Elliott Gould: 'I didn't have a drug problem. I had a problem with reality'

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Elvis called him crazy; Streisand called him hubbie; Groucho Marx called him to change a lightbulb. Tinseltown legend Elliott Gould, never short of an A-list anecdote, talks free love, fractious marriages… and how he bounced back after making himself unemployable.

Sunday lunch at Edinburgh's Sheraton Hotel. Elliott Gould is towering over a pram, making goo-goo eyes at a baby boy named James. All broad shoulders and big palms, he's an imposing sight. But he loves children, has three of his own. "I don't think old, I think like a baby taking his first steps," he says as he finally departs, leaving James's mildly bewildered parents to ponder why this 73-year-old Oscar-nominated Hollywood legend, and former husband to Barbra Streisand, is making faces at their boy.

Clean-shaven, wearing a suit and tie, Gould sits back down, carrying a carrot-and-coriander soup from the rather lavish buffet. He seems delighted by everything – even the size of the Yorkshire puddings on offer – and is unfailingly polite. He's in town for the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival, partly as a star guest (last night, he was interviewed on stage), partly as a jury head.

Later in the week, he will award Here, Then, a story about rootless youngsters in China, the festival's best international film. For now, he's here to talk over a turbulent 48-year career that saw him go from the youngest box-office star since Elvis to Hollywood pariah to cultured character actor. "You know what the definition of 'career' is, in Webster's dictionary?" he asks. "It's defined as emanating from a Spanish word meaning an obstacle course, like a racetrack. I appreciate that."

Along the way, he worked with just about everybody; and if he didn't, then he probably had lunch with them. Like a bridge between old and new Hollywood, you could play that "six degrees of separation" parlour game with Gould and get a hit every time. From icons such as Robert Mitchum and Cary Grant to peers Donald Sutherland and Warren Beatty to current A-listers Brad Pitt and George Clooney, Gould has clocked more stars than Patrick Moore.

He is flush with anecdotes, one-liners, quotes: bumping into Orson Welles for lunch at Hollywood hang-out Ma Maison; encountering Elvis, with a gold-plated .45 pistol, who had the gall to call Gould "crazy". Going to see Ken Loach's Kes at the cinema with the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman; changing Groucho Marx's lightbulb (and the ageing comic telling him, "That's the best acting I've ever seen you do!"). As one writer put it, talking with Gould is like entering into Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass or reading James Joyce. "You never know what to expect, where you might go."

It's also a bit like trying to steer an ocean liner with a paddle. "As un-linear as I am," he tells me, "it all has to do with what I'm feeling and where I am." When I ask about Fred, a rather bleak new film of his that's playing at Edinburgh about an aged couple struggling with illness, he goes from talking about the director Richard Ledes to a tangent about Christopher Walken and his brother Ken to a story about meeting Alfred Hitchcock after a tennis lesson. "I went wearing long red underwear and white tennis shorts," he laughs; Hitchcock called him "a clown" and, due to his headband, "an Indian".

He also talks in riddles. An early conversational gambit sees me asking, "Have you been here before?" meaning Edinburgh, a city I later discover he first visited after finishing A Bridge Too Far with Sean Connery. "I know where here is, but what is here?" he replies. "Here is what? Here is for any one of us. Or for me, is where I am. So wherever I am, I'm here." Right. As it happens, one of his reasons for being here is to visit Babs, his family's former nanny, who is now in her nineties and living in the Borders. "Babs knows my whole family," he says.

Gould employed her after his first son Jason was born in 1966 – the only child from his stormy eight-year marriage (he once compared it to a "bed of lava") to Streisand. They'd met while co-starring in the 1962 Broadway show I Can Get it For You Wholesale. Gould was then 23, four years older than Streisand. The following year they wed, just as Streisand became the top-selling female vocalist in the US in the wake of her first album; though, as he later told Playboy, "The happiest memories I have of Barbra are when we were living together before we were married."

Quite simply, even at its height, his career couldn't keep apace with hers. And there came a point when he could no longer stand to be referred to as "Mr Streisand". "It was difficult to be married to someone who was married to their success," he says. "I was very young, she was very young, and we went as far as we could together." He calls her "my first wife", rather than by her first name, and says she's one of the reasons why he has yet to – and may never – publish an autobiography: "I thought it'd be too exploitative."

While his divorce from Streisand was finalised in 1971, two years after an initial trial separation, it was during this period that Gould's career hit its peak. An Oscar nomination for Paul Mazursky's 1969 free-love classic Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was followed by his beloved turn as party animal "Trapper" John McIntyre in M*A*S*H, Robert Altman's hit military comedy. Gould became a counterculture icon; Time magazine put him on the cover, calling him "the standard bearer for the Western world's hung-up generation".

Then the mistakes came – he turned down Altman's McCabe & Mrs Miller, Mazursky's Alex in Wonderland. "I can't be sorry about things," he says now. "I'm sorry I didn't do it [Alex in Wonderland]. I'm sorry I didn't do McCabe & Mrs Miller. But I had to find myself." He went off to Sweden to work with Bergman on sombre drama The Touch, an English-language film the director later dismissed. Rumour had it that Gould was difficult to work with. "That wasn't true," he protests. "And I remember everything, and I don't distort."

Nevertheless, when he returned to the US, he went from hero to zero in an absurdly short period of time. The production of offbeat comedy A Glimpse of Tiger was halted after just four days, amid rumours that he'd come to blows with its director, lashed out at his co-star Kim Darby and was whacked out on drugs. Gould was left in the Hollywood wilderness, untouchable. By the time Altman came calling with 1973's Raymond Chandler spin The Long Goodbye, the actor was made to endure a humiliating psychiatric evaluation by the studio.

"For a while I was not employable," he shrugs, simply. How did that feel? "I hate to say it, but it felt right. It felt right. Like who are we? To have such an enormous success and then to be beholden…" He's very coy, however, about whether he's ever been a drug user. "I'm not in denial. Somebody had once asked me, on a late-night show in 1988, if I had ever had a drug problem. And I said, 'No, I didn't have a drug problem, I had a problem with reality!' But now that I accept it, it's my friend whether I like it or not. I always want to know where I am."

If it wasn't drugs, it was gambling – part of an obsessive-compulsive streak that Gould characterised so brilliantly in his third substantial Altman collaboration, 1974's California Split. His own mother, Lucille, would frequently tell him gambling was in his blood; her father, who abandoned her when she was just two, also suffered from the addiction.

Gould's childhood wasn't easy. Born Elliott Goldstein in Brooklyn in 1938, an only child, he was caught in the middle of his parents' fractious marriage growing up. "I couldn't deal with my parents' relationship, or lack thereof," he tells me.

His father, a textiles buyer named Bernie, had tried to elope with another girl when he was 17. Their families stopped them, and he married Gould's mother. They stayed together for 27 years until they finally divorced – and Bernie (who died in 1988) reunited with his first love and moved to Florida. With this in mind, it's no surprise that Lucille was an ambitious stage mother who ploughed all her energies into her son's future. She saved up to give him elocution classes. He was soon singing, tap-dancing, and performing in local neighbourhood theatres.

When he was 12, his mentor was an "incorrigible" Irishman named Billy Quinn. "I didn't want to learn. I didn't want to know," says Gould – yet Quinn pounded away until he did. "He broke through to me. Years later, when I told him I was going to be doing Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and they gave me $50,000 to do it, he said he just couldn't believe it. He gave me the Webster's dictionary, and I looked up 'genius'… the definition of genius in the Webster's Dictionary is 'one of a kind'. And I believe that each of us is meant to be one of a kind."

If Quinn was his inspiration, for years his rock was his second wife, Jenny Bogart. "Jenny is the best fighter I've ever met," he once said. "She fights for everything, she fights for life." They met in 1969, during Gould's first split from Streisand. She was 18, he was 31. They married four years later, Bogart giving Gould two more children, Molly and Sam. Like his time with Streisand, it was a rollercoaster: they split, divorced, remarried, split, finally separating in 1989.

By this point, Gould had endured more than a decade of bad movie choices. As noted by Peter Biskind in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, his career, like so many of his peers, simply "collapsed". Reduced to guest spots, voiceover work and forgettable Euro-thrillers, he went from job to job, though at least he worked constantly during this fallow period. "I like to work consistently," he notes. "I can't work constantly. Well, constantly, that would be nice. I want to live constantly! I don't want to be driven by desperation and insecurity; we are at war with ignorance, desperation and fear."

He fared little better in the 1990s, despite the decade being bookended by two great roles – as an ageing mobster in 1991's Bugsy, alongside Warren Beatty, and as the Jewish mother's boyfriend who stands up to Edward Norton's white supremacist in American History X. More often than not, it didn't quite click. Woody Allen wanted to cast him in Deconstructing Harry but Gould was already committed to a forgettable play. Altman let him cameo in The Player as himself (just as he did in Nashville all those years earlier), but he couldn't get him into a major role in Short Cuts.

Warren Beatty also toyed with casting him in Dick Tracy, in a role that eventually went to Al Pacino. "Warren called me out of the blue. He said, 'Do you think you could do for Dick Tracy what Robert De Niro did for The Untouchables?' And rather than saying 'Of course!', I said to Warren, 'Don't you think I should read?'" Beatty agreed, sensing a weakness in Gould that stemmed from his years in the wilderness. He lost the role to Pacino.

If Gould was hanging on by his fingertips, his endurance paid off. Steven Soderbergh cast him as one-time casino owner Reuben Tishkoff in his 2001 remake of the old Rat Pack movie Ocean's Eleven, alongside Pitt, Clooney, Matt Damon and Julia Roberts. Two glitzier sequels followed, not to mention a recurring role in Friends as Monica and Ross's father, Jack Geller. "Just like on Saturday Night Live [Gould hosted the seminal US comedy show several times] I like to work with newer generations," he says.

He won't stop working now. "I did seven films last year. Of the seven, two were studio pictures. Not only do I not mind not playing leading roles, I don't expect to play leading roles. And I don't have to do so much. But to have a reason to show up, to have a role or part that I can participate in, is very good." Of his current batch, the highest profile is Ruby Sparks, a comedy due here in the autumn, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-and-wife team behind Little Miss Sunshine.

Written by Zoe Kazan, the film is a romantic fantasy that sees Paul Dano play a blocked novelist. Gould stars as his therapist, who suggests he invent a female character as a therapeutic exercise. He does, calling her Ruby Sparks; before you know it, she becomes real. "They had originally conceived that a woman was going to play the psychiatrist," says Gould. "Then they changed their mind and asked to meet me. We had lunch and I said I would do it." It was, if nothing else, novel for Gould. "I've never worked for a couple who directed."

He's still harbouring hopes of making a sequel to The Long Goodbye, a chance to resurrect his role as Chandler's hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe (surely Gould's finest hour). "I'm still interested in making it as a much older Philip Marlowe; I've done quite a bit of work with the Chandler estate. I have material but it hasn't been financed." Based on the short story The Curtain, Gould wants to call it "It's Always Now". "As long as I believe that I can do it, I won't give up."

Even with Altman no longer around to direct, it's a tantalising prospect, though Gould is nothing if not realistic. "I don't expect to do it," he says, quietly. If ever he was "difficult", as Bergman once reputedly claimed, he has mellowed over time. "Ego and vanity – there's no room for it, and I find it toxic," he says. "I've got to be realistic. I work to be sensible, and not to take anything too seriously, and to be respectful." Though turning 74 next month, he nevertheless still keeps the advice Cary Grant once told him in mind: "Never do anything surreptitiously."

We're close to the end of lunch, Gould having devoured a sizeable roast across our hour-and-a-half together. A PR from the festival has arrived to take him away for an afternoon screening. I'm left talking with Susan, his friend and business adviser, who has accompanied Gould from Los Angeles for the trip. She's heading off to London tomorrow to arrange in advance his travel and accommodation for a brief stop-over in London, where he will be participating in a Channel 4 documentary about Jewish mothers.

Before he goes, he fingers the plant next to our table, talking for a third time about vegetation, which he seems very keen on. "We are destroying nature so quickly," he sighs. He leaves me with a parting gift. It's one word: calm. "A great gift is to be calm," he says. "It's the first word that I imparted to my eight-year-old granddaughter: calm. But I also spelt it with true deliberation. Here's how I spell it, it's almost painfully deliberate: C. A. L. M." His voice resonates as he elongates the four-letter word. After a career as wild as his, calm is exactly what's called for.

'Ruby Sparks' opens on 12 October

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