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A taste for borscht

Hollywood director Paul Mazursky returns to the theater with 'Catskill Sonata.'

March 10, 2007|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

BACK in the '50s, the name Irwin Mazursky suited a Borscht Belt comedian the way coleslaw went with pastrami -- a perfect match greater than the sum of its parts. But for the Irwin Mazursky in question, that less-than-mellifluous birth moniker would hardly work as an acting credit on Stanley Kubrick's film "Fear and Desire." So when his soon-to-be wife, Betsy, called him in the Catskills to ask what name he wanted to use, he was sure of only one thing: He liked Mazursky. But Irwin? Not so much.

They tried on other names. Bart? No. Chet? No.

"How about Paul?" Betsy said.

The operator cut in: "Your three minutes are up."

"OK, make it Paul Mazursky," he said.

Paul Mazursky swears that's how he acquired the name associated with such quirky, intimate '70s and '80s films as "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "An Unmarried Woman," "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" and "Moscow on the Hudson." At the very least, at 76, the acclaimed writer-director-actor continues to demonstrate his chops as a wry storyteller.

Mazursky is sitting near the stage of the 99-seat Hayworth, where, for the first time in 40 years, he's returning to the theater to direct "Catskill Sonata," screenwriter Michael Elias' new play about the end of an era from both their pasts.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 13, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Paul Mazursky: An article in Saturday's Calendar section about the play "Catskill Sonata" and its director, Paul Mazursky, identified playwright Michael Elias as the writer of the film "The Jerk." He shared the writing credit with Steve Martin and Carl Gottlieb.

These days, Mazursky acknowledges, studios aren't clamoring for his kind of filmmaking. His last theatrically distributed film was "Faithful," a black comedy starring Cher and Chazz Palminteri that fared poorly with critics in 1996. Mazursky went on to make films for HBO and Showtime, but for the last five years, he has been unable to get films made.

"If you don't know about 'Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice' and 'Next Stop, Greenwich Village' and 'Harry and Tonto,' then you don't know much about the movie business," he says, "and I have met executives in the last seven or eight years who don't know much about those things."

But the theater welcomes the kind of human stories he likes to tell. Elias, a Catskills native and screenwriter who wrote "The Jerk" and co-created TV's "Head of the Class," examines the region's little-known role as a refuge for blacklisted writers of the '50s. The play takes place at a small hotel just before the summer season, when artists and intellectuals are invited to spend a free week mingling with the regular guests. It stars Kip Gilman as Dave Vaughn, a failed, blacklisted writer, and Daryl Sabara as Irwin Shukovsky, a teenage bellhop and aspiring writer who thinks he's found the mentor of his dreams.

Elias says he sought out Mazursky because "he's a terrific director, and I knew he'd know about the Catskills. In a lot of ways our lives parallel each other in that we both wanted to be actors. We were comedians in the Catskills. We were waiters in the Catskills."

Mazursky spent his Brooklyn College summers in the everyman's Catskills, which served up borsht and shtick in equal measures for New York Jews escaping the sweltering city. In postwar New England, some hotels barred Jews with the code phrase "No Europeans allowed," but the Catskill Mountains offered affordable hotels for handball, swimming and that Jewish specialite de maison, comedy. Mazursky waited tables and regaled the dinner crowds with imitations of Hollywood stars of the day, like Edgar G. Robinson: "Mm-yeah, gimme some flanken."

"It was a big hit," says Mazursky, who set "Enemies: A Love Story" partly in the Catskills. "It's one thing to be funny in your living room and make parents laugh, but to get up in front of an audience, no matter who they are, and start making up these routines, I said, 'Oh, jeez, I'm funny and I like it.' I later became a nightclub comic. I was a comedian on and off for about five years."

Mazursky performed at clubs like the Blue Angel and the Village Vanguard in New York, but during the summers, he returned to the Catskills, where he and the late Herb Hartig appeared as Igor and H. "Guys used to call me Igor because of the Russian name, buddies of mine," he says. "How did it shape me? Funny stuff. But I'd also do Shakespeare. They loved it. They went nuts. 'Oy, look, he's doing Shakespeare.' "

Mazursky takes off a beige cap to reveal a full head of floppy brown hair that brushes his collar much as it did in his heyday.

Starting with the first feature film he directed and co-wrote with Larry Tucker, the 1968 sexual-revolution comedy "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," Mazursky assembled a body of personal movies that brought him five Oscar nominations. From May 4 to 10, 10 of his films will be shown at Lincoln Center in his first major retrospective.

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