The child of Jewish parents, Segal was raised in a secular household in Great Neck, New York. He first thought of becoming an actor when he saw Alan Ladd’s angel of death killer in “This Gun for Hire” (1942), and what he liked best 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 played his Dixieland music while he served in the US Army.
Like so many of his generation, Segal studied at the Actors Studio, and he was an understudy for a Broadway production of “The Iceman Cometh.” During his apprenticeship, Segal also worked in an improvisational group with Buck Henry, and he gravitated toward comic roles. As he reached the age of 30, Segal’s career built impressively to two credits in 1966 where he played supporting roles in film adaptations of great American plays: as Biff on TV opposite Lee J. Cobb in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” and as Nick in the movie of 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 blond golden boy that Albee had first imagined, and he brings exactly the right amount of good boy striver mixed with opportunistic sleaze to the part, particularly in a scene where he gets progressively drunker and tells George (Richard Burton) about how he is ready to sexually service some “pertinent wives” on campus in order to advance his academic career.
As George moves in for the kill and starts to verbally tear Nick and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) apart, Segal reveals a sympathetic weakness and then a nearly impartial decency when he says, “I think I understand this” at the end of the film, as the games that George and his own wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) play about their fictional son become pitifully apparent. This was a virtuoso performance from Segal, playing the most difficult part in that major play by Albee, and it set him up for more challenges.