He was Hollywood’s king of Jewish cool in the 1970s, playing the insubordinate battlefield surgeon in “M.A.S.H” and one of the sexually frolicsome foursome in “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.”
Factor in that he’s openly, proudly Jewish, and why wouldn’t Elliott Gould receive the Freedom of Expression Award at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival?
Gould, 73, says he’s flattered to receive the award, which he will accept in person on Sunday, July 22 at the Castro Theatre. But, he says, “I’m not very much into awards and stuff like that. I’m into the work, and the meaning and purpose of the work.”
He certainly has been a favorite of great directors, including Robert Altman and Ingmar Bergman (“The Touch”), and has an Oscar nomination to his credit (for “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”).
Baby boomers also remember him as a frequent host of classic “Saturday Night Live” episodes. Younger generations know him better as Ross and Monica’s dad on “Friends.” Either way, Gould is cool.
Now, closing in on his 50th year as a screen actor, Gould has begun to cross into gray eminence territory.
Unlike Hollywood stars who fade away over time, Gould has never stopped working, and never shied away from taking on roles, big or small, that matched his stage in life.
“I know I’m going on 74,” he says. “I don’t think old. I think like a baby taking his first steps. There are parts for me. It’s interesting aging and getting to the portal of being elderly, but this is life and this is where I am.”
The festival will screen his latest film, the comedy “Dorfman,” an independent feature about a frumpy Jewish accountant in her 30s trying to find love and happiness in Los Angeles. Gould plays her dysfunctional father, shattered over the recent loss of his wife.
It’s a touching, fragile role, seemingly uncharacteristic of Gould. Yet the actor says he’s all about that. “I don’t act vulnerable,” Gould says. “I am vulnerable.”
Sara Rue, who plays his daughter in “Dorfman,” calls Gould “a cinematic pro,” adding, “Working with Elliott is great. He’s very supportive, and wants to give what you need as an actor, so working with him was wonderful.”
Rue, like Gould, is Jewish, so spicing up their characters with Jewish inflections came easily to both.
Gould’s Jewishness always has loomed large in his persona. The Brooklyn-born actor has roots in Ukraine, Poland and Russia. As Barbra Streisand’s first husband, he was once half of a Jewish American royal couple (they have a son, actor-filmmaker Jason Gould).
When asked about his Jewish identity today, his answer comes verbatim from “The Mortal Storm,” a 1938 anti-Nazi novel by Phyllis Bottome that was made into a 1940 film with James Stewart.
Gould quotes, “To be a Jew is to belong to an old, harmless race that’s lived in every country, and has enriched every country it has lived in. It is to be strong with a strength that has outlived persecutions. It is to be wise against ignorance, honest against piracy, harmless against evil, industrious against idleness, kind against cruelty.”
It might come as no surprise, then, that he likes playing Jewish characters. Gould recently accepted the role in “Listen to Grandpa, Andy Ling,” in which he is an Orthodox Talmud scholar meeting his adopted (and fully grown) Chinese grandson for the first time.
The three-part independent short film was produced by the Orthodox educational organization Aish HaTorah and is only available online. Still, a good part is a good part.
Busy as he is (Gould co-starred in seven films in the last year), he is not too busy to reflect on a great career and a fine life.
“I have nothing else to prove,” he says. “I’m centered and grateful. I know honesty and integrity, peace and harmony, but I said to my son that it’s taken me forever to get here.”
Elliott Gould accepts the Freedom of Expression Award at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, July 22 at the Castro Theatre; “Dorfman” screens afterward.