Paul Mazursky was an actor, an Oscar-nominated producer and screenwriter, and a well-regarded director — a quadruple threat. Born in 1930, his first screen credit dates back 61 years to 1953 in Stanley Kubrick’s “Fear and Desire.” Paul Mazursky died today, aged 84.
For about a decade, during television’s first Golden Age, Mazursky worked mainly as a television actor with credits familiar to anyone enamored with that marvelous era: “The United Steel Hour,” “The Steve Allen Plymouth Show,” “Dick Powell Theatre,” and “General Electric Theater,” among others.
His first writing credit arrived in 1962 with an episode of “The Rifleman.” Six years later he would write the Peter Sellers feature film “I Love You Alice B. Tolkas.” The following year, 1969, Mazursky would forever establish himself as an A-list director and writer with the comedy-drama “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” a box office smash that helped define an America in the middle of social upheaval and the era of the auteurs who changed Hollywood forever.
As the film’s co-writer, Mazursky also earned the first of four screenwriting Oscar nominations.
Mazursky’s 19 director credits include “Harry and Tonto” (1974), which resulted in one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history after star Art Carney beat Jack Nicholson for “Chinatown” and Al Pacino for “The Godfather II” for 1974’s Best Actor.
Mazursky’s magnificent and highly original screenplay was also nominated.
Two years later, Mazursky would write and direct another benchmark in America’s social scene with “An Unmarried Woman,” the uncompromising story of an emotionally shattered woman exploring the sexual liberation of the 1970s after her husband leaves her for a younger woman. Another box office hit, producer/writer/director Mazursky would win screenplay and Best Picture nominations.
In the 80’s Mazursky delivered “Moscow on the Hudson” (1984), the horribly underrated “Down and Out In Beverly Hills (1986), and “Enemies: A Love Story” (1989), which earned him his 4th and final screenplay nomination. Roger Simon of Pajamas Media, Mazursky’s co-writer and lifelong friend, was also nominated. (Read Simon’s tribute to his colleague here.)
Throughout all of this, right up until his final screen appearance in 2011, Mazursky was a familiar character actor in roles big and small. My personal favorite is his touching, funny, and ultimately heroic turn in “Two Days In the Valley” (1996). As Teddy Peppers, a suicidal has-been producer, Mazursky stands out and makes better a somewhat mediocre film packed with familiar faces and showy roles.
Mazursky’s legacy is that his best films have lost none of their impact. Many decades later, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” “An Unmarried Woman,” and “Enemies: A Love Story” still pack a punch and have something to say.
Almost 30 years on, “Down and Out In Beverly Hills” is still a refreshingly funny, damning, and heartfelt look at the moneyed, spoiled, but ultimately good-hearted liberals of Southern California. Because the filmmakers are mocking themselves and friends, most spoofs of this nature end up collapsing under the weight of their own wink-wink self-awareness. Mazursky steered clear of those shallows, a feat that surprises me each time I watch it.
My favorite Mazursky film, though, will always be “Harry and Tonto” — a low-key, character-driven road movie filmed on-location in an America that no longer exists. This story is about a lot of things — being your own man, keeping your independence, and getting old. I saw it at the drive-in as a kid. I loved it at age 9, and now that I’m edging 50, it means a whole lot more.
Paul Mazursky is survived by his wife Betty.
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