Paul Mazursky, director of ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’ and ‘Harry and Tonto’ dies at 84

July 1

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. He popped up in more recent years 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 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).


Paul Mazursky in 1976. (Frank Johnston/The Washington Post)

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

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.

The 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 assured 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 stared 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 near-career-derailing 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 played 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 reenter “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.)

In New Times magazine, film historian Richard Corliss wrote that Mr. Mazursky was “likely to be remembered as the filmmaker of the seventies. . . . No screenwriter has probed so deep under the pampered skin of this fascinating, maligned decade; no director has so successfully mined it for home-truth humor and quirky revelations.”

Mr. Mazursky faced down another run of commercial failures, including “Willie & Phil” (1980), an anemic attempt to re-create François 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).

“I see the humor in a lot of things, even homelessness,” Mr. Mazursky told People. “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 okay. 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.”

Irwin Mazursky was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on April 25, 1930. His father was a laborer, and his mother went to the movies frequently, taking along their only child.

“I would stay out of school all day, and we’d sit in the movies and eat popcorn,” he told People. “It was a little neurotic. By the time I was 12, I was already dreaming of being an actor. I’d go into the bathroom in our house, the only place you could be alone, and do imitations of Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart.”

While attending Brooklyn College, he staged a production off-Broadway that caught the attention of an aspiring filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, who cast him in one of his earliest feature movies, “Fear and Desire” (1953). Mr. Mazursky played an American soldier caught behind enemy lines.

When the movie fizzled, Mr. Mazursky worked as a waiter in a health-food restaurant and immersed himself as a performer in New York’s theater and club scene.

In 1953, he married Betsy Purdy and had two daughters. One, Meg, died of cancer in 2009. Besides his wife, survivors include a daughter, four grandchildren and a great-grandchild, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Mr. Mazursky’s final Oscar nomination was for a script he wrote with Roger L. Simon, “Enemies: A Love Story (1989), based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer story about a Jew so traumatized by the Holocaust that he finds himself unable to make decisions and winds up married to three radically different women.

Mr. Mazursky’s other film credits include “Scenes From a Mall” (1991), starring Woody Allen and Bette Midler. It was one of the middling films that characterized Mr. Mazursky’s last several years as a director, but it spoke to his fascination with social customs.

“I made a movie in a mall, and the mall is a character in the movie,” he told the Los Angeles Times. A fierce argument breaks out between the couple played by Allen and Midler. A couple “wouldn’t have that argument in an ordinary store . . . but in a mall you feel free to do anything you want to do, because nobody is watching, nobody is listening, nobody cares, not really.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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