Joseph Walsh introduces his brand new memoir Who Says It’s Over with a bit of backstory about how he came to write it.
It took some prodding from others, frankly. This year Walsh turned 83. He had a lot of ground to cover. If he were going to tell his life story, it was going to take some effort.
Walsh is perhaps best known for having written and co-produced one of the all-time great gambling movies, 1974’s California Split directed by Robert Altman. But that was just one episode in a life filled with hundreds of remarkable ones, stretching back to his childhood when he was the most famous child actor in New York for several years during the early days of television.
A move to California as a young adult led to several decades of acting (and interacting) with many of Hollywood’s most famous figures. As far as being in front of the camera was concerned, Walsh would appear on more than 300 shows and in numerous feature films.
Along the way Walsh also became an dedicated gambler, betting on sports and horses, playing poker and other games, all while collecting experiences he would ultimately funnel into California Split. Like the world of movies and TV, gambling also foregrounded for Walsh how life is full of risk and reward, of agony and ecstasy, of outcomes wished for and realized.
Looking back, he knew there was a story there, one with multiple hooks and a relatable theme. But to tell that story would involve some work.
“I hadn’t picked up a pen in years, and I wasn’t so anxious for a showdown with the written word again,” Walsh confesses. Knowing from experience how “such face-offs take a lot of energy,” he needed some extra inspiration.
As Walsh explains in the book — and as he and I talked about in our recent conversation — he found the necessary motivation to write his story. And readers of Who Says It’s Over are now reaping the rewards, getting an often hilarious Hollywood memoir with an added bonus of gambling tales and life lessons.
Child actor, inveterate gambler, Hollywood journeyman
If writing the book was a long shot for Walsh, well, his whole life has been full of unlikely twists and turns, including more than a few long shots that somehow came through.
For starters, it was hardly likely for a streetwise kid from the East Side more interested in stickball or being a welterweight boxing champion to become the city’s most famous child star. But one thing led to another, and following a father’s prodding and a month’s worth of acting lessons, suddenly everyone wanted to hire the kid whose specialty was to “play trouble.”
Multiple appearances on various TV shows led to feature film roles, including appearing opposite Danny Kaye in Hans Christian Andersen (1952) and alongside Kirk Douglas in The Juggler (1953). Despite young Joey’s occasional ambivalence about his new career, the roles kept coming and his star continued to rise.
By his later teens, however, Walsh had become even less enamored with acting, his disaffection causing more strife between himself and his father. However unlike James Dean with whom Walsh acted on one TV show in which they appeared as brothers, Joey was a rebel with a cause — gambling.
He enjoyed some success betting on sports and other ventures (see below). But his new interest also brought him some hardship, including falling into some intensely threatening situations involving angry bookies. Indeed, if one particular encounter with a violent thug had resolved differently, the Walsh saga might well have ended right then and there.
But it didn’t, and after a chance encounter led to a cross-country trip to California, Walsh’s acting career resumed. What had previously been starring roles had more often become bit parts, but he was still in the game.
Film credits would eventually include Anzio (1968), The Driver (1978), Poltergeist (1982), and Let It Ride (1989). He’d continue to appear frequently on the small screen, too, although his IMDB page only covers a small portion of his hundreds of television roles.
Laughing and learning along with a Hollywood ‘who’s who’
The gambling continued as well for Walsh, including frequent participation in Hollywood home games with fellow actors and celebrities.
The stories Walsh tells are consistently captivating, involving dozens of the industry’s most famous names. Personal anecdotes involving Peter Falk, Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck, Groucho Marx, Robert Mitchum, Ryan O’Neal, Jack Lemmon, Elvis Presley, Ringo Starr, Steven Spielberg and others help keep the pages turning as the reader wonders who else might show up.
There’s a near brawl with James Garner during a softball game. (“Needless to say, his show Maverick never held much charm for me.”)
There’s famed director John Huston complimenting Walsh on a well-managed bluff in five-card stud. (“It was the purest moment I ever witnessed.”)
There’s Jack Nicholson mooning one raft full of startled onlookers after another on a whitewater trip. (“Jack wasn’t satisfied to captivate his audiences on screen, he was after them wherever or whenever the opportunity presented itself.”).
To superimpose a poker analogy, each of the short chapters is like an engaging, noteworthy hand that without fail ends with some bit of important information being passed along. Not only that, just about all of them are humorous (at times verging on hysterical), with the book’s
win grin rate averaging multiple laughs per page.
The best part — all of the stories are not just worth the reader’s while for the entertainment or edification they provide. They all matter to Walsh’s story, too, together helping the reader appreciate his empathy for others and the equanimity with which he responds to his own ups and downs.
“There’s a lot I left out,” says Walsh. “There were many more names I could have put in the book. But I left many out because they didn’t have a story or a punch line or a real ending. It had to have something to it that was meaningful.”
‘No preaching or teaching’: Showing the reality of gambling in California Split
Walsh employed a similar no-nonsense approach when writing California Split, the film that marked a kind of triumphant comeback in Walsh’s overall narrative trajectory.
It’s a true gambling story, masterfully told with an explicit purpose not to moralize. “No preaching or teaching,” says Walsh. “No deep hidden meanings. Just a movie about two guys, following their bouncing ball to wherever the action led them.”
There are messages, though, including smart ones about how gambling affects people in meaningful ways. And differently.
Elliot Gould and George Segal star as a pair of gambling buddies. Gould plays the gregarious Charlie for whom gambling is a way of life. Segal plays the more reserved Bill who also enjoys gambling but is less comfortable with the lifestyle, and much more emotionally affected by winning and losing than is Charlie.
Walsh himself also turns up in a scene as a bookie berating Bill for overdue payments. That’s actually one of a couple of ironies in the casting, given Walsh’s lifelong antagonism toward bookmakers.
The other irony results from the fact that Gould and Walsh are themselves lifelong friends and gambling buddies, not unlike the central characters in Split. However in the film, Gould’s Charlie is actually more like the always-ready-to-gamble Walsh, whereas Segal’s Bill more closely approximates the real-life Gould.
In the book Walsh relates a gambling story involving the pair from when they were in their teens. Walsh convinced Gould to give him money to contribute to a series of parlays involving 15 college football games.
Walsh was right on 14 of them. The other was a push. They’d turned $150 into more than $1,500!
“I probably destroyed my friend, Mr. Gould,” Walsh chuckles. “Elliott is looking at me like ‘my friend is a freak of nature… Joey is as spooky as it gets!’ I couldn’t lose!”
“The funny thing is, I’ve been chasing that streak ever since!”
In the film, Charlie and Bill are also shown chasing a winning streak while gambling in a variety of ways. They bet on horse races, pickup basketball, blackjack, craps, and roulette. They also play poker.
Speaking of the latter, poker players especially appreciate the tour de force opening scene at the fictional California Club, as well as a later high-stakes stud game in Reno in which Amarillo Slim Preston makes a cameo as himself. That scene features a priceless monologue delivered by Charlie in which he assesses the playing styles of each player one by one based on their appearance.
Much like Walsh’s memoir, all of it strikes the audience as genuine, with the story free of the usual Hollywood-style embellishment he describes having had to fight against when trying to California Split made.
“The film will never be dated,” says Walsh, answering a question about why the film continues to be appreciated four-and-a-half decades after it premiered. (Earlier this year, it was ranked first in Vulture‘s list of best gambling movies ever.)
“If you keep it honest, if you don’t try to glamorize it or make it more ‘movie-ish,’ you can watch it now and you can see the real feeling and emotion of gambling. That will never go out of style.”
A lasting present from a gifted storyteller
Such a commitment to honesty — about storytelling and about himself — is one reason why Walsh spends little time lamenting past mistakes or any of the bad beats he’s endured at the race track or poker table, or any the heartbreaks that often happen in Hollywood.
“I still run into these people… these ‘I can’t get a break’ people. Stop crying. Take everything for what it is, and you start to appreciate life,” says Walsh. “Don’t complain. Stay humble.”
He does have one misgiving, though. In fact, having that one remorse is what ultimately provided him the final impetus to write Who Says It’s Over.
“I asked myself, ‘Joey, what has always been your one regret? You never found anything out about your parents.’ As I write about in the book, on the East Side we weren’t the type of kids who came home and said ‘Mom, Dad, tell me all about yourself… I won’t be able to sleep until you tell me your life story.'”
Walsh realized he had an opportunity to share with his four children something he had missed out on with his parents.
“I said to myself, ‘wow… you have a chance right now. Your wife wants you to do it. Your agent wants you to write it. What do you have to lose?”
After a lifetime of gambles, Walsh had found a sure thing.
Who Says It’s Over by Joseph Walsh is available in paperback or as an e-book on Amazon.