometimes.
Of course. It’s the hardest road, you know? It’s not about thinking, it’s about being.
Going back to your career, obviously, you did some great work with Robert Altman…
Oh goodness, thanks, thanks. Robert Altman, he was like my father.
I’m kind of curious because I just re-watched… The Long Goodbye is a favorite…
Thanks, I don’t give up. There’s a sequel that we’ve talked about.
I was going to ask about that, actually, about where that was.
Where is it? Well, I’m sure, actually… I need to call the Raymond Chandler estate, to see if it’s still available.
Is there a script done? Do you have an idea of what you want to do?
No … actually, Alan Rudolph wrote a script that’s his script. I don’t have any rights to the property, but I have an idea and we’ll see. The character would be much older now, because it’s still me. Of course, with The Long Goodbye and Bob Altman with me, we broke a mold of bringing it into the present. It always has to be in the present. So the character is still Philip Marlowe, but he’s much older, just like me. I have the same values, and these are values that sort of are part of the arsenal of Isaiah Roth or almost anyone I would play.
I watched Little Murders for the first time last night because I saw your tweet about it.
Oh great! That was my tweet! I mean I never tweet, it’s almost not in my nature, but the network and my producers ask all of us, and I really want to participate and not to feel I’m holding anything back. So you saw that? That was a picture of Donald and me from Little Murders.
That was hard to find online — to find that movie. I found it on YouTube with Italian subtitles.
Our cinematographer was Gordon Willis who went on to do Manhattan and several Woody Allen pictures. Gordon Willis did The Godfather and he did All the President’s Men. He was great.
It had a fantastic energy. I really liked it.
Oh my God! Jules [Feiffer] will be so happy! We talk. You know, because I recently… I’ve just worked with Sandra Bullock on Oceans 8, and she is great. She’s so funny, she’s so beautiful, she’s so good, I just adored working with her. And I said to Jules Feiffer who wrote Little Murders,… I said, “She would be great as Patsy” You know? Patsy could be older and Jules said, “Well so could Alfred. You could still play Alfred.” I said, “Well, Of course, Alfred has to do with a frame of mind.”
So you saw Little Murders. And you liked it?
Very much. I thought you were fantastic, I also loved Donald Sutherland and Alan Arkin.
Well, Alan Arkin directed it but it was an interesting road for Alan Arkin because I had made contact with Jean-Luc Godard and did some work with Jean-Luc Godard. We hired writers through 20th Century Fox. I’m so delighted that you like it. It’s a very special, somewhat unique piece.
It’s a shame Alan Arkin hasn’t directed more movies.
I don’t look at it that way. I look at it…
Well, I’m selfish. I look at it from I would have liked to have seen more. That’s my thing there.
I understand that, but Alan is terrific. You know? And Jules Feiffer. Norman Lloyd brought Jean Renoir to see a screening of Little Murders before it was released. I had met Norman Lloyd over at Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Norman had produced and directed a lot of that. Norman had worked with Jean Renoir. Do you know who Jean Renoir was?
Oh, great. And you know his father was the painter but Jean Renoir did two of the greatest pictures ever made: Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. He wrote a letter to Alan Arkin and it took Alan 34 or 35 years to share it with us, in terms of Jean Renoir having seen the picture. Norman Lloyd is the guy who brought him. I didn’t even know that.
But Donald Sutherland as the Priest I think is just great. I really do. And also then just to make another step back into the present, Judith Light [who co-stars in Doubt] opened in this play and she’s brilliant. What a privilege to work with her. And Katherine Heigl is great. She was great throughout the process of these 13 shows and she carried all of us. She is so strong and she was so wonderful in it. There are so many good actors in it.
Doubt premieres tonight, February 15 at 10pm ET on CBS