‘Shrinking’ actor Jason Segel on the indelible mark of his high school acting coach

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Jason Segel. Photo credit: Michael Muller

Actor Jason Segel almost had a very different career path. At 6 ft. 4 in., the star of the Apple TV+ series “Shrinking” was a basketball star at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles and was part of a championship winning team.

But Segel also loved acting, and would work on that craft after basketball practice, taking classes with the school’s late beloved drama teacher Ted Walch.

Walch suggested to Segel they put on Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story,” the one-act, two-person play about a man contemplating suicide. Segel performed in the play in front of a small audience, which, unbeknownst to the actor, included a casting director for Paramount Pictures whom Walch had invited. Soon after, Segel received offers to audition for film and TV roles. In 1999, Judd Apatow cast him to play Nick Andopolis in the short-lived, much loved series “Freaks and Geeks.” After that, Segel’s career took off.

Walch, who passed away last fall, left an indelible mark on Segel — along with numerous other students who would go on to have successful acting careers — that changed his life. 

More: Actor Jason Segel on the currency of his likable roles

This segment has been edited for length and clarity. 

When I was a young guy, I was an athlete playing basketball, but I knew that I loved acting. And I was doing secret shame acting at night. I would go to basketball practice, and then I would go put on little plays. The head of the [theater] department [at] my high school saw one of these plays, and I guess, recognized something, and he said, “Hey, why don't you and I put on a really difficult play called “The Zoo Story” by Edward Albee. We will do it in the Little Black Box theater at school. [It] won't be a big deal. We'll just invite 20 or 30 people, and let's see if you really got the chops for this.”

So we did it. We rehearsed for a month, and he directed it. It was a really difficult piece. Then I put on the show, and I didn't think too much of it. 

About a week later, my parents sat me down, and they said, “Hey, you've got a decision to make. You need to decide if you want to keep playing basketball and do your senior year at school, or if you would like to be a professional actor, because we've got some offers for you to be in movies.” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” 

It turned out that my acting coach, Ted Walch, had secretly invited the president of casting at Paramount Pictures, a woman named Deborah Aquila, at the time, to come see the show. He had done a secret showcase for me and didn't want me to be scared. 

That night, I didn't know what to do, because I love basketball. We just won a state championship. I remember I was 16-years old. I drove to Paramount Pictures, and I sat outside the gates because they're kind of iconic. I sat and I thought, and I fell asleep in my car. When I woke up in the morning, my decision had been made. I went home and I said, “I want to be an actor. Let's do this.” And from that moment, my life was changed. 

Someone said to me once, “God is not gonna come to you in the form of a burning bush. It’s going to be in the words and actions of your friends and family.” And I think that's true. I miss you Ted. I love you. I’m glad I got to do this.



Rebecca Mooney