More distinguished musicians—like Arturo Toscanini, Igor Stravinsky and even Louis Armstrong—may have played Carnegie Hall, but surely none has reacted more rapturously to his debut there than the leader and banjo picker of the Beverly Hills Unlisted Jazz Band. Beamed actor George Segal, 47: "All my life I have dreamed of performing live at Carnegie Hall. When it finally happened, a magical feeling swept over me—the live Dixieland jazz, the smiles from the crowd, the aura of the hall—it lifted me, it was wonderful."
George's elevation to the musical empyrean began last year when his two-year-old octet jammed as a lark on the Tonight show. L.A. neighbors Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme heard Segal tell Johnny Carson of his Carnegie ambition. The next day Steve offered George a spot during their own scheduled bow at the hall. "My dream fairy called," Segal now quips (though he remained sufficiently earthbound to inform his agent, who got the band a $30,000 fee for the eight-day booking).
Previously the band's gigs were somewhat less grand. There were evenings for friends in the Hollywood Hills home of TV producer-writer Sheldon Keller, who plays bass. Then the group moved up to an L.A. pasta parlor, the Mulberry Street Restaurant (owned by the band's drummer, Allen Goodman), and a regular weekly stint at Carroll O'Connor's eatery, the Ginger Man, in which Segal has a financial interest. "I jam in my jeans, nice people come listen, and I love it," grins George. Actor Conrad Janis, Mindy's music store owner father in Mork & Mindy and the band's trombonist co-leader, attests to that. "Playing the banjo is a total emotional experience for George," Janis says. "I think he loves the banjo more than acting."
The attraction began four decades ago in Great Neck, Long Island, when young George transferred his affections from the ukulele. As a student at Pennsylvania's rigorous Haverford College, he started to play publicly, but, to spare his family embarrassment, called himself and his group Bruno Lynch and the Imperial Jazz Band. The boys continued to play Greenwich Village nightspots in the 1950s, but when Segal's stage and screen career took off (his some 35 film roles include an Oscar nomination for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf), the banjo played second fiddle.
After his Carnegie run, Segal, his wife of 24 years, Marion, and daughters Elizabeth, 19, and Holly, 15, plan to stay on in New York. He says it's to plug his next film, Carbon Copy, which opens in October. But is there now a chance that filmmaking will give way to Segal's beloved banjo? "Not so," says George. "It's just lots of fun. I'm full of fantasy, and the banjo, like acting, makes me happy and makes other people happy." Among them is at least one knowledgeable Segal fan. Says jazz great Lionel Hampton: "Some actors want to be singers and many singers want to be actors. George happens to be a musician who can act. And that cat can really swing."
'There's no thrill like being live onstage,' exults Segal, 'it's another world'