October 20, 2018

A Hero’s Welcome

The cover of film director Paul Mazursky’s first book, “Show Me the Magic” (Simon and Schuster, $25) offers book-jacket browsers a list of all the famous names to be found inside. There’s Danny Kaye, whose television show a young Mazursky helped write, Natalie Wood, Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss, stars of a few of his movies, and I.B. Singer, whose book, “Enemies: A Love Story,” turned into one of Mazursky’s greatest films. There are several other famous names, and then these: “and my Bubbe and Zeda.”

To read this straightforward and endearing memoir is to understand why its author would add his maternal grandparents to an honor roll of the rich and famous. His zeyda, or grandfather, Sam Gerson, was a scribe who escaped Czarist Russia and ended up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where he and Mazursky’s grandmother ran a small candy store. Mazursky spent hours there, listening as his grandfather spun tales of savage pogroms and blinding snowstorms, sometimes accompanyting his stories with tunes on his violin. He clipped articles from the Yiddish papers as well as Life and Readers Digest magazines, and pasted them in scrapbooks alongside hand-drawn pictures and made-up stories. “The scrapbooks were Zeda’s movies,” Mazursky writes. “I suppose that’s where I inherited my need to create.”

Storytelling is at the heart of Mazursky’s long career in movies that began with “I Love You Alice B. Toklas,” and has included such critically-acclaimed films as “Next Stop Greenwich Village,” “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,” “Harry and Tonto” and “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.”

These days, when Hollywood is obsessed with either special-effects laden mega-movies or the post-Tarantino Discover Card-financed independent film, it’s easy to overlook a career like Mazursky’s, whose films usually stuck closely to life how it’s lived, with nary a credit for Industrial Light and Magic. To be sure, there are misses among the hits. But even his less successful movies, like the uneven “The Tempest,” contain scene after scene of intelligent dialogue and wit. Try finding that in whatever version of “Lethal Teen Dino-Asteroids” is playing at a multiplex near you.

The storytelling doesn’t stop at the movies. Speaking with a reporter in his Beverly Hills office, Mazursky prefers to answer questions with — not surprisingly — stories. He looks comfortably shlumpy this afternoon — loose brown shirt, white pants — nestled among photos of family and colleagues. “That’s the maestro,” he says, pointing proudly to a signed photo of Frederico Fellini. (The Italian director’s friendship with Mazursky is the basis for one of the memoir’s most moving chapters.) Across from the Fellini photo sits one from another Mazursky favorite. It’s signed: “To Mazursky, a shayner boychik, gezunt, Mel Brooks.”

If part of Mazursky’s ambition to tell his stories came from his grandfather, the other major influence was his mother. Her name doesn’t make the dust-jacket, but her presence haunts much of the book. The overbearing, critical, egotistical and self-sacrificing character played by Shelley Winters in “Next Stop Greenwich Village” is based on Jean Mazursky, though it appears from reading the book that Winters grossly underacted. “My mother must have had all this influence on me,” said Mazursky. “She had this huge fantasy life and her own life was very very dark. I was the only child. I recommend to everyone to have at least two children.”

Jean took her son out of school to see the latest foreign films and opera. She dragged him uptown for amateur night at the Apollo. “I didn’t know any other mothers in Brownsville who were doing that. How can you take your kid out of school to see “Les Enfants du Paradis?” But she did.” And it worked.

Like Brooks, Mazursky left behind his struggling New York childhood to seek fame and fortune in the Catskills. With a friend, he formed a comedy act, “Igor and h,” and took it on the road. Once they performed at a Catskills hotel and got not a single laugh, not even a chuckle. In the dining hall later on, Mazursky realized why: No one there spoke anything but Yiddish. “How was I to know?” Mazursky’s agent protested later. “I sold them ‘Igor and h.’ What did they think you guys were, rabbis?”

The stand-up led to bigger clubs in New York, and then to L.A. Along the way, Mazursky pursued an on-and-off career as a serious actor. While studying drama at Brooklyn College, he was cast as a soldier in “Fear and Desire,” the first movie by a rumpled, intense man in his early twenties, named Stanley Kubrick. For a glimpse into genius at work, read Mazursky’s description of Kubrick driving to L.A. to shake down his rich pharmicist uncle for money to complete the film.

But despite good notices and a role in “The Blackboard Jungle,” Mazursky’s acting career languished. At 30, he was newly wed to wife Betsy, living in L.A., and working as a messenger boy. His career as a writer picked up. He worked on Danny Kaye’s comedy show, then segued into movies with “Alice B. Toklas,” in which Peter Sellers played the put-upon victim of the ’60s, Harold Fine. The Catskills remained close. “Quien es una mishpocha?” asks a confused Latino gardener of Sellars in one scene.

Then came “Bob and Carol.” The movie about sexual experimentation is somehow more dated now than “Next Stop Greenwich Village,” which was set in the 1950s, but it remains a seminal social document.

The film also made Mazursky famous. Since then, he has acted well but mostly irregularly. (Most recently he was the only bright spot in “Two Days in the Valley”). He has written 20 movies, of which 16 have been made. By today’s standards, when screenwriters make whole reputations, and fortunes, on one or two good ones, that stands as some sort of record.

He is still married to Betsy, who will be honored later this month for her work teaching English to recent immigrants. They have two children, Jill, a screenwriter, and Meg, a social worker, and three grandchildren. “The 12-year-old wants nothing more than to get a Screen Actors Guild card,” he says. “Where does that come from?”

Not suprisingly, it hasn’t gotten any easier in today’s Hollywood for Paul Mazursky to sell a script. He has at least two he would die to do. One is an adaptation of Bernard Malumud’s “Pictures of Fidelman.” The other is an adaptation of I.B. Singer’s “Shosha.” Mazursky’s face comes alive, his voice changes into that of three different characters as he acts out whole scenes of the Fidelman screenplay. Then he stops, shakes his head. “It’s a great story,” he says.

Paul Mazursky will read from his new book, “Show Me the Magic,” at the Los Angeles Public Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium, Fifth and Flower Streets, Tuesday, June 15, 7 p.m. Free, but reservations advised. (213) 228-7025.