For a time around 1970 it looked as if Elliott Gould was going to be the biggest and busiest actor in the movies. M*A*S*H raked in over $20 million, and Gould became the first American actor to be summoned to Europe to star in a film by the Swedish master Ingmar Bergman. No longer Mr. Barbra Streisand, Gould was on the cusp of catching up with his ex-wife in notoriety and box-office.

Then as he was about to perform in his eighth film in less than three years, as well as produce it, Gould seemed to flame, or flip, out. His career sputtered to a standstill, his personal life tumbled into disarray. There were rumors of drugs and mental breakdowns. The new lady in his life was Jennifer Bogart, the teenage daughter of director Paul Bogart. They were together through most of five years, produced two children and suddenly married in what was to become the last six months of their relationship. Then this summer came a blitzkrieg betrothal and equally jolting bust-up with model-actress Jennifer (Summer of '42) O'Neill.

Gould ponders it all, going back to Streisand, in the mystical gibberish in which he now speaks. "Once we were wed, we were no longer married. Marriage should be a beginning, but sometimes it's an end. I learned that I had no ends. I just haven't had the good fortune to meet my soulmate yet."

Thus, today at summer's end, Elliott, 36, finds himself in a spiffy blue-and-white beach-house he has rented from comedian Dick Martin outside of Los Angeles. Gould has never owned a home, and the only woman in residence, on a visit from New York, is his mother Lucille (his father is remarried and in Florida).

Gould's relationship with his kids is equally ephemeral. "I carry my children around with me," he says, "since their mothers and I don't see eye to eye all the time." His son by Barbra Streisand, Jason Emmanuel, is now 7½; his children by Jenny Bogart are Molly Safire, 2½, and Sam Bazooka, 1½. Gould concedes that not living with the children is sad. "Sad is a part of life, too, but not being with them isn't awful. The only thing awful," he rationalizes, "is avoiding the truth." Looking back, Elliott divides his life into three parts. In his first films, up to Bergman's The Touch, made in 1971, he was learning how to act. The second stage, he says, was learning to understand his life and what it was all about. "The stage I'm in now," he wants to believe, "is to enjoy my life and keep on working."

The work does seem to be going well again. Director Robert Altman, who made M*H*S*H, put him into the critically admired The Long Goodbye and (after a couple of embarrassments like S*P*Y*S for other directors) into the slight but showy sleeper of this summer, California Split. He plays a small-time gambler who, in perhaps the definitive Gould performance to date, is an outsider with no strings and only a merciless compulsion driving him on—not unlike the actor himself. In dealing with his own new life, Gould is groping toward some sense of perspective and humor. "Elliott Gould is sometimes a pain in the ass to me," he admits, a view which some of his women and directors could share. "But I handle it by trying to tolerate myself."