Revisiting the Classic Gambling Film ‘California Split’ With Writer Joseph Walsh

Posted on November 17, 2020

The 1974 film California Split is regarded by many as one of the best depictions of gambling in movie history. Written and co-produced by the actor Joseph Walsh, the film routinely ranks highly on lists of “best gambling movies” ever, often at the very top.

The truth is, for gamblers who like movies, or film buffs who like to place a bet now and then, you can’t do much better than California Split.

Except, perhaps, to talk to Walsh himself about his film. I had the chance recently to do just that in a call with the writer at his California home. Much like his film, the conversation was both entertaining and edifying.

A couple of gambling buddies who are anything but two of a kind

In a sense, California Split is a buddy movie, or perhaps a variation on The Odd Couple. It is both a comedy and a drama, mixing the playful with the serious in a way that mirrors life itself.

It begins with a chance meeting between two gamblers. They are seated at the same poker table at the fictional California Club. The movie’s setting uncannily recreates one of the several Gardena poker rooms that were popular at the time. So uncannily, in fact, that Walsh notes some poker players have insisted to him over the years they played at the California Club, even though it was entirely built on a set.

Elliott Gould plays Charlie Waters, a seemingly happy-go-lucky type always eager to place his next bet. George Segal portrays Charlie’s new friend, Bill Denny, whose relationship with gambling is less certain.

For Bill, gambling fills some sort of need in his life. It provides a temporary emotional fulfillment he is otherwise lacking. Charlie does not have such a problem. For Charlie, gambling doesn’t serve to replace something else in his life — gambling is his life.

California Split’s place in film history

There is a great deal to praise about California Split. Director Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player) brings to the film his signature style, often crowding the frame with a great deal of information. The crew used an experimental sound technique that involved recording eight separate audio channels. As a result, the multiple conversations in many scenes often create an appropriately casino-like atmosphere (even when not in a casino).

Gould and Segal are both excellent in their roles, demonstrating tremendous chemistry despite their characters’ different outlooks. Meanwhile, Walsh’s episodic story provides a series of captivating and entertaining situations. These include:

  • The masterful opening scene in the California Club, culminating in a fight between Charlie and a belligerent opponent (played by Walsh’s older brother, Ed)
  • Charlie and Bill drunkenly betting on being able to remember the names of all seven dwarves
  • Bill’s confrontation with his bookie, Sparkie (played by Walsh himself), to whom he owes a significant debt
  • Charlie hustling younger kids in a pick-up basketball game
  • Charlie’s hilarious sequence of reads on players in the Reno game (where real-life poker celebrity “Amarillo Slim” Preston makes a cameo)

Those who have seen the film remember all of these scenes. Those who haven’t can look forward to enjoying them.

Meanwhile, here are some highlights from my conversation with Walsh about the film.

Friendships and gambling: The day Joey went 14-0-1

In real life, Walsh has always been more Charlie than Bill. A dedicated gambler, the 83-year-old has always loved being “in action.” Meanwhile, Gould, who plays Charlie is actually much more like Bill, at least when it comes to gambling.

'California Split' writer Joseph Walsh
Joseph Walsh

Walsh knows this because he and Gould have been lifelong friends, having met as teenagers when schoolmates in New York City in the early 1950s. Gambling played a part in their friendship from the start, with the risk-loving Walsh often taking the lead in their betting adventures.

“I convinced Elliott I was the greatest handicapper known to man,” laughs Walsh. “Somehow I had an antenna, boy. I could pick football games. I just knew who would win. I told Elliott to give me $60 and I had $91. I told him I didn’t know how any one of my 15 college games can lose.”

Walsh found a bookie and put the pair’s money down on a series of parlays involving those 15 games. As it turned out, Walsh was almost right. He was on the right side of 14 games (against the spread!), with the 15th ending in a push! They’d turned their $151 into around $1,500.

“Elliott is looking at me like ‘my friend is a freak of nature… Joey is spooky as it gets!'” Walsh remembers. It goes without saying the pair were never able to recreate such a streak again, but that didn’t stop them from trying.

The streak does make kind of a reappearance, however, in California Split. I’m referring to the Reno sequence at the end of the film that cleverly mixes humor and suspense as Bill gambles with the pair’s money (and keeps winning) while Charlie watches from the rail.

I’ll avoid spoilers, but it’s safe to say Split does not exactly feature a typical “Hollywood ending.” That’s not Walsh’s style. In fact, the ending is one reason why I believe the film has endured so well.

Forget the romance, ‘Split’ offers a realistic view of gambling

“The film will never be dated,” Walsh agrees. “It’s not going to be dated because I took anything that would be dated out of it.”

It’s true that even decades later, the series of episodes involving Charlie and Bill still speak directly to the gambling experience.

California Split depicts many different types of gambling. There’s poker, blackjack, roulette, and craps. The characters also wager on horse races, boxing, and make those aforementioned bets on Snow White characters and pick-up basketball.

The movie also presents an incredible variety of relatable emotions related to gambling, from the rush of winning to the crush of losing and everything in between.

'California Split' first premiered in August 1974
‘California Split’ first premiered in August 1974

Viewers who do gamble recognize and identify with the frustration, excitement, boredom, and pleasure the characters experience while gambling. The film even depicts the sort of existential self-doubt that can rise up and cause a gambler to question the purpose of constantly taking risks and seeking rewards.

The point was to “keep it honest,” says Walsh of his depiction of gambling. As he puts it, he did not want “to glamorize it or make it more ‘movie-ish.'”

It is fair to say that Walsh primarily wrote the film for gamblers, or at least with an intention to present gambling in a way that gamblers would recognize as truthful. Put another way, Walsh didn’t write California Split for those who excitedly watch others gamble and who possess all sorts of erroneous conclusions about what they think they are witnessing.

By way of contrast, Walsh brings up The Cincinnati Kid, the 1965 film starring Steve McQueen that like California Split often appears on “best ever” lists of poker and/or gambling movies.

“I like The Cincinnati Kid, too,” says Walsh, though he adds that while the film is dramatic and engaging, it’s not necessarily the most realistic representation of gambling.

Walsh had to fight some significant behind-the-scenes battles in order to avoid letting California Split be transformed into a different kind of movie. In fact, such battles included at one point having to consider casting the Cincinnati Kid himself, Steve McQueen, in Split (a possibility never realized, likely for the better).

“I didn’t cater to anything,” he insists, noting how he avoided the temptation to embellish or make gambling seem more romantic than it really is.

“Every time there was a precious line that would have sounded so f***ing smart, I said get rid of it,” Walsh laughs. “If you remain true [to your characters and subject], you don’t over-intellectualize it,” he adds. “You can see the real feeling and emotion of gambling.”

“That will never go out of style. The film has a life that’s been unbelievable. It’s been incredible.”

A ‘California Split’ TV series?

As if to prove even more conclusively the continued appeal of California Split, few know about it but there was an earnest effort made recently to create a big-budget Showtime series based on the film. Walsh shared a few behind-the-scenes details of that story during our conversation.

The project was to have involved director Todd Phillips and his company, Green Hat Films. The director of Old School and The Hangover trilogy worked for several months with Showtime to create a series inspired by the film, to be titled California Split.

The negotiations were quite exciting for Walsh. There would be a conspicuous credit for him at the start of every episode. And not least importantly, a handsome payday as well.

Joseph Walsh recently published a memoir, titled "Who Says It's Over"
Joseph Walsh recently published a memoir, titled ‘Who Says It’s Over’

“This would have been a bonzana for me,” says Walsh. “It was all set. They wanted to do it. They were nice enough to send the screenplays to me. It was a nice job, especially the first episode. They kept the characters, and were doing a lot of scenes from California Split.”

Walsh mentions one example, the woman superstitiously switching seats at the California Club poker game, as a detail from the film reappearing in the TV script.

A number of rewrites followed. There was even talk of Walsh being called upon to write an episode, perhaps during the second season.

“That would have been nice,” says Walsh. “I think I have a wonderful episode in me.”

Alas, a last-minute disagreement (not involving Walsh) thwarted the project. Phillips was suddenly gone, having moved on to direct the award-winning Joker and to pursue other projects.

The way Walsh tells the story, it was as though he had been on the verge of collecting a massive pot when his opponent unexpectedly rivered a one-outer.

“It all blew up. I couldn’t believe it. It was one of those where you knew you were 98 percent, 99 percent,” he chuckles.

Coming from someone else it might have sounded like a bad beat story. But a lifetime of bets won and lost prevents Walsh from succumbing to anything resembling self-pity, even where it might be deserved.

“That knocked me on my ass for 10 days. But somehow after 10 days, I said okay… what’s on the other side of this? Are you going to let this crush you?”

The answer was no, and among other things during the years since Walsh wrote and has now published his hilarious Hollywood memoir, Who Says It’s Over.

“I’m in the win column, already,” says Walsh, characteristically accepting that which he cannot control.

As California Split well shows, you win some and you lose some. It’s how you handle those wins and losses that matters most.

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