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Boychick Brooklyn, 1930–Los Angeles, 1968
"So you want to write a book on me?"
"Yes, but not really 'on,' it's more 'with.' Like Gavin Lambert's book On Cukor."
Mazursky sits back in his chair and gives his chin a contemplative massage. Rushing, for reasons I can't explain, I open the book on his desk and say, "I kind of think of you like a Cukor, like today's, well, the actor's director, or, you know, I think comedy ..." — I start stammering — mercifully Mazursky holds out a hand.
"Okay," he says. "Whatever you want."
I try not to smile. "Oh? Okay, well, I think —"
"Whatever you want, kid." There is a pause, a long pause, and the longer it gets, the more nervous I become. Should I not have compared him to Cukor? Did he think I meant "actor's director" as a kind of euphemism? "When do you want to start?" he asks, flipping through the book. I hesitate a moment, and Paul looks up "How about now?"
SAM WASSON: Okay. You were born in Brooklyn in 1930.
PAUL MAZURSKY: Yes, in Brownsville, Murder Inc.
SW: What are your earliest memories of the movies?
PM: The first movie I saw in a movie theater alone, without my mother, was at the Capitol theater in Brooklyn around the corner on Saratoga Avenue. It was King Kong, and I saw it with another kid. We were both six or seven years old. And during the movie, when the kid saw the monster, he threw up on my leg. [Laughs] It was disgusting.
SW: Do you remember the kid's name?
PM: Carl Hutt.
SW: As a burgeoning actor, you must have had a close eye on the stars. Any stand out?
PM: I always imitated my favorite movie stars, but actually in the theater — much to the chagrin of the rest of the audience — as the movie was playing. I did Bogart, Jimmy Cagney, John Garfield. At nights, I would lie in the bathtub in our small bathroom at home and I would do "To be or not to be ..." That was the only place I had the freedom to do it.
SW: When did it become serious?
PM: I got serious about acting by the fourth or fifth grade. When I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen, my mother took me to see Walter Huston in something and made me wait at the stage door after the show. When he came out she said, "Mr. Huston! Mr. Huston! This is my son, Irwin." You couldn't have been more embarrassed than I was. To me, he was about eight feet tall. She said, "My son wants to be an actor." Walter Huston looked down at me and said, [full country baritone] "Well, that's a very noble profession, son. But what you need is a back-up occupation, teaching or something, because it can be a difficult career." He patted me on the head and walked on. That was it. And then years later, my idea was, if Walter Huston told me to get a job, maybe I should be a speech therapist. I didn't really want to be a teacher, so when I went to Brooklyn College, I studied speech therapy, which meant that I could probably get work. But then when the acting thing began, I right away felt that I was going to make it as an actor. I didn't know how, but I knew that I was going to make it.
SW: Was there a time before you wanted to be an actor that you thought of being something else?
PM: I thought of being an explorer. I used to read those wonderful travel books by Richard Halliburton. I've fulfilled many of those travel dreams, but there are a few more that I want to fulfill while I still can, I mean, physically.
SW: I'm not surprised to hear you say that because travel has always been crucial to your characters. It's often an expression of freedom — or craziness — and it generally results in an opening up.
PM: Sometimes I have a fantasy of giving all this [motions around the room] up. Why not just travel? Enjoy the world.
SW: While you were at Brooklyn College, you appeared in a production of He Who Gets Slapped.
PM: When I was a senior, I decided with a fellow named Bob Weinstein to produce an off-Broadway play. We found out that for two hundred dollars we could mount a play at the Masters Institute up on Riverside Drive in the nineties. I put up a hundred and he put up a hundred. And we decided to do He Who Gets Slapped, a play by Leonid Andreyev. Beyond ambitious. We got students from the college to play in it with us and we did it for two weekends. And that's when Howard Sackler, who was a young writer living in the Village, saw the play. I didn't know him, but he called me up and he said, "I thought your performance was very good and I think you'd be perfect for a role in this film I've written. You should go see the director and read for him." He gave me the address and got me a copy of the script. So I went to 13th Street where I was going to meet the director, and I was early, so I went into a church just to rest, take it easy, and calm down. Then when it was time to go, I went around the corner and rang the bell and this voice said, [lifeless] "Yeah, come on up." And I went up and there was this guy with big, round dark eyes and a lot of dark hair.
SW: Stanley Kubrick.
PM: Yes. He had a wife and a dog. I remember that because I had never met a guy with a wife or a dog. He was just a couple years older than me. There were a lot of cameras sitting around. He said, "I'm Stanley Kubrick. I'm going to read with you." And so we read — the whole script. It took about an hour. Then he said, "Okay, you got the part. We're leaving on Monday for California." I said, "What do you mean, 'California'?" He said, "That's where I'm shooting it." I said, "I'm still in school." He says, "Can't you talk to the dean and get four weeks off?" I said, "I don't know," and he said, "Well, if you can, you got the part." So I went to the dean and I got it. That was 1951. It was the first time I had ever seen a plane.
SW: How did Kubrick's handle himself during the audition?
PM: Very quiet. [Beat] So I went off and did the movie. Brooklyn College let me. So I feel indebted to them.
SW: On the set — on Fear and Desire — I've read that Kubrick did everything. Is that an exaggeration?
PM: No. He did everything. He set up the shots, operated the camera, moved the lights — everything. He had a Mitchell camera and no dolly. I think he might have had a baby carriage that they used ...
SW: What about talking to the actors?
PM: He said very little to us. He didn't direct the actors.
SW: No notes?
PM: Not that I remember.
SW: That's one of the great Kubrickian mysteries. We know he's gotten these incredible performances, but we have this understanding of him as someone who doesn't reach out to actors.
PM: It's a very profound question you're asking and I wish I had a profound answer. There are those filmmakers who know only what they want and not how to get it. Stanley may have been one of them. Do you understand? I don't think Stanley got much out of Keir Dullea for instance, but when I see the performances in A Clockwork Orange, Spartacus ... I'm amazed. What Stanley had was confidence, he had balls.
SW: And did you see that as early as Fear and Desire?
PM: I saw some of it. I saw a strong will.
SW: Did you keep in touch after the movie?
PM: Well, I spent about a month with him recording dialogue after the shoot. You know, the whole movie is looped. Stanley thought it would be cheaper that way, but it ended up being twice as expensive. When I was in London in 1971, I called him to tell him I was in town. I got him on the phone and said, "I'd love to see you" and he said, "Well, I'm cutting right now. As soon as I'm finished cutting we'll get together." I said, "About how long do you think that will take?" He said, "About a year."
PM: It was bullshit. But, it also isn't bullshit. He doesn't want any distractions.
SW: So that was the end?
PM: I never saw him again.
SW: But you know that he has a clip of Blume in Love in Eyes Wide —
PM: Of course I do. The question is, was he using it as an homage to me? I don't know.
SW: I think so. I think Stanley Kubrick, who took ten years to make a movie, who is renowned for his obsessive attention to precision, who brings in NASA equipment to photograph Barry Lyndon, intends it to be nothing else. Anyway, the story of Blume in many ways matches Eyes Wide Shut. It was an appropriate choice.
PM: It's very likely true. But wouldn't it have been wonderful if I got a call even from his assistant saying, "Mr. Kubrick wants you to know, he's using a clip from Blume in Love." But listen: He's a genius. He made half a dozen of the most wonderful films ever made.
SW: It's funny. I think of you and Kubrick as opposites. Here you have Stanley, who turns his people into monsters; and here you have Paul, who turns his people into humans. Mazursky looks at 2001 and says, "None of these people are interesting," but that's what Kubrick is getting at.
PM: I appreciate that and I don't condemn him for it. Lolita is full of life as anything can possibly be — it comes from Nabokov of course — but Stanley did it. He was brilliant to get James Mason, who is utterly fantastic, to get that girl [Sue Lyon] who is wonderful, and to get Shelley [Winters]! It's brilliant! And then Peter [Sellers]! He's a genius. And Strangelove! Everybody talks about Peter as Strangelove, and his performance as the president is a very cute thing and very fun, but the best thing in it is the upper-class Englishman with Sterling Hayden [Lionel Mandrake]. It's subtle, hilarious ... brilliant beyond belief.
SW: Kubrick publicly disowned Fear and Desire. Could you sense his growing dissatisfaction with the project?
PM: That happened much later. After he became Kubrick, he didn't want anyone to see it. I found that weak on his part, as did John Boorman, who had honored Stanley with a retrospective at Telluride and showed the movie. When Stanley found out, he got on the phone with him and said, "Don't do this," and Boorman said, "It belongs to the world now, Stanley."
SW: You married Betsy Purdy in 1953. So you were dating during Fear and Desire?
PM: Yeah. And after we finished shooting, when I was working in the Catskills, Kubrick went over and made a pass at her. He knew she was my girlfriend. But she handled it. Betsy's great. She's funny as hell. She called me just now to tell me that she heard about a great doctor and wants to switch. [Laughs] I said, "You're calling me now about this? Couldn't it wait until I get home at four o'clock?" [Laughs again] But I liked Stanley! I admired him! Here's this young guy, doing all this on his own, getting the money from his uncle, Martin Pervellor, who owned a drugstore —
SW: And then he ran out of money and had to get more ...
PM: Yeah, after four weeks, me, Stanley, and Frank Silvera — we were high up in the San Gabriel Mountains — drove down the hill back to Kubrick's uncle's house. From the living room, where we waited, we could hear them arguing. Martin was on his little adding machine, "Five thousand dollars? You know how many aspirin I have to sell?" He had a Doberman pinscher that was epileptic, standing out by the pool ...
Paul rolls his eyes back, sticks out his tongue, and convulses.
It was fucking scary! After the movie was done, Stanley had to loop. His father came up with that money. It was at least another ten grand, maybe twenty. So the movie cost twenty-five plus maybe twenty more — that's forty-five thousand bucks. Well, he never got it back. Joseph Burstyn was a hero in releasing it and seeing his talent, but it did nothing.
SW: And all this time, you're not thinking about wanting to direct a movie, or maybe write ...
PM: Not at all. All I was thinking was, "I have a shot at the Oscar." [Laughs] It's a good part, I rape a girl, I have a mad scene, I sing poetry from The Tempest ... But no, not even a nomination. I thought I was going to make it, going to be a big star, but I was in the toilet. So I went back to Brooklyn and started squeezing juice in a health food store called The Salad Bowl. [Beat] That's the Stanley Kubrick story. [Beat] So I'm at The Salad Bowl, and I'm squeezing oranges ...
You see, we're getting into an existential thing here, or maybe that's the wrong word. Karma. Fate. Serendipity. Luck? Or is it, there is talent, and talent will out? I don't know. But there I am, two years after Fear and Desire, and Johnny Cassavetes walks into the store and I overhear him talking to this guy Harry Mastrogeorge, an actor, about how he's going to meet a guy from MGM who was casting for Blackboard Jungle. He saw that I was interested and asked me to go along so I went. We all go to this casting call together and I walked in there with a look about me, did my tough Brooklyn accent, and I lied to the guy. I said I had done a lot of shows on Broadway and finished a little run of Mister Roberts. Well, the guy had me do a screen test and I got the part. But is that luck? What is that? I could still be working at the juice store ...
SW: It's a scene you would recreate in Next Stop, Greenwich Village. Was that the first time you met Cassavetes?
PM: Yeah. He just walked into the store. He didn't know me as an actor, he didn't know me at all.
SW: Okay, so it's 1954, you fly out to L.A. for Blackboard Jungle, and you're at MGM, the greatest lot in town.
PM: It was thrilling. We were taken right from the airport to meet Dore Schary, who ran the studio. He was a very liberal guy and had pictures of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt all over his office. And there were pipes everywhere — he smoked pipes. He said, "It's a pleasure to have all of you here. I'd like to take you down the hall to meet your director." We go down the hall and there's Richard Brooks: crew cut, pipe, shirt hanging out. He looked like a marine. He later turned out to be a friend of mine. I loved him. I'll tell you more about that later. [Beat] So they tell me I'm going to play a kid named Emmanuel Stoker. Emmanuel Stoker? Well, who the fuck is Emmanuel Stoker? I read the book and the guy doesn't have a single line! So I go right back and get the script, I'm racing through it, and I see that I have about twenty-five lines. Nothing. So I figure I got to do something. And if you look at the movie, if you look at the classroom scenes, you can see me fighting to get in the shot. I'm always on the edge of the frame leaning in. Anyway, the first day on the set, I go to the men's room — they were outside the soundstage — and as I walk in I see George Sanders taking a piss with tights on. And I have to take a piss next to him. And while I'm pissing, he can see that I'm looking over at him and says, [silkily] "Yeeeeeessssss?" And I say, "Mr. Sanders, I can't tell you what a thrill this is ... I've seen all your movies ..." He was charmed, zipped up his fly, and walked out.
SW: What about the commissary? You must've seen some incredible faces.
PM: You wouldn't believe it. You wouldn't fucking believe it. Listen to this: As you're casually picking up your salad or whatever it is, there's Errol Flynn. There's Clark Gable. There's Bette Davis. There's Katharine Hepburn. Everyone I ever imitated as a kid. Spencer Tracy. MGM. Thrilling. So the shooting continues, all very smooth, I talk to Betsy on the phone about once a week — we're married now — and about a week before we finish, [Richard] Brooks comes up to me and says, "So what are you going to do, kid?" I said, "Well, what do you mean?" He says, "Are you staying out here or are you going back to New York?" I say, "I don't have an agent, so I don't know what to do." The next day an agent shows up. Brooks sent for him.
Mazursky turns to the window.
Yeah. Brooks sent for him.
SW: What was Brooks's directing style like?
PM: Drill sergeant. "Get over there! Stand there! Get your fucking head out of the shot, Mazursky!" After I made Next Stop, Greenwich Village, there was a screening of it at the DGA. I invited Richard, but I knew he'd never come because he never goes to those things. Well, he shows up. He's alone. He's got the shirt hanging out, the pipe. The picture's over, and he waits until I come out and he cried ... he cried ...
Mazursky reaches across his desk for a Kleenex. He's crying.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Paul on Mazursky"
Copyright © 2011 Sam Wasson.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
The Jewish Foreword: Mel on Mazursky
Introduction: On Paul on Mazursky
Boychick: Brooklyn, 1930 – Los Angeles, 1968
I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! (1968)
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
Alex in Wonderland (1970)
Meg on Mazursky
Blume in Love (1973)
Harry and Tonto (1974)
Josh on Mazursky
Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976)
Juliet on Mazursky
An Unmarried Woman (1978)
Jill on Mazursky
Willie & Phil (1980)
Donn on Mazursky
Moscow on the Hudson (1984)
Laddie on Mazursky
Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)
Moon Over Parador (1988)
Enemies: A Love Story (1989)
Fred on Mazursky
Scenes from a Mall (1991)
Albert on Mazursky
The Pickle (1993) / Faithful (1996)
Winchell (1998) / Coast to Coast (2003)
Tzadik: Minetta Lane, Fall 2007
What People are Saying About This
“Paul Mazursky is the American Renoir.”
"Paul Mazursky is one of the great writer-directors of cinema. His work is closer to that of a novelist than a movie director. His complicated, conflicted, and comedic characters are some of that decade's finest."
“America’s most undervalued filmmaker finally gets the book he deserves. It’s warm, personal, idiosyncratic and insightfuljust like his movies.”
“Talk is how the great writer-director-actor-warm-hearted-satirist Paul Mazursky communicates in his films, and talk about everything is what he does in this wonderful, illuminating book by Sam Wasson that gently probes the artist and the man for his views on movies, Hollywood, and himself. For years, Mazursky and a group of friends have gathered daily for coffee at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles to talk about the comedy called life, and Wasson succeeds brilliantly in capturing the ease of their conversation for the reader without our having to fly to LAand find no room at the table. Anyone who cares about films and wonders how they manage to get made, and who likes both to be educated and to laugh, should read this book.”
"Paul Mazursky is one of the great writer-directors of cinema. His work is closer to that of a novelist than a movie director. His complicated, conflicted, and comedic characters are some of that decade's finest."Quentin Tarantino
"America's most undervalued filmmaker finally gets the book he deserves. It's warm, personal, idiosyncratic and insightfuljust like his movies."Leonard Maltin
"Paul Mazursky is the American Renoir."Mel Brooks
"Talk is how the great writer-director-actor-warm-hearted-satirist Paul Mazursky communicates in his films, and talk about everything is what he does in this wonderful, illuminating book by Sam Wasson that gently probes the artist and the man for his views on movies, Hollywood, and himself. For years, Mazursky and a group of friends have gathered daily for coffee at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles to talk about the comedy called life, and Wasson succeeds brilliantly in capturing the ease of their conversation for the reader without our having to fly to LAand find no room at the table. Anyone who cares about films and wonders how they manage to get made, and who likes both to be educated and to laugh, should read this book."Eric Lax, author of Conversations with Woody Allen