A child of Jewish parents, Segal was raised in a secular home in Great Neck, New York. He first thought about becoming an actor when he saw Alan Ladd’s death killer angel in “This Gun for Hire” (1942), and what he liked most about Ladd in that movie was his dreamy lack of reality, that he was all image, all illusion. Segal went to Columbia College and worked in bands where he played the banjo, and he also performed his Dixieland music while serving in the United States Army.
Like many of his generation, Segal studied at the Actors Studio, and he was dubbed for a Broadway production of “The Iceman Cometh”. During his apprenticeship, Segal also worked in an improv group with Buck Henry, and he turned to comedic roles. At the age of 30, Segal’s career was impressively built up to two credits in 1966 where he played supporting roles in film adaptations of major American plays: as Biff on television opposite Lee J Cobb in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, and as Nick in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
George Grizzard had played Nick in the original Broadway production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen, with whom Segal had studied. But Segal was closer to the golden blond boy than Alba first imagined, and he brings exactly the right amount of good boy wrestling mixed in an opportunistic sleaze to the party, especially in a scene where he gradually gets drunk and says to George (Richard Burton) on how he is willing to sexually serve certain “relevant wives” on campus in order to advance his college career.
As George prepares to kill and begins verbally tearing Nick and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) apart, Segal reveals sympathetic weakness and then almost even-handed decency when he says, “I think I understand that” at the end of the film. movie, as the games George and his own wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) play about their fictional son become pitifully apparent. It was a virtuoso performance by Segal, playing the most difficult part in this major piece from Albee, and that set him up for more challenges.