TERRE HAUTE —
As our conversation began, Elliott Gould was in the midst of learning. He was reading a book.
It was appropriate. In that 50-minute talk by telephone from California to Terre Haute, Gould uttered in a gentle baritone voice the words “learning,” “education” or “teaching” 20 times. Right up front, he emphasized that he “wasn’t so well educated, and still am not that well educated.” Yet, in addition to his high school diploma, the 74-year-old actor also has an Oscar nomination, and a resume of acting credits that millions of Americans connect to their generations. It stretches from the 1960s and ’70s — “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” “M*A*S*H” and stints as guest host of classic “Saturday Night Live” episodes — to the ’90s and 21st century — a recurring role in TV’s “Friends” and “Ocean’s 11” (plus 12 and 13).
Through it all, new lessons keep coming, and old ones keep coming back.
“Meaning is something that we continue to acquire as we continue to live and evolve and learn,” he said.
He recalled delivering an opening monologue in the first season of “SNL.” Accompanied by future David Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer on piano, Gould did two song-and-dance numbers, “Let Yourself Go” and “Crazy Rhythm.” In a hilarious skit later in the show, Gould played a psychiatrist in a group therapy session with an absurd patient duo — Don Coreleone (John Belushi) and Valley Girl (Laraine Newman). Episode 9 earned an Emmy for the show.
Gould perfectly fit the variety entertainment format.
“This possibly had to do with my tap dancing, as far as learning routines, and that’s rhythmical,” he said. “It’s like being a drummer, you know? The beat goes on. It’s like your heart.”
He’d studied tap dancing and ballet as a youngster, an attempt by his parents to break Elliott out of an emotional shell. One of his teachers, Billy Quinn, “was an incorrigible, transient, black Irishman” who refused to let the boy remain withdrawn. “He would pound me, in terms of telling me to learn what time was, in relation to timing, and what timing is, in relation to time,” Gould remembered in vivid detail. “And when I wept — and believe me, I wept — he didn’t treat me like a baby, and he got through to me. So the timing is perfect; it’s always ‘now.’”
“Now” came up as often as the past, as we spoke. Gould stays busy. “I don’t think old,” he said. “I think like a baby, taking his first steps, and I just turned 74.” He fills supporting roles in two upcoming cable TV series, “Ray Donovan” (a drama for Showtime) and “I’m Not Dead Yet” (a comedy for TV Land), and a leading-man role alongside Jacqueline Bisset in the film “The Second Time Around.” In the latter, Gould sings its namesake ballad.
Lessons from past
Presently, he is reading a book by Holocaust survivor Eva Kor, founder of the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute. Gould will serve as featured guest of museum’s seventh annual fall fundraiser reception Oct. 13 at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College. As with a film, he’s preparing and reading Kor’s book, “Surviving the Angel of Death,” her account of being subjected to sadistic medical experiments at the hand of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Kor and her twin sister, Miriam, survived. Her parents and two older sisters died in the gas chambers.
Inside its pages, Gould found a bookmark, bearing poignant words that caught his attention. He recited Kor’s list of “Lessons of the Holocaust.” The first, “Never give up,” led him to recall when famed screenwriter Arthur Laurents asked how Gould had “been able to stay this good after everything you’ve been through.” Divorced three times (once to Barbra Streisand), Gould grew up with “dysfunction” as the only child in a Jewish family in Brooklyn, N.Y., before pursuing an acclaimed yet tumultuous theatrical career spanning a half-century. To Laurents’ question, Gould answered, “I don’t think that way, but thank you. It’s a compliment, but my response to you would be, my mother never gave up.”
Then Gould read the other lessons Kor cited. Second, prevent prejudice by judging people only on their actions and content of their character. “And, number 3,” Gould said, adding, “which is difficult, the most difficult for me,” forgive your worst enemy. It will heal your soul and set you free. Fourth, give your parents a hug and kiss for us children who had no parents. Gould’s voice wavered slightly. Five, each of us has an important part to play in repairing our world. Kor’s conclusion includes a Hebrew phrase: May tikkun olan (repair the world) begin with me.
“It has such deep meaning,” he said, “and to be able to come across and participate and say hello [at the reception in Terre Haute] is a great blessing.”
I asked Gould when he first learned of the Holocaust, the systematic persecution and murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators in the 1930s and ’40s. Born in 1938, Gould was a boy during World War II. His first knowledge of the atrocities came, ironically, on the silver screen. “Newsreels in movie theaters,” he said. “It was hard to believe, really horrifying to behold, and knowing that it was simply a newsreel of it — I didn’t even know what anti-Semitism or prejudice would be. I didn’t understand hate.
“One of the things I’ve been able to reflect and project, based on all of the teachings and all of the life and living, is that we’re at war with ignorance, desperation and fear,” Gould continued. “And I couldn’t have imagined or believed that one like me — Elliott Goldstein from 6801 Bay Parkway, Brooklyn, 4, New York, PS 247, Seth Low Junior High, and the Professional Children’s School — could get to the front to participate and contribute, and I’m there. And being at war with ignorance, desperation and fear, if my body is blown away and my heart is beating and my mind is working, I’m never gonna call for help. It’s taken me forever to get here, and I want to know I’m giving everything.”
A son’s quest
His thoughts steered occasionally into metaphysical ponderings concerning the human condition. He reflected on his own “deep Jewish identity.” Each turn in his conversation, though, led back to learning.
That quest led him to attain his late father’s high school diploma, 71 years after Bernard Goldstein left the school to earn money for his family. Gould was unaware of that detail until his father’s younger brother told him. Gould felt defensive and confused as to why his uncle shared that information long after his father had passed away. But Gould traveled back to New York, took the subway to New Utrecht High School, and got his father’s records from administrators there. With research, Gould discovered that World War II veterans, such as his father, could be granted their diplomas if they were honorably discharged. Even though his parents eventually divorced, Gould’s mother found those honorable discharge papers for her son. His father was posthumously granted a diploma.
Last week, Gould told that story to a longtime friend, Hawk Koch, president of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “I said, ‘Being able to get my father his diploma was far more important to me than any Academy Award could be,” Gould said.
Later in our talk, Gould said he became a friend of John Wooden’s in the last three years of the legendary coach’s life. Wooden taught him something.
“When Coach and I met, I didn’t know that he had been an English teacher in Indiana,” Gould said. “And he said to me, ‘The most important word in the English language is love. And the second most important word’ — and I thought, I didn’t know there was another word — is balance.’”
The road to balance is 74 years long now, for Gould. His relationships with his two sons, a daughter and his grandchildren put greater spark in his voice than revisits of movies, co-stars and fame. In a chat with his 13-year-old grandson, Henry, Gould told the boy they weren’t merely grandfather and grandson, “as precious and meaningful as that is. We’re friends. And Henry said, ‘I know. I feel comfortable with you.’ That’s great.”
On the streets, people recognize Gould for his various roles, depending on their age. The notoriety is fleeting, he stressed.
“The most popular thing I did is ‘M*A*S*H’ [as Trapper John], but in terms of generational, I mean there’s ‘Friends.’ People know me as Mr. Geller from ‘Friends.’ People know me as Reuben Tishkoff from the ‘Oceans’ movies,” Gould said. “Identity is all passing. It’s all a circle, and I do believe that we all — whether we want to or not, whether we like it or not — end up where we began.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.