The movie and poker world are both mourning the passing of George Segal. Segal died on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, at the age of 87 from complications during heart surgery.
Ever versatile, over his sixty-year career, Segal moved from playing the parts of fresh-faced young men to being a serious character actor. Then he moved again into more mature comedic roles as he aged.
In 1974, at the peak of his powers, Robert Altman cast him in California Split, one of the best, certainly one of the most accurate, gambling movies of all time. Segal played the everyman, Bill Denny, as a foil to Elliott Gould’s charismatic extrovert Charlie Waters. The pair’s gambling addiction leads them from a fight over the rules of California lowball to a high-stakes hot streak in a Reno poker game against Amarillo Slim (playing himself).
Altman’s low-key directing and trademarked directional-mic audio worked perfectly with Segal’s performance and the seedy world of seventies gambling. To this day, no movie has quite captured the strange camaraderie of riding out a gambling bender together.
Segal was an amateur poker player off-screen as well. In fact, to prep him for California Split, screenwriter Joseph Walsh arranged for Segal to play in a poker game with Amarillo Slim off-screen too. Walsh invited along Brian “Sailor” Roberts, Gould, and a collection of Vegas regulars. Walsh himself took the last seat.
The idea was to have Segal bet his own money and really understand the feeling of losing. Instead, Segal came out the other end in the black, in a big way beating the pros at their own game.
Dozens of celebrities and players took to Twitter to express their grief at the loss of the star of movies like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Hot Rock, and Terminal Man, and TV shows like Murphy’s Law and The Goldbergs.
Ben Stiller tweeted about his favorite Segal moments. He wrote, “My personal favorite George Segal movie is “The Hot Rock”. What a career. What a nice man, what an iconic cool funny 70’s movie star.”
British director Edgar Wright honored the star with a short list of some favorite Segal flicks.
“Farewell to the hugely talented & prolific George Segal,” Wright wrote. “A brilliant comic and dramatic actor in more great movies than you can tackle in 140 characters. Some personal favs: The Hot Rock, Where’s Poppa? The Terminal Man, California Split, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? RIP…”
Jennifer Tilly, another star who bridges the poker and acting worlds, wrote about California Split: “One of the best films about gambling ever made. George Segal, Elliott Gould and Robert Altman made for an unbeatable combo.”
My own strongest memory of his career is that opening scene of California Split. As a teen, absolutely starved for poker content, I watched the clip dozens of times on Vimeo. Gould starting a fight at the poker table, and Segal gathering his chips and crawling out of the carnage is a perfect introduction to the characters, world, and themes of the film.
If you’ve never seen it, now is a good time to rent California Split, available on Amazon.
If you have seen it before, then you don’t need me to tell you that you should go watch it again. You already know.
Featured image source: Twitter