Jewish Moviemaker Paul Mazursky dies at 84

The innovative director had a long career making movies that both defined their times and were a little bit ahead of them.

Five-time Oscar nominee Paul Mazursky wrote and directed some of the most culturally significant and quirky comedies of the late ’60s and ’70s. (photo credit: JASON REDMOND/REUTERS)
Five-time Oscar nominee Paul Mazursky wrote and directed some of the most culturally significant and quirky comedies of the late ’60s and ’70s.
Director Paul Mazursky, known for his witty, often satirical films such as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, died at the age 84 of cardiac arrest in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on Monday.
The Brooklyn-born director, whose real first name was Irwin, was one of the major American directors of the late Sixties and Seventies, chronicling the excesses of that fast-changing era. But his movies always showed a great affection for his characters, that reflected Mazursky’s Jewish heart and generous soul.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), which starred Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould, about two couples that get caught up in Sixties fads, was nominated for four Oscars and was Mazursky’s best-known film.
Comedian Art Carney was an unlikely Oscar winner for his role in Mazursky’s 1974 film, Harry and Tonto, about a lonely older man. Jill Clayburgh became a star after she appeared in Mazursky’s 1978 film, An Unmarried Woman, which very much captured the spirit of the women’s movement in the Seventies.
Other Mazursky movies include Moscow on the Hudson (1984) in which Robin Williams played a Russian jazz musician who defects (while shopping at Bloomingdale’s); Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), a loose adaptation of the Jean Renoir film, Boudu Saved From Drowning, about a homeless man (Nick Nolte), who comes to live in the home of a wealthy couple (Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler) and changes their lives; and Enemies: A Love Story (1989), an adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel about a concentration camp survivor (Ron Silver) juggling three women in New York.
But by far Mazursky’s most personal film was Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), about a dutiful Jewish son torn between his love for his parents and his desire to be an actor and live a bohemian life in Manhattan.
Mazursky’s first love was acting, and he appeared in over 70 films and television shows, including Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire (1953) and Richard Brooks’ Blackboard Jungle (1955), in which he played one of the juvenile delinquents who tormented Glenn Ford. In recent years, he appeared in television shows, including The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
As the movie business changed and became more focused on the bottom line in the Nineties, Mazursky found it harder and harder to get his low-key dramedies made, a struggle he chronicled in his 1999 memoir, Show Me the Magic.
His last film was Yippee, a 2006 documentary about Breslav Hassidim’s yearly pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman’s birthplace in Uman, Ukraine.
He joined them on this journey, and tried to understand their devotion to their legendary rabbi.
I was fortunate enough to interview Mazursky twice. The first time was for The New York Post in 1999, when Show Me the Magic was published. I happened to be just a few weeks away from giving birth, and Mazursky was a great gentleman, turning up the air conditioner and bringing me drinks. I interviewed him again for The Jerusalem Post in 2007 when he brought Yippee to the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, and, to my astonishment, Mazursky remembered me and said, “How old is that kid now? About nine?” Mazursky was very candid about his struggles to get movies made in recent years, giving outlines of many movies he still hoped to make.
But he wasn’t bitter. He quoted a line from Yippee that a rabbi he interviewed said in the film: “Better to wake up in the morning and instead of kvetching, say, ‘Yippee! I’m alive!’” Mazursky is survived by his wife of about 60 years, Betsy, and his daughter Jill. His daughter Meg passed away in 2009.