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An independent filmmaker and often onscreen performer frequently compared with fellow New Yorker Woody Allen, Paul Mazursky spent years in show business developing an acting career and a reputation as a writer before finally directing his own screenplays. After making his feature debut as an actor in Stanley Kubrick's "Fear and Desire" (1953), Mazursky went on to write for "The Danny Kaye Show" (CBS, 1963-67) while also penning the pilot episode for "The Monkees" (NBC, 1966-68). Though denied his feature directorial debut by star Peter Sellers with his script for "I Love You Alice B. Toklas" (1968), he was finally able to helm his first movie with "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" (1969), a once-controversial, but now tame by comparison look at loose sexual mores in the "free love" era. He went on to direct several fine movies in the following decade, including "Blume in Love" (1973) and "Harry and Tonto" (1974), before having one of his biggest hits with the feminist-themed "An Unmarried Woman" (1978). Mazursky continued to charm audiences with "Moscow on the Hudson" (1984) while having perhaps his greatest box office success with "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" (1986). Following an atypical effort with...
An independent filmmaker and often onscreen performer frequently compared with fellow New Yorker Woody Allen, Paul Mazursky spent years in show business developing an acting career and a reputation as a writer before finally directing his own screenplays. After making his feature debut as an actor in Stanley Kubrick's "Fear and Desire" (1953), Mazursky went on to write for "The Danny Kaye Show" (CBS, 1963-67) while also penning the pilot episode for "The Monkees" (NBC, 1966-68). Though denied his feature directorial debut by star Peter Sellers with his script for "I Love You Alice B. Toklas" (1968), he was finally able to helm his first movie with "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" (1969), a once-controversial, but now tame by comparison look at loose sexual mores in the "free love" era. He went on to direct several fine movies in the following decade, including "Blume in Love" (1973) and "Harry and Tonto" (1974), before having one of his biggest hits with the feminist-themed "An Unmarried Woman" (1978). Mazursky continued to charm audiences with "Moscow on the Hudson" (1984) while having perhaps his greatest box office success with "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" (1986). Following an atypical effort with the tragic-comic "Enemies: A Love Story" (1989), Mazursky began to stumble as a director with "Scenes from a Mall" (1991) and "The Pickle" (1993). While leaving feature directing largely behind, Mazursky made acting appearances in several movies and on television shows, while making clear as the years passed that he had left the director's chair for good.
Born on April 25, 1930 in Brooklyn, NY, Mazursky was raised by his father, David, a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine who worked as a laborer for FDR's New Deal agency and Works Progress Administration, and his mother, Jean, a pianist who played part-time for a dance school. After graduating Brooklyn's Thomas Jefferson High School in 1947, he attended Brooklyn College, where he first ventured into the arts as an actor. Mazursky spent his summers upstate in the Catskills, where he concurrently waited tables and regaled the mainly Jewish audiences with a stand-up comedy routine that included imitations of Hollywood stars like Edward G. Robinson. During his senior year at Brooklyn College, he landed a role in a college revival of Leonid Andreyev's "He Who Gets Slapped" (1950). The play transferred off-Broadway to the Master Institute Theatre, where playwright Howard Sackler introduced the young actor to Stanley Kubrick. The first-time director cast him in the low-budget war drama, "Fear and Desire" (1953), in which, by his own admission, Mazursky overplayed a G.I. cracking under the strain of combat.
Taking to the stage once more, Mazursky performed summer stock in several notable roles, playing Willie Loman in "Death of a Salesman" (1953), Sorin in "The Seagull" (1953) and Undershaft in "Major Barbara" (1953). Typecast as a juvenile delinquent after the success of "Blackboard Jungle" (1955), Mazursky returned to comedy, performing an act called "Igor and H" - he was Igor - with fellow comic Herb Hartig, and later working with the Second City Improvisational Revue in Los Angeles. While appearing in episodes of "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1959-1964), he was forced to write his own material with Second City, which eventually led to writing for others and with his partner Larry Tucker. After the two landed a lucrative gig on "The Danny Kaye Show" (CBS, 1963-67), Mazursky and Tucker wrote the pilot episode for "The Monkees" (NBC, 1966-68). He next had a co-starring role in Vic Morrow's feature adaptation of Jean Genet's play, "Deathwatch" (1966), which starred Leonard Nimoy as a convicted murderer fending off a challenge to his prison leadership by two other cell mates (Mazursky and Michael Forest).
Moving into feature writing, Mazursky planned on making his debut as a director on the satirical romantic comedy, "I Love You Alice B. Toklas" (1968). But he had to content himself with being an executive producer when its star Peter Sellers refused to be directed by a neophyte. Together with co-writer Tucker, Mazursky fashioned an outstanding script helmed by Hy Averback that sent up both the hippie and Establishment ways of living while creating believable and consistent characters who never lost their dignity despite the attendant hilarity. Sellers had his best role in years as the square lawyer who turns on to marijuana brownies, drops out for awhile, then tries to drop back in only to find conformity wanting. It was the first of four successive scripts reflecting Mazursky's wide-eyed infatuation with the rampant pop nuttiness of his adopted Los Angeles. He scored a critical and commercial success with his directorial debut, "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" (1969), a now-tame study of middle-class attitudes about sex and marriage that seemed risqué at the time. Starring Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon, while inspired by Mazursky's investigation of an Esalen encounter group, the satirical comedy-of-manners made him rich enough to ignore the financial pressures that typically forced most directors to accept unwelcome studio assignments.
Following the failure of the overly self-indulgent "Alex in Wonderland" (1970), an autobiographical tale of a young, one-hit director (Donald Sutherland) in search of a powerful theme for his next project, Mazursky re-examined the institution of marriage and divorce in the pain-tinged "Blume in Love" (1973). The film starred George Segal as a divorce lawyer who becomes his own client after being tossed out by his wife (Susan Anspach) for having an affair. He next wrote and directed the road drama, "Harry and Tonto" (1974), which starred Art Carney as a 70-year-old widower who loses his Upper West Side apartment to the wrecking ball, prompting him to go on a road trip of self-discovery with his pet cat. Along the way, he comes across a like soul in a young hitchhiker (Melanie Mayron) while visiting his daughter (Ellen Burstyn) in Chicago and finally meeting his youngest son (Larry Hagman) in Los Angeles. Though he initially had trouble finding backers for the bittersweet story of a crotchety septuagenarian crossing the country with his feline friend, Mazursky managed not only to get the film made, but direct Carney to an Oscar-winning and career-reviving performance.
Mazursky went on to write and direct the underappreciated coming-of-age dramedy, "Next Stop, Greenwich Village" (1976), which chronicled the director's own move from Brooklyn to exotic Greenwich Village in the 1950s that featured wonderful period atmosphere and characterizations. He had his greatest success of the 1970s with "An Unmarried Woman" (1978), which starred Jill Clayburgh as a wife and mother who seemingly has it all, until her husband (Michael Murphy) suddenly leaves her for a younger woman. The film was much more than a critical and box office hit - it became a beacon of the women's movement, with Jill Clayburgh earning an Oscar nomination for her depiction of a woman rebuilding her life on her own terms after a divorce. Following a brief return to acting with a starring role in the crime comedy, "A Man, a Woman and a Bank" (1979), Mazursky used Greenwich Village as the setting for "Willie and Phil" (1980), a look at a contemporary menage-a-trois between two friends (Michael Ontkean and Ray Sharkey) and a free-spirited Southerner (Margot Kidder). The film's retelling of Francois Truffaut's "Jules and Jim" (1962) began rather coyly with the two men meeting at a Bleecker Street Cinema screening of the Truffaut classic. Though over-sentimentalizing his characters' situations softened the film's satiric bite - a common refrain throughout his career - Mazursky nonetheless managed to get the audience to identify with his characters.
Despite an appealing cast, beautiful scenery and some engaging scenes, Mazursky failed to pull together a cohesive film in his contemporary reworking of Shakespeare's "Tempest" (1982), starring John Cassavetes, Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia. But he bounced back after drawing out a superb performance from Robin Williams as the Soviet musician who defects to America via Bloomingdale's in "Moscow on the Hudson" (1984). A sweet film that was longer on mood than message, "Moscow" sagged after its premise was established, leaving Williams' character little more to do than haphazardly assimilate into his new chosen society. Still, the film did well enough in theaters to introduce the film's star to a wider audience. Meanwhile, "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" (1986), based on Jean Renoir's "Boudu Saved From Drowning" (1932), marked Mazursky's return to West Coast subjects after a long absence and proved to be his biggest box-office hit in years. The satirical comedy starred Nick Nolte as Jerry Baskin, a hapless hobo rescued from the pool of a philandering businessman (Richard Dreyfuss) and his wife (Bette Midler). Invited to stay at their Beverly Hills mansion, Jerry turns the family upside down in more ways than one while befriending the family dog as well. A big box office hit, "Down and Out" was later turned into a short-lived television show.
Mazursky next directed "Moon Over Parador" (1988), a hodgepodge of satire and show business comedy about a Caribbean cabinet minister (Raul Julia) who hires a self-centered American actor (Richard Dreyfuss) to impersonate the country's dictator who is actually dead. Though not as biting in its satire on banana republics as one would have hoped, the film was memorable for Mazursky's hilarious onscreen turn as Momma, after replacing the original actress who failed to show. He went on to helm "Enemies, A Love Story" (1989), a very atypical picture that was arguably one of the director's finest. Reining in his impulse for broad comedy, Mazursky presented a tragi-comic narrative of a Holocaust survivor (Ron Silver) who finds himself with two wives (Anjelica Huston and Margaret Sophie Stein) and a mistress (Lena Olin) he would like to marry in post-World War II New York City, with his failure to commit partly a result of an entire culture's displacement and ruin. The ambitious adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer's novel spoke eloquently of resilience, humor and passion in the shadow of genocide and boasted a brilliant ensemble working within production designer Paul Guzman's lavishly detailed sets that perfectly evoked a bygone era.
Though a collaboration between Mazursky and the comedic talents of Woody Allen and Bette Midler seemed promising with "Scenes from a Mall" (1991), the domestic comedy was a profound disappointment, offering nothing new in its jabs at contemporary consumer culture. Hitting a low point in his directing work with "The Pickle" (1993), a charmless mess of a showbiz satire starring Danny Aiello as a director in desperate need of a hit, Mazursky began stepping out from behind the camera with ever increasing frequency, while leaving directing behind. After directing Chazz Palminteri in the stagey crime comedy, "Faithful" (1996), he helmed the critically-admired "Winchell" (HBO, 1998), which garnered an Emmy Award for Stanley Tucci in the title role of feared Hollywood columnist Walter Winchell. His relative inactivity as a director during the 1990s freed him to act more frequently in films like "Carlito's Way" (1993), in which he had a terrific cameo as a weary judge; "2 Days in the Valley" (1996) and TNT's "A Slight Case of Murder" (1999), not to mention his voicing one of the animated "Antz" (1998). Following a small part as a poker dealer named Sunshine on "The Sopranos" (HBO, 1999-2007), he had a recurring role as Norm, a slow golfer with high blood pressure, on Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (HBO, 2000- ). Meanwhile, Mazursky was set to receive an annual career achievement award from the L.A. Film Critics Association in January 2011.
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Mazursky's psychiatrist Donald F. Muhich has acted in four films by the director, playing (what else?) a psychiatrist of one kind or another.
Though the setting for "Scenes from a Mall" was supposedly the Beverly Center in California, Mazursky actually filmed in a Stanford, Connecticut mall designed by the Beverly Center's architect in order to use the notoriously West Coast-shy Woody Allen. Allen did spend three days in Los Angeles shooting the opening scenes in the Hollywood Hills and one shot where he and Bette Midler drive up to the Beverly Center. That architect also designed a lavish two-story Beverly Center replica at the Kaufman-Astoria Studios in Queens for the filmmaker's use.
About working with the dog in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills": "The trainer, Clint, came in with this Mike the dog. And I knew right away that Clint was different, because he talked to the dog as if it were his friend. 'Mikey, do you want to show Paul that?' And Mikey would go, 'mm-hmm,' and he would do it . . . I met with Clint the way I'd meet with an actor or an actress, and discussed the motivation for Mike's stuff. He made me do it. So I would say, 'Well, when they rescue the bum and put him down in the chaise lounge, I want the dog to go crazy.' And he'd say, 'Yeah, but when they pull him out, he wouldn't lick him right away.' I said, 'Why not?' and he'd say, 'Mikey just wouldn't do that.'"
"Mike the dog went to the Deuville film festival with me, and we flew on the same plane, first class. I'm there with my wife and kids, and I've got 'Down and Out in Beverly Hills' there, so I'm the star of the festival. And they give me the crappiest room I have ever seen. I mean, a tiny, junk room. So I call down and say, 'I'm not going to stay in this room.' They say, 'What room?' I say, '234.' 'No, no, that's the dog's room.' So I go up to 434, and I see the dog in a huge suite, lying in the bed. And I say, 'Mikey, you're out.' That's a true story." --Paul Mazursky, quoted in American Film, January 1990.
"I based the mother in my film 'Alex in Wonderland' on my mom. I didn't want her to be surprised, so I showed her the script. My mother said, 'So, who's going to play me?' When I said, 'I don't know,' she wanted to do it.
"I said, 'Mom, you'll have to audition.' She did, and she was so bad, I turned her down. Then I told her I'd cast an actress named Viola Spolin to play the part, and Mom said, 'So, you couldn't pick Bette Davis? When this film comes to New York, I think I'm gonna picket it.' And she wasn't kidding. I had to beg her not to.
"My mother was a very intense and difficult woman. I loved her but I didn't always like her. I remember when my movie 'Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" played at the New York Film Festival, she said, 'Big deal. I guess you think you're a big shot now.' I swear she said that."
"It was my mother who was the real influence in my life. She freed me to dream big dreams even though she was a very neurotic woman. For some bizarre reason, maybe because she wanted to escape, she loved opera and she used to take me.
"She'd also take me to see foreign films, and we'd go to Harlem to the Amateur Hour, where I watched the greats like Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway and Count Basie.
"In fact, my mother even let me play hooky to see movies. She'd say, 'Come on, there's a double feature. You can skip school today.'" --Paul Mazursky to Jeanne Wolf in Daily News, September 22, 1996.
"I can't talk about Brooklyn now, but Brooklyn then, in the '30s and '40s was like an earthly paradise. There was an electric excitement in the streets. You learned about life by your wits, and it never leaves you. You're tougher, shrewder, and it teaches you humor and irony. But leaving Brooklyn for Manhattan in the early '50s was just as big a trip for me as going to Paris.
"It was 1952, and I took an apartment at 205 W. 10th St. and it was a completely different universe than Bergen St. in Brownsville. I'd walk down the street to the White Horse Tavern and, 'Who's this Welshman spouting poetry? My God, it's Dylan Thomas!' And you'd see Allen Ginsberg walking around the street. It cracked open my life." --Mazursky, quoted in Daily News, June 13, 1999.
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