Remembering the Life and Films of Paul Mazursky

Acclaimed Writer-Director Has Died at 84

Paul Mazursky poses during a ceremony honoring him with the 2,515th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2013.
Getty Images
Paul Mazursky poses during a ceremony honoring him with the 2,515th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2013.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published July 01, 2014, issue of July 04, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The critic Irving Howe was not thinking of the writer-director Paul Mazursky, who has died at the age of 84, when he wrote of Jewish humor: “Laughter and trembling are so curiously intermingled that it is not easy to determine the relation between the two.” Yet he might as well have been. Born Irwin Mazursky in Brooklyn of Ukrainian Jewish ancestry, the filmmaker addressed often-somber problems such as marital strife, old age, and oppressive parents, yet his films were also gems of humor. “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”; “Blume in Love”; “Harry and Tonto”; “Next Stop, Greenwich Village”; “An Unmarried Woman”; “Moscow on the Hudson”; “Down and Out in Beverly Hills”; and “Enemies, a Love Story” were empathetic and warm-heartedly accessible, seemingly about real people, not just characters put onscreen. Of “Blume in Love” starring George Segal, Mazursky told Filmmaker Magazine in 2013:

“George Segal was great; I used to call him my Jew. I had two great Jewish guys that played my Jews — Georgy and Richard Dreyfus, both complicated guys. All the actors I worked with underneath it, were me, some form of Jew.”

A master of the Borscht Belt gag-line – in a 2011 review of “The Iron Lady” in which Meryl Streep portrayed Margaret Thatcher, Mazursky addressed Streep: “I await your next triumph. A real challenge would be Adolph Hitler; I know you can nail that sucker!” Yet often in his films, Mazursky sidestepped belly laughs for more bittersweet, artistically yearning statements, in part responding to an intensely cultural upbringing by his mother, Jean Gerson, a piano player for dance classes, who also served as the model for overbearing Jewish mothers in films such as “Alex in Wonderland” (1970) and “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” (in the latter film portrayed unforgettably by Shelley Winters). Mazursky explained wryly to Filmmaker Magazine:

“My mother was bipolar and sometimes she would have her up days and sometimes her bad days. She would always take me to art-house films and I loved her. So I’ve always felt very close to women. I have been married for over 60 years, and 28 of those years were just wonderful.”

Mazursky’s films testify to his experience as a Brooklyn Jew coming to terms with European culture. An early viewing of Federico Fellini’s autobiographical comedy-drama “I Vitelloni” (1953) made him resolve to make highly personal films about his own life. For years Mazursky toiled on a never-to-be-achieved adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s “Pictures of Fidelman,” (1969), a short story collection about Arthur Fidelman, a Bronx Jewish art student who travels to Italy to become a painter. One of Mazursky’s later voyages in search of the European past was his self-funded (the complete budget was $40,000, he proudly announced) 2006 documentary “Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy,” about the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage by Orthodox Jews to the grave of Reb Nachman of Breslov in Uman, central Ukraine.

Serendipitously inspired to choose this subject after a conversation with his optician, Mazursky’s artistic decisions could sometimes appear lighthearted, as when he accepted producers’ decisions to cast his unsuccessful “Scenes from a Mall” (1991) with the publicity-grabbing stars Woody Allen and Bette Midler, instead of the subtler actors he originally had in mind, Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep. Yet he was also capable of sensitive casting, as when he rejected the overfamiliar Jimmy Stewart as protagonist in “Harry and Tonto,” preferring the apparently more whimsical, but ultimately more touching, Art Carney. Mazursky had seen Carney perform a somber role in the 1957 domestic tragedy “The Rope Dancers” by Morton Wishengrad, and knew the actor’s range.

Mazursky’s films radiate such admiration for actors and understanding of their vulnerabilities. His memoir “Show Me the Magic” (1999) describes his own early struggles as a performer, after studying method acting in the 1950s with Paul Mann, an actor blacklisted by the McCarthy witch-hunt. Mazursky’s film debut was as a glowering soldier in Stanley Kubrick’s surprisingly routine first feature, “Fear and Desire” (1953), for which he changed his first name to Paul. He also played a high school delinquent in “The Blackboard Jungle” (1955) and continued to appear in small roles in “A Star Is Born” (1976), “History of the World Part I” (1981), “The Sopranos” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Remaining close in spirit to actors, Mazursky turned filmmaking into an eternal return to his own past. In his youth admiring the comic Lenny Bruce, who Mazursky claimed “looked like a Jewish Turhan Bey,” he was delighted to hire Bruce’s mother Sally Marr (born Sadie Kitchenberg) to play a key role at the end of “Harry and Tonto.” Receiving some belated honors such as a star of the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2013 and a lifetime achievement award from the Writers Guild of America Grill in 2014, Mazursky confronted his failing health with typical comic resolve. He made videos posted on YouTube of mock interviews with old friends, including Leonard Nimoy and Mel Brooks, which are less outright risible than courageous in their resolve to continue joking in the face of mortality, a message already conveyed by his decades of filmmaking.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.