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George Segal found happiness in Sonoma County with high school sweetheart

Graton chef-restaurateur Matthew Greenbaum can’t help but smile, though now bittersweetly, about the day his mom married a famous film-and-TV actor on the back patio at Willow Wood Market Cafe.

It was a regular business day, a quiet one, so there was a lone diner on the patio. That person paid little mind that day in September 1998 as a justice of the peace administered vows to long-separated high school sweethearts Sonia Greenbaum and George Segal.

“There was an emerald hummingbird flying behind them as they got married,” Matthew Greenbaum remembers.

The moment the rings slipped onto the fingers and a kiss sealed the deal, Matthew Greenbaum gained a down-to-earth, enduring Hollywood star as a stepfather. And he lost a heck of a restaurant worker.

His mom, Sonia, had left her home on Cape Cod to come to the Sebastopol satellite of Graton and help him run Willow Wood, which he’d opened in 1995 with partner Sally Spittles. He launched Underwood Bar & Bistro across the street in the former home of Skip’s Bar in 2002.

When, post-wedding, Sonia bade him goodbye and left Sonoma County for a new chapter of life with George Segal in Los Angeles, Greenbaum was delighted for her but sorry to see her go.

But close to 10 years ago, the Segals bought a second home — right next door to Greenbaum’s house in Graton. They were there whenever George wasn’t in Culver City taping episodes of the ABC period sitcom, “The Goldbergs.”

Greenbaum said his mother and stepfather “would come up in April and stay until August.” But they’d been in Graton throughout the past year because the COVID crisis sidelined most television production.

And the Segals were here in Sonoma County when the prolific, easily approachable actor died Tuesday at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital from respiratory complications of a quadruple coronary artery bypass surgery performed several weeks earlier. He’d turned 87 on Feb. 13.

“It really caught us by surprise,” Matthew Greenbaum said. His stepdad was intending to return to Southern California when he was needed for the resumed production of “The Goldbergs.”

“He worked to the end. He loved working,” Greenbaum said. “He had such a good life.”

HIS MOM SONIA had met and fallen in love with George Segal when they were teens at George School, a private Quaker school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Upon graduation, as so often happens, circumstances sent them on divergent paths.

Both were again unmarried, and both in their early 60s, when they shared a phone conversation in 1995. Restaurateur Greenbaum recalls, “They talked for months and months and got to know each other again.”

Then Sonia and George married, then they bought the house in Graton. Greenbaum said both loved living in Sonoma County, and both were hugely supportive of him and his restaurants.

“George was just thrilled to eat oysters at the bar at Underwood,” Greenbaum said. Segal also invested in Underwood.

Not long ago, Greenbaum and his stepdad the actor learned something that connected them ever more firmly to this place.

It turns out that Segal’s father, George Segal Sr., a New York malt and hops agent who died in 1947, had visited Sonoma County to buy hops from the late Warren Dutton.

To this day, Segal kin grow hops in Washington state. Among their buyers: the Russian River Brewing Co., maker of a pale ale called Segal Select.

GEORGE SEGAL, an actor equally adept at comedy and drama, worked in theater before scoring his film debut, at age 27, in 1961’s “The Young Doctors.” A year later he shone with John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Sean Connery and other Hollywood stars in the D-Day epic, “The Longest Day.”

He earned an Oscar nomination for his 1966 role alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Handsome and endearing, Segal by the 1970s often played leading men opposite the likes of Glenda Jackson in “A Touch of Class,” Goldie Hawn in “The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox” and Jane Fonda in “Fun with Dick and Jane.“

Switching strongly to television, he is remembered by many as magazine publisher Jack Gallo in the NBC sitcom “Just Shoot Me,” a role that brought him two Golden Globe nominations. And to millions he was Albert “Pops” Solomon on “The Goldbergs.”

BIG DAVE was in heaven to meet, work with and live near Segal in Sonoma County.

Big Dave, you probably know, is the on-air handle of David Gross of landmark radio station KRSH-95.9 FM.

He grew up, as Segal did, on Long Island. And Gross and his brothers grew up as huge fans of Segal’s work.

“’King Rat’ made a big impact on us,” Gross said, alluding to the 1965 war film in which Segal plays the lead role of the rogue Corporal King, an American in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

Gross added, “George has always been an important figure in my life. He’s always been such a jubilant character.”

The future broadcaster was 14 when he and his brothers learned that Segal was coming to their part of Long Island to shoot an action scene outside of a Modell’s Sporting Goods store for the “The Hot Rock,” the 1972 caper film with Robert Redford.

Gross and his brothers were in awe watching the street shoot, which involved a car crashing into a semi-truck. And he continued for decades to be a practicing devotee of George Segal.

So you can imagine how it felt for Gross, who settled with his wife in Graton in 2002, to have Segal walk into a studio at KRSH around 2004.

Gross was then an advertising executive with the radio station and a favorite client was Matthew Greenbaum and his two Graton restaurants. As Gross and Greenbaum brainstormed about new radio spots, the restaurateur mentioned that his stepfather might be interested to speak in a spot or two.

And that stepfather was George Segal.

“My jaw must have dropped,” Gross said. “I said, ’You’re kidding! I love George Segal!”

Not long later, the actor was in a studio with Gross and production chief Joe Martinez at The Krush, creating radio ads that he’d written himself.

Sometimes Segal would bring along Sonia and they’d make a radio ad together. Sometimes he’d play his banjo, sometimes a ukulele. When Segal finished his bit, Gross would come on with the tag line about Underwood or Willow Wood.

Gross said Segal’s voice and delivery were so glorious as he made those spots, “He could just read a menu, you’d be staring at him in awe.”

“People still talk about those commercials.”

You can contact Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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