Early LifeDespite his stereotypical Midwestern image from his roles in TV shows Freaks and Geeks and How I Met Your Mother, Segel was born and raised in Los Angeles by a Christian mother, a homemaker, and Jewish father, a lawyer, along with a half brother and a sister. He grew up in the wealthy neighborhood of Pacific Palisades and was raised mostly Jewish, although he attended an Episcopalian private school. And yes, Segel played basketball (he can dunk, and even played on a high school team with NBA star Jason Collins), but after graduating fell for theater and decided he wanted to be an actor, starring in a few community plays.
Early Career and Judd ApatowIn the late 1990s, Segel dabbled in the wave of popular teen comedies of the time, with his first role a bit part in Can’t Hardly Wait, then critically acclaimed indie film SLC Punk, along with some more forgettable teen roles.
But he rose to cult star status with his role in the short-lived but adored ABC show Freaks and Geeks, created by future megaproducer Judd Apatow and Bridesmaids director Paul Feig. Segel played lovable stoner Nick Andopolis, a brief love interest of the show’s central character Lindsay (Linda Cardellini, who he would go on to date in real life) and hopelessly aspiring rock drummer. In just 18 episodes, Freaks and Geeks scored low ratings, but is still critically praised and worshipped by fans for its mix of humor, frank emotion, and unpolished portrayal of teen and pre-teen life. The show also launched the careers of Segel, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley (Bones), and established working relationships that would continue in many successful movies into the future.
In 2001, Apatow would give network TV the old college try once again, with the thematically similar Undeclared, this time a 30-minute comedy about college freshmen. Segel played a supporting role, but often stole the show as the sad, endearing boyfriend left behind by main character Lizzie when she went off to college.
The two roles won Segel a place in fans’ hearts for his subdued charm that hovered somewhere between sweet and pathetic. It also demonstrated his comic acting chops, and gave a glimpse into his talent for music and songwriting, which appeared memorably in some of the best Freaks and Geeks episodes.
Primetime StardomAfter the cancellation of Undeclared, Segel continued his friendships with Apatow and co-stars, but experienced a lull in his career until 2005, when appreciation for his work finally translated to mainstream success. He landed a few spots on Alias and CSI, but got a big boost when cast by the creator of a new show How I Met Your Mother in 2005, as the main character’s best friend, Marshall Eriksen. The producer has said he was a big fan of Freaks and Geeks.
The show is in many ways standard network sitcom fare, but it also subverts many TV conventions, twisting the storytelling around and investing in off-kilter running jokes, not unlike another cult hit of the time Arrested Development. But it seemed to hit the sweet spot between widespread appeal and cult quirkiness, which is a perfect fit for Segel. HIMYM, as lazy fans refer to it, also had a knack at giving cult stars new life, casting Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M.D.), Alyson Hannigan (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and Segel based on appreciation of their earlier roles. The show’s popularity grew very slowly, but now enjoys high ratings and a devoted fan base.
An Unconventional Leading ManWhile Segel’s popularity grew in his role as Marshall Eriksen, an unlikely thing happened—he became a movie star. And not just a movie star, he began to make a name as a writer, producer and songwriter.
After reconnecting with Judd Apatow for another memorable supporting role in Knocked Up, Segel made the leap from TV and bit movie actor to hot Hollywood property with his labor of love, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The ensemble comedy-romance with Mila Kunis, Russell Brand, Kristen Bell and Jonah Hill was a huge success among critics and audiences. Segel co-wrote the film, played the leading role, and wrote the music for the unforgettable Dracula puppet show at the film’s end. The movie was hilarious, sweet, and just a little dark, proving that Segel could bare his soul (and his penis) in a leading role.
Since that break, Segel has worked steadily, with mostly positive response. He starred in the Duplass brothers’ indie film Jeff, Who Lives at Home, co-wrote and produced The Five-Year Engagement, and played opposite Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher.
The Muppets and a New EndeavorThe impressive thing about Segel’s career is that, not only is he multi-talented and widely embraced, he also seems to never be satisfied with where he’s at creatively. In 2011, for example, he took his role in Hollywood to another level by lobbying Disney to back a Muppet movie reboot, one of Segel’s dreams. A lifetime fan of The Muppets who always wanted to see them returned to their former glory, Segel executive produced, co-wrote and starred in the film, as well as writing some of the music. The Muppets is one of the most beloved and acclaimed of all the Muppet movies, and was the first to win an Academy Award.
As for Segel’s future plans, HIMYM appears to be winding down, but he’ll no doubt continue to land roles in small and large film projects. And always looking to branch out, Segel announced a new endeavor, writing a series of children’s books called “Nightmare!” for Random House.