The American actor George Segal passed away yesterday at age 87 after more than six decades starring on the stage and screen.

As today’s obituaries are noting, Segal’s appearance and acting style allowed him to perform equally well in dramatic and comedic roles. He also often “walked a line between leading man and supporting actor,” as the New York Times puts it, while appearing in numerous films and television shows.

Segal certainly possessed an “everyman” quality that made him uncannily relatable to many viewers, regardless of the role. That quality comes through especially well in the great 1974 gambling movie California Split in which he starred alongside Elliott Gould.

Written by Joseph Walsh who co-produced the film along with director Robert Altman, California Split superficially resembles a “buddy pic” in which two characters move through a series of gambling-related episodes climaxing with a wild “let it ride!”-type sequence in Reno.

But both the story and the characters are much more more than the series of wins and losses at poker tables, horse races, roulette wheels, and elsewhere.

One big reason why is the way Walsh’s script explores how gambling can mean different things to different people, with his two main characters played by Segal and Gould representing what amount to contrasting attitudes about taking risks and seeking rewards.

Gould plays the gregarious, happy-go-lucky Charlie Waters, a person who seems utterly comfortable with the gambling lifestyle. He’ll bet on anything — remembering the names of the seven dwarves, a pick-up basketball game… you name it.

According to Walsh who also happens to be an inveterate gambler, Charlie is largely based on himself.

Segal, meanwhile, plays Bill Denny, a person whose relationship to gambling appears more complicated. For Bill, gambling seems to fill a hole, in a sense, providing a momentary thrill or pleasure he needs in a life that otherwise is not so fulfilling.

Gould is fantastic as Charlie, a character who is great fun to watch and at times howlingly funny. But most viewers probably identify more readily with Bill who like us finds himself at times kind of falling under Charlie’s endlessly entertaining spell.

"California Split" premiered in August 1974

“California Split” (1974)

Bill is less sure of himself, less confident about what he’s doing. Bill is also much more affected than Charlie is by winning and losing. Bill seems more “results oriented” than Charlie (as they say), a fact that makes the ending of the film all the more compelling and poignant.

Segal is simply perfect in the role.

Walsh had been friends with Gould since they were teenagers. In fact, in real life Gould was the “Bill” half of their relationship during their many experiences as gambling partners.

Walsh didn’t know Segal as well, although as they began production on the film he knew Segal wasn’t himself a gambler or poker player as such. As a way of helping Segal prepare for the role, Walsh wanted Segal to experience gambling first-hand,  and so came up with a plan.

Walsh has told this story various times and in various places, including to me when I’ve had the pleasure to chat with him. As Walsh explains, he gathered a group of players for a poker game that included Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston (who has a cameo in Split), Brian “Sailor” Roberts, Gould, himself, and a few others.

The idea was to get Segal to play in this game with his own money against a “murderers row” of opponents and lose, and really feel the loss.

Preston had just won the WSOP Main Event, and Roberts was about to win it the year after Split premiered. Both would eventually be inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.

Walsh, Gould, and the others were experienced players as well whose knowledge of poker well exceeded Segal’s. Walsh wanted Segal to know what losing felt like. For real.

What happened? Segal won. Big time. For real.

Those who have seen the film know that Bill ends up sitting down in a similarly imposing stud game in Reno in which Preston himself takes a seat on Bill’s left. We worry for Bill, expecting the worst. He’s going to lose all he’s won to that point, we’re sure of it.

What happens? I’ll let those who haven’t seen Split find out on their own.

Many will remember Segal for his appearances in films like Ship of Fools, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Where’s Poppa?, A Touch of Class and dozens of others, or for his more recent roles in television shows like Just Shoot Me! and The Goldbergs. They’ll also recall how Segal was an accomplished banjo player, recording albums and performing frequently before audiences and on late night TV.

I’ve seen California Split so many times, I’m certain when I remember Segal I’ll always think of Bill Denny.

I’ll think of the Reno stud game when he sits next to Slim. I’ll also think of the opening scene when we walk into the California Club along with Bill and watch him head over to the board containing lists of players waiting to join games. Even before he says his first line, you can sense his nervous excitement as he looks around at the tables.

“Hello, Bill,” says the brush who knows him. “Put you on a five?”

“Put me on a ten,” he says with a smile. A little higher than usual, we realize. For whatever reason, today Bill is going to take a little extra risk.

If you’ve ever played poker yourself, you can relate.

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