Obituary: Paul Mazursky / Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director

April 25, 1930 - June 30, 2014

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Paul Mazursky, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director whose films such as “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” “An Unmarried Woman” and “Enemies: a Love Story” explored sex, marriage and social mores as sharply drawn comedies of errors, died June 30 in Los Angeles. He was 84.

The cause was cardiac arrest, a family spokeswoman announced.

Mr. Mazursky had a parallel career as an actor who played more than 70 film and television roles. He appeared as a juvenile delinquent in “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), appeared in episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and played small roles in his own movies. In more recent years, he popped up on HBO series including “The Sopranos” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

That background made him, by many estimates, a terrific judge of actors’ abilities far beyond the roles that had stereotyped them.

Perhaps most revealingly, Mr. Mazursky cast the late Art Carney — best known for his supporting role as sewer worker Ed Norton on the 1950s TV sitcom “The Honeymooners” — in his Academy Award-winning portrayal of a senior citizen on the road to uneasy self-discovery in “Harry and Tonto” (1974).

The theme of searching — and the bittersweet revelations that often bubbled to the surface — would define many of Mr. Mazursky’s movies.

As a director and screenwriter, Mr. Mazursky was an acquired taste whom many critics, including Pauline Kael, acquired. She championed him as “a comic poet” in the tradition of Federico Fellini, and many of his best-known works capture the exhilarating sense of watching a film that defies barriers between drama, satire, romantic comedy and unsettling realism.

People magazine once called his movies “an eccentric combination of barbed social commentary, Borscht Belt routines, sight gags, sexual angst, sentimental memories, savage parody, romantic fantasies, wit, improvisation and the fearless comic exploitation of his own life.”

He was born in New York City and had middling success as an actor and comic before turning to gag writing. He and his writing partner, the late Larry Tucker, worked on “The Danny Kaye Show” and helped create the TV pilot for “The Monkees,” about a shaggy-haired rock group.

During his years as a TV writer, Mr. Mazursky studied film editing and yearned to direct, but no studio would take a chance on a first-timer. He and Tucker began writing for the cinema, starting with “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!” (1968), which starred Peter Sellers as a buttoned-down Los Angeles lawyer who discovers the wonders of marijuana-laced brownies.

Journeyman Hy Averback directed the picture, which won favorable reviews, but Mr. Mazursky and Tucker were largely seen as the big winners. The film captured the zeitgeist of the counterculture in a zippy mainstream comedy and ensured Mr. Mazursky’s reputation as a man with his finger on the contemporary pulse.

The next Mazursky-Tucker project, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (1969), was a satire about swingers and the self-realization tropes of the day. (Mr. Mazursky said the idea came to him while attending the Esalen Institute, the healing retreat in Big Sur, Calif.)

Mr. Mazursky said several studios rejected the script as “too dirty” before Columbia Studios green-lighted it — and agreed to terms that he would direct and Tucker would produce it.

The film, which starred Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould, became one of the year’s biggest-grossing movies and catapulted Mr. Mazursky from near obscurity to the front rank of Hollywood directors. The script earned an Oscar nomination.

The remainder of Mr. Mazursky’s career was a succession of major hits and flops.

More-personal, self-exploratory films sank with little comment. They included “Alex in Wonderland” (1970), about a movie director coming off a smash; “Blume in Love” (1973), about a Los Angeles divorce lawyer who goes to extreme, even violent, lengths to win back his ex-wife; and the semi-autobiographical “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” (1976).

On a tight schedule with bare-bones financing, Mr. Mazursky directed and co-wrote (with Josh Greenfeld) “Harry and Tonto.” In the film, Carney plays a widowed, retired teacher who is evicted from his New York City apartment and travels across the country with his cat to stay with his none-too-likable children.

Mr. Mazursky wrote and directed “An Unmarried Woman” (1978), a wryly observed story about the sexual upheavals of the 1970s. Jill Clayburgh earned an Oscar nomination playing a woman who must re-enter “the stream of life” after her husband of 16 years leaves her. (The film earned a nomination for best picture and for Mr. Mazursky’s script; the “Harry and Tonto” screenplay had been nominated a few years earlier.)

Mr. Mazursky faced down another run of commercial failures, including “Willie & Phil” (1980), an anemic attempt to re-create Francois Truffaut’s 1962 classic menage-a-trois story “Jules and Jim.” His fortunes rose again with “Moscow on the Hudson” (1984), starring Robin Williams as a Soviet musician who defects at Bloomingdale’s and makes an uneasy adjustment to American life.

The director again won plaudits for “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (1986), a sendup of Hollywood nouveaux riches inspired by Jean Renoir’s 1932 film classic “Boudu Saved From Drowning.” The modern adaptation starred Nick Nolte as the hobo who insinuates himself into the lives of a pampered couple (Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler).

United States - North America - New York City - New York - California - Brooklyn - Hollywood - Los Angeles - Adam Bernstein - Errol Flynn - Bette Midler - Woody Allen - Humphrey Bogart - Isaac Bashevis Singer - Paul Mazursky - Jill Clayburgh - Art Carney - Edward Norton - Federico Fellini - Danny Kaye - Peter Sellers - Natalie Wood - Robert Culp - Dyan Cannon - Elliott Gould - Robin Williams - Nick Nolte - Richard Dreyfuss - Stanley Kubrick


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