LOS ANGELES — George Segal, the banjo player turned actor who was nominated for an Oscar for 1966's “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” and starred in the ABC sitcom “The Goldbergs,” died Tuesday in Santa Rosa, California, his wife said. He was 87.
“The family is devastated to announce that this morning George Segal passed away due to complications from bypass surgery," Sonia Segal said in a statement.
A native of Great Neck, New York, Segal was always best known as a comic actor, becoming one of the screen's biggest stars in the 1970s when lighthearted adult comedies thrived.
But his most famous role was in a harrowing drama, 1966's “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," based on Edward Albee's acclaimed play.
He was the last surviving credited member of the tiny cast, all four of whom were nominated for Academy Awards: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton for starring roles, Sandy Dennis and Segal for supporting performances. The women won Oscars, the men did not.
To younger audiences, he was better known for playing magazine publisher Jack Gallo on the long-running NBC series “Just Shoot Me" from 1997 to 2003, and as grandfather Albert “Pops” Solomon on the “The Goldbergs” since 2013.
“Today we lost a legend. It was a true honor being a small part of George Segal’s amazing legacy," said “Goldbergs” creator Adam Goldberg, who based the show on his 1980s childhood. “By pure fate, I ended up casting the perfect person to play Pops. Just like my grandfather, George was a kid at heart with a magical spark.”
In his leading-man prime, he played a stuffy intellectual opposite Barbra Streisand's freewheeling prostitute in 1970's “The Owl and the Pussycat;" a cheating husband opposite Glenda Jackson in 1973's “A Touch of Class;” a hopeless gambler opposite Elliot Gould in director Robert Altman’s 1974 “California Split;" and a bank-robbing suburbanite opposite Jane Fonda in 1977's “Fun with Dick and Jane.”
Groomed to be a handsome leading man, Segal's profile had been rising steadily since his first movie, 1961's “The Young Doctors” in which he had ninth billing. His first starring performance came in “King Rat” as a nefarious inmate at a Japanese prison camp during World War II.
In “Virginia Woolf,” he played Nick, one half of a young couple invited over for drinks and to witness the bitterness and frustration of a middle aged couple.
Director Mike Nichols needed someone who would get the approval of star Elizabeth Taylor, and turned to Segal when Robert Redford turned him down.
According to Nichols' biographer Mark Harris, Segal was “close young enough to the young god he needed to be for Elizabeth, and witty enough and funny enough to deal with all that humiliation.”
He rode the film to a long run of stardom. Then in the late 1970s “Jaws” and other action films changed the nature of Hollywood movies, and the light comedies that Segal excelled in became passe.
“Then I got a little older,” he said in a 1998 interview. “I started playing urban father roles. And that guy sort of turned into Chevy Chase, and after that there was really no place to go.”
The late AP Entertainment Writer Bob Thomas contributed biographical material to this story.