Paul Mazursky Dead: Director of 'Unmarried Woman' Dies at 84

Paul Mazursky
Paul Mazursky
 Tonya Wise/Invision/AP

Paul Mazursky, the colorful writer-director who masterfully mingled the funny and the forlorn in such modern classics as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, An Unmarried Woman and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, has died. He was 84.

A five-time Oscar nominee whose influential oeuvre also includes the touchstone films Harry and Tonto (1974), Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976) and Enemies: A Love Story (1989), Mazursky died Monday in Los Angeles of pulmonary cardiac arrest.

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"A true raconteur, Paul brought humor and spirit to the many Guild meetings he attended during two decades of service to the DGA," said Directors Guild of America president Paris Barclay in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. "He shared his provocative views of humanity in his many films, but what he shared with us were quick quips, thoughtful responses and pointed anecdotes always geared toward making us think and feel. Paul was passionate about serving the Guild and deeply engaged in the issues we faced, especially the protection of our creative rights. We will miss him greatly."

The Brooklyn native, who also co-wrote the pilot for the 1960s NBC series The Monkees, started out aiming to be an actor and often showed up onscreen.

Mazursky was one of the five performers in Stanley Kubrick’s first feature, Fear and Desire (1953); portrayed one of the juvenile delinquents in The Blackboard Jungle (1955); and played Norm, the deliberate golfer with high blood pressure who dies after Larry David yells at him in HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.

But it is his career as a screenwriter and director for which Mazursky will be best remembered. Called “a comic poet” by Pauline Kael and a “cultural anthropologist” by Elvis Mitchell, Mazursky crafted character-based films that were loving, poignant, satiric and absurd. His movies often ended with questions, not answers.

“The great thing about Paul’s movies is that they never seem to be made up. They seem to spring from life,” filmmaker Mel Brooks wrote in the foreword for Sam Wasson’s 1991 book, Paul on Mazursky. “You believe everything! You just believe those things are happening when you watch his movies. ... Everybody thought it was just kind of a documentary.”

As a director, especially early in his career, Mazursky favored lengthy scenes and rarely went for the fancy camera shot or angle.

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Fresh off his first feature screenwriting effort, the Peter Sellers comedy I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968), Mazursky and his wife, Betsy, traveled to the Esalen Institute at Big Sur for a 72-hour weekend encounter, where they and other folks sat around naked in a hot tub. They were the only people in the group who knew each other.

“[The others] picked on us, but especially me because Betsy would say things like, ‘He never lets me finish, he never lets me talk,’ ” he told Wasson.

He and early writing collaborator Larry Tucker used that experience as the basis for Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969).

Execs at National General Pictures thought the script was “too dirty,” but Mike Frankovich agreed to produce it at Columbia and allowed Mazursky to direct for the first time.

The warm, emotionally awkward comedy revolved around two married couples — one open-minded (Robert Culp and Natalie Wood), the other conventional (Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon) — who experiment with other sexual partners. The film was the first U.S. picture to open the New York Film Festival, where it earned a standing ovation and the admiration of New Yorker critic Kael, who would become a frequent champion of Mazursky's work.

Unlike anything that came before, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice marked a signpost in the sexual revolution. It collected four Oscar noms, including one for Mazursky and Tucker’s screenplay, and raked in $32 million (the equivalent of $197 million today) at the domestic box office.

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“The genius of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is that it understands the peculiar nature of the moral crisis for Americans in this age group and understands that the way to consider it is in a comedy,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. “What is comedy, after all, but tragedy seen from the outside?”

A decade later, Mazursky wrote and directed Fox’s An Unmarried Woman (1978), starring Jill Clayburgh as Erica Benton, a wealthy New Yorker whose seemingly ideal life is shattered when her stockbroker husband (Michael Murphy) dumps her for a younger woman.

The idea for the movie was triggered when Mazursky saw his friend identified as “an unmarried woman” on the deed to her new house in Beverly Hills. He interviewed many women to flesh out his script — and in the process redefined the film heroine.

An Unmarried Woman is about the subtle place a lot of women find themselves in,” Mazursky said in a 1978 interview with Film Comment. “Women who are not with two strikes against them from the start: being very poor, being ugly, being very neurotic, having a terrible life. This movie is not about those women.

“I wanted to do a movie about the middle-class women who have very happy lives, a lot of opportunity, for whom things are good — but who, in essence, are psychological slaves. They really live through their husbands, through the man. Even the ones who appear not to be. That’s all the movie’s about.”

Clayburgh, who won the best actress award at Cannes for her performance and was nominated for an Oscar, told Wasson she was “completely shocked by the public’s reaction [to the film]. Not that people loved it, but that it had this political significance."

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“But that makes sense," she continued. "To me, it just seemed to be this wonderful little movie that had a lot to say about humanity, not feminism. Things just collide at certain times.”

Mazursky was awarded a best picture nomination for Unmarried Woman and a screenplay nom as well. His other two Oscar noms were for original screenplay for Harry and Tonto and adapted screenplay for Enemies: A Love Story.

He was born Irwin Mazursky on April 25, 1930, in the bleak Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the only child of David, a laborer, and Jean, a typist. His mother loved the movies and often took her son to see two double features in a day, and he dreamed about becoming an actor.

While a senior at Brooklyn College, where he studied speech therapy, Mazursky and a fellow student put in $100 apiece to mount an off-Broadway production, He Who Gets Slapped. Mazursky was spotted onstage by screenwriter Howard Sackler, who gave him a copy of his script for Fear and Desire and sent him to Kubrick. The director hired him, and Mazursky — after getting permission from the Brooklyn College dean to put off his studies — was off to California for four weeks of filming.

Back in Brooklyn, Mazursky did some stand-up and was working in a health food store called The Salad Bowl when actor John Cassavetes walked in, talking about going to a casting call for Richard BrooksBlackboard Jungle. Mazursky tagged along and got a small part; later, he studied with Lee Strasberg.

Mazursky married Betsy Purdy in 1953, and their daughter, Meg, was born in 1957. Two years later, the family took the train to live in Los Angeles. Mazursky wrote an episode of The Rifleman and joined the L.A. Second City company, where he reunited with Tucker, an acquaintance from New York. They collaborated on The Monkees pilot and scored a gig as gag writers for a CBS variety show starring Danny Kaye, for which they received two Emmy noms.

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He and Tucker rented an office on Sunset Boulevard, where the hippies outside their window provided ample inspiration for I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968), starring Sellers as an uptight lawyer who turns his life upside down after eating marijuana-laced brownies.

Sellers picked TV helmer Hy Averback to direct Toklas after a spat with Mazursky, and after that experience, the New Yorker “decided I wasn’t going to sell [his next script] unless I directed it,” he said.

After Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Mazursky directed and with Tucker co-wrote Alex in Wonderland (1970). The Felliniesque film (with a cameo by the Italian legend himself) starred Donald Sutherland as a director agonizing over his next project after his first feature popped. It was dumped into theaters in December, panned and did nothing to ease the financial woes at MGM.

Mazursky fled to Rome for a spell but came back to write and direct Blume in Love (1973), a manic-depressive comedy about a Beverly Hills lawyer (George Segal) who regrets betraying his wife (Susan Anspach), now involved with a younger man (Kris Kristofferson). It was a critical and commercial success. (Years later, Kubrick would use a snippet of the film for Eyes Wide Shut.)

For Harry and Tonto — a story about a feisty 74-year-old widower who travels from New York to California with his cat — Mazursky, who co-wrote the film with Look journalist Josh Greenfeld, resurrected the career of Honeymooners star Art Carney, who would win the best actor Oscar for the role.

“Nobody wanted to make the movie,” he said in the Film Comment interview. “They were willing to make it if I used a very famous actor in his 50s who was completely wrong for the part, so I wouldn’t do it. And the only actors I was really interested in were people like Melvyn Douglas, who was no longer physically able to do it. I had talked about [Laurence] Olivier for a brief while, but Olivier felt he was not right for the part. He felt I should use an American.

“Then the idea of Art Carney came up. He read it, and he was filled with doubt. He was 56 or 57 years old. ‘I can’t play an old man,’ he said. I could tell from sitting and talking with him that he was Harry. That was it.”

Mazursky made the movie at Fox for producer Alan Ladd Jr. for less than $1 million.

Mazursky went more autobiographical than usual with his next picture, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, which was set in the 1950s and filmed on the same New York streets that he’d wandered as an aspiring actor.

Guided by casting director Juliet Taylor, Mazursky hired such non-stars as Lenny Baker, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Dori Brenner and Antonio Fargas alongside Shelley Winters as a nagging mother. “I wanted you to think these are people you actually saw in the Village,” he said.

Mazursky followed with a pair of critical misfires in Willie & Phil (1980) — a takeoff on Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim that starred Michael Ontkean and Ray Sharkey as two men who love the same woman (Margot Kidder) — and Tempest (1982), a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s final play toplined by Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands and Susan Sarandon.

But he rebounded with the patriotic and open-hearted Moscow on the Hudson (1984), starring Robin Williams, in perhaps his greatest film performance, as a Russian saxophonist who defects while in New York.

Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, then new to Disney, greenlighted Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills, the first R-rated feature at the company. The social comedy, inspired by Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), revolves around a nouveau-riche married couple (Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler) who rescue a suicidal bum (Nick Nolte), who winds up being their lifestyle guru.

Mazursky got the idea for his film, co-written with another frequent collaborator, Leon Capetanos, when he encountered a homeless man and his dog while throwing out the trash. It brought in $60 million at the domestic box office (about $128 million today) and is regarded as one of the essential comedies of its day.

Mazursky was perhaps most proud of the tragicomic Enemies: A Love Story (1989), based on the 1972 novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Ron Silver stars as a ghostwriter in 1950s New York who is having a passionate affair with a fellow Holocaust survivor (Lena Olin) when his first wife (Anjelica Huston), whom he'd believed had been killed in Poland, comes back into his life. Mazursky also wrote and/or directed the delightful Moon Over Parador (1988), with Dreyfuss as an actor who steps in for a dead dictator in a Third World country; Scenes From a Mall (1991), starring Woody Allen and Midler as an unfaithful California couple; The Pickle (1993), with Danny Aiello as a downtrodden director; Faithful (1996) starring Cher, who hated Mazursky’s cut and did one of her own (his was the one shown in theaters); the telefilms Winchell (1998) and Coast to Coast (2003); and the documentary Yippee (2006), in which he travels to a small town in Ukraine to participate in a wild celebration by Hassidic Jews.

Mazursky appeared in front of the camera in such films as Deathwatch (1966), A Star Is Born (1976), Punchline (1988), Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989), Man Trouble (1992), Carlito’s Way (1993), Miami Rhapsody (1995), 2 Days in the Valley (1996) and Crazy in Alabama (1999). He also showed up in some of his own films — perhaps most memorably as the dictator’s mom in Parador — and his voice was heard in Antz (1998) and Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011).

In addition to his wife, Betsy, survivors include their daughter, Jill Mazurksy, who builds sand castles in the final scenes of Harry and Tonto and wrote and produced the 1997 comedy Gone Fishin’, his grandchildren, Molly and Tommy Cody, Carly Brien DeCastro, Kate Brien and great-grandchild Luca DeCastro.

Meg Mazursky, who appeared in Alex in Wonderland, died in 2009 of brain cancer at age 52.

In December 2013, Mazursky received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in front of Musso & Frank Grill, and a month later, the Writers Guild of America West honored him with its Screen Laurel Award, honoring lifetime achievement in outstanding writing for motion pictures.

“I see the humor in a lot of things, even homelessness,” he told People magazine in 1986. “Part of me wants to be slip-on-the-banana-peel funny. The other part wants to be significant, so if I can just slip on the banana peel significantly, I’m OK. It could be my downfall, but I see the comedy, the absurdity in life. If a movie is really great, it can make you laugh and cry at the same time. After all, that’s what life does."

A memorial service is being planned for later this summer.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4

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