Elliott Gould: An Actor's Life
Elliott Gould discusses Jewish identity, education and the risks and benefits of being an actor in this candid interview.
Elliott Gould is an Academy Award and Golden Globe nominated actor who has performed in over seventy feature films in a career spanning 35 years. His most famous role is arguably Trapper John in Robert Altman's classic "M* A*S*H" which landed him on the cover of Time magazine.
He recently received rave reviews for his role in Steven Soderberg's "Ocean's Eleven." Upcoming motion picture projects include "The Experience Box" and "Puckoon." He can also be seen this season in his popular recurring role on NBC's smash "Friends," which has gained him a new generation of fans. He is currently at work on a new television series called "Baby Bob."
Aish.com: Where did you grow up?
Elliott Gould: Brooklyn, New York. And part of me is still growing up.
Aish.com: Why did you become an actor?
Elliott Gould: To express myself and to communicate in a world that was alien to me. There was a deep dysfunction within my family and I had to act my way through it. Sometimes I acted even more deeply than I fully understood and it put me at odds with my real self.
Aish.com: Was acting a way of making a hostile environment safer?
Elliott Gould: Definitely. I was brought to song and dance school when I was about nine years old. The rationale was that I was very withdrawn, very shy and inhibited and that there were some other children like me who had learned routines and could perform or express themselves in things that they had memorized. I didn't want to do that. It wasn't my idea but I always wanted to please my parents.
When I was 12 years old I played The Palace. I now had a job. I was a child performer. And I met an Irishman, an incorrigible transient Irishman who taught the person I was working for at The Palace.
I was deeply affected by the dysfunction.
He took me on. I was so terrified and so deeply affected by the dysfunction. When a thought would come to me that was less than divine and less than positive, I would withdraw so you could not get to me. But this guy talked to me. He pounded and pounded and pounded me mentally.
And I did not want to know. I did not want to learn. But he continued and when I wept, he didn't treat me like a baby and he broke my resistance. I'll always be grateful for that. That character's name was Billy Quinn. He's gone now. I kept his teeth and his shoes after he departed. And he gave me a Webster's Dictionary which I have right here. . .
Aish.com: And the teeth?
Elliott Gould: The teeth I have passed on. And the shoes I have passed on. But I have the dictionary.
Aish.com: Is acting safe?
Elliott Gould: It's not safe necessarily to perform. I mean, I'm making a living at the moment, doing episodic television for one of the big networks and at a big studio and playing a grandfather on a show that's about a talking baby.
We're going to do six shows and we'll see whether it comes together and plays well to an audience. Then I'll continue and be able to continue to make a living doing this. No, it's not safe because everything is done on committee and everything is done in relation to the checks and balances and dollars and cents. It's very political and it's intense material. But it's not safe, which I'm sure is one of the reasons we must keep moving.
Aish.com: What was your Jewish identity growing up?
Elliott Gould: Well, I'm Eliyahu Ben Ben-Tzion. I didn't know the man I was named after, my grandfather. My parents were not Orthodox, so my Jewish identity was everything that my parents could impart to me while growing up. I was a Bar Mitzvahed. I was told that in terms of being a first born son my father was very proud to have a pidyon haben for me.
There's not a moment that I'm not Jewish and I cherish it.
I went to Hebrew school and, as an adult, sometimes learn with Rabbi Braverman at Aish HaTorah. I never have, never will, never could, deny my roots. So I have a very deep Jewish identity.
Aish.com: Does it have an impact on your daily life?
Elliott Gould: Well, I know what I am. There's not a moment that I'm not Jewish and I cherish it. I know colleagues and people who condescend and are not terribly respectful. I think that it's difficult sometimes to be observant and it's also no less difficult to not be observant, especially when you're committed to being what you are. I like to keep my mind open for more education forever.
Aish.com: Has acting been good for you?
Elliott Gould: Yes, acting has been good for me. It's given me an opportunity to travel, to meet people, to integrate in some areas, to collaborate in others, to learn a craft and even learn the technology of film making. I'm respectful but I don't take any of this too seriously. Acting has allowed me to support my family and to be able to examine and experiment with myself in life.
I'm far more interested in education now. I feel that especially in this world with all of the media and the illusion of glamour and the illusion of importance when it comes to identity, which I think is extremely dangerous, it is important to have education and clarity to assess meaning.
Aish.com: Since an actor is so many different people, do you think it makes it easier to find yourself?
I think that there are a lot of people who are running away from the truth.
Elliott Gould: An actor is one person. An actor will play, and, perhaps, interpret different people, but you are one soul no matter who you play. No matter what anybody says. No matter what kind of reviews, you are one soul. I think that there are a lot of people have excuses. Whether they are an actor, performer, musician, painter, poet, writer, industrialist -- people are running away from the truth. And to me, if I would say what is the truth, it's that we are all one. We're made to be one but we are very divided.
Aish.com: If you had to choose again, would you become an actor?
Elliott Gould: No, I wouldn't. But, it's difficult for me to say this, truly, I have no regrets in terms of how I have gone about finding myself. I've always been in good faith and I have made enormous errors of judgment. I have expressed myself without understanding, taken on responsibilities that I couldn't even begin at the time to fathom.
Aish.com: Do you think one of the challenges of being an actor is being dependent on the mood of the audience and your popularity?
Elliott Gould: Well, everything revolves. When people ask me, "How's it going?", my response now usually is, "Around." To want to know how it is on the top, you really should know what it is on the bottom because everything turns around.
I'm not bitter. I've reached a great height and also a great low, but that's not what it was about.
Aish.com: You said if you had to do it again, you wouldn't become an actor?
Elliott Gould: I would want to be either a doctor or a lawyer. Right now I'm also very interested in education. It's so important. So now when I talk with people, especially with children and their families who are using the children in order to make a living or to help the family to augment their income, I tell them not to forget the education, particularly in a world that's going so fast and with so much unnecessary information distractions that ultimately causes confusion.
So I'm interested in education, and law, medicine, poetry and especially in nature. Beyond that, it's just the family. It's all about the family.
Aish.com: What kind of Jewish identity would you like for your grandson?
Elliott Gould: His Jewish identity, has yet to be structured. His father, my son-in-law, says that it's up to me to to give him a Jewish identity. It's something that I don't want to impose, I just want him to be aware of, to introduce and help him find these roots within himself.
Aish.com: You said you act to support your family. Do you love what you do?
Elliott Gould: It's really important that I be comfortable and therefore, there is a level where if I had to choose between poverty and compromising my soul, I would accept poverty in terms of the material world. Because I can't compromise my soul. But yes, I do love what I do.
I feel that by interacting with people and acting for people, I'm helping them not just to learn, but to open their minds to new possibilities and that perhaps there more alternatives than we understand or want to admit. I love to be able to participate and integrate and work with people.
And then being paid for it allows me to do things for my family. We don't have a house yet but if things continue to progress positively, it's conceivable that we can have a house. I've worked for a very long time. Done very well. But I didn't have a business plan. That's part of what I mean about education, and now I'm aware of the ignorance, the desperation and the fear that had pushed me and motivated me.
My first wife, Barbra Streisand, became an icon, larger than life, and I had no understanding of why anybody would want to make themselves into something that isn't real. Why would anybody want an identity that makes itself an illusion bigger than life? Nothing is bigger in life other than God. And none of us is God.
I once had a discussion with Rabbi Braverman about my love for my daughter and he said that God loves us more than we're capable of loving. We debated that idea. And I still have a brain and it opened up and I could see the limits to being here, now, in a body as one person. So in relation to the Almighty and eternity, I can accept that. I mean, it makes me want to weep.
Aish.com: What gives you the most pleasure?
Elliott Gould: My children. And my parents. I didn't have a brother or a sister, so I didn't know what about sibling rivalries until I married. My father's younger brother said to me after my father had been gone for nine years, "You know your father never graduated high school." And I thought, why are you telling that to me now?
I went to my father's high school and they gave me his records. In l931 he left school in the second year. He wasn't an academic. He wasn't an intellectual. And I recall, he had to go to work. They said that there was a law passed that if you served in WWII and got an honorable discharge, that would be sufficient education to validate a diploma and graduation.
A grain of pride is good for the heart, but no more than that.
My mother kept everything, so I looked in her box of papers and there was my father's honorable discharge. I remember the day he left to go to the army. He was a sharp shooter. I had his honorable discharge and I faxed it back to Brooklyn and they sent me his diploma. So after 70 years my father graduated.
Aish.com: Do you feel that in some way you completed something for your father?
Elliott Gould: You bet I completed something for my father. He never told me because my father had a lot of pride, too much pride. I believe a grain of pride is good for the heart, but no more than that, as pride can blind us. There's no place to hide. We must learn to live together and I also believe that to accept the unacceptable, and to embrace it and to love it is the only way to get on. You must be able to then accept it as a part of yourself so it can be transposed into something positive. No matter what, I'll never give up and I intend to die trying.