Paul Mazursky at his office in Beverly Hills. (Christina House / For The…)
It's a big week for 80-year-old writer-director-producer — and occasional actor — Paul Mazursky.
On Thursday evening, he'll do a Q&A at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art after a screening of his 1974 gem "Harry & Tonto." Art Carney won a lead actor Oscar playing a curmudgeon who travels with his cat across the country after losing his New York apartment. On Saturday night, he'll be presented with the Los Angeles Film Critics' career achievement award at the InterContinental Hotel in Century City. "It's sweet," he says.
On a recent morning, Mazursky is relaxing in his Beverly Hills office filled with posters and pictures from his classic comedies, including the four films for which he received Oscar screenplay nominations — 1969's "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," 1974's "Harry & Tonto," 1978's "An Unmarried Woman" — he also received a nomination for producing the best picture nominee — and 1989's "Enemies: A Love Story."
His box office hits, such as 1984's "Moscow on the Hudson" and 1986's "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" are also well-represented on the walls of the two-room office, as well as his last film, "Yippee," the 2006 documentary about annual Rosh Hashanah convocation of 25,000 Hasidic Jews in the Ukrainian town of Uman.
Mazursky isn't just a master storyteller for the big screen. In real life, he's a mesmerizing raconteur who breaks into impressions of Jimmy Cagney, Cary Grant, Anthony Quinn and Federico Fellini, who appeared in his 1970 comedy "Alex in Wonderland." Two of his best stories involve choosing Carney for "Harry & Tonto" and why Peter Sellers prevented him from directing his first film, 1968's "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas."
'Harry & Tonto'
"It was turned down so many times you can't imagine. They were afraid of a movie about an old man. They kept saying it's a great script but who wants to see an old person. Then Freddie Fields, who was my agent, called and said you only need one yes. Alan Ladd Jr. read it — he was running Fox and I got my yes. I made it for $980,000.
"Then I got Art Carney. I saw him on Broadway a couple of years before in 'The Rope Dancers.' Of course, I had seen him in 'The Honeymooners.' I first went after Jimmy Cagney and he said, 'I'm retired.' I went to Laurence Olivier. It was a weird idea. I went to Danny Kaye, who I had written for, and he wanted more jokes. I went to Cary Grant, who said I'm retired. Then I went after Art Carney. He didn't want to do it. He said I'm 59 years old and you want this guy to be in his 70s.
"I said, 'Art, this is he first time I met you and you look like you are in your 70s — you're balding, you wear a hearing aid and you have a bum leg.' He told me, 'You don't want me. I'm an alcoholic.' He had one bad night then nothing else. He had been out on a binge and he showed up on location in Chicago in a taxi in the morning loaded. I took him up to his room, put him the shower and made him a pot of coffee. He was easy to direct."
'I Love You Alice B. Toklas'
Mazursky and Larry Tucker met while working at Second City comedy troupe in L.A. and were hired for four seasons as writers on "The Danny Kaye Show." They also wrote the pilot episode of the 1966-68 comedy series " The Monkees." Their first film script was 1968's "I Love You Alice B. Toklas," about a conservative L.A. attorney who tunes in and drops out after eating marijuana-tinged brownies.
"We were going to do 'Alice B. Toklas' for $250,000 — low budget, me directing, Larry producing. We got a call from [agent] Freddie Fields. He said, 'It's the funniest script I ever read. I think I could sell it to tomorrow morning. Peter Sellers needs a movie and he's my client.' I said, 'Well if I don't get to direct it, I won't sell it.' He said, 'You'll get to direct.' He gives it to Peter and the next morning, Freddie calls us and says, 'We have a deal — $200,000 for you guys to write it.' … I said, 'What do I get for directing it?' He said, 'Don't worry about directing, we'll get into that later.' "
Mazursky and Tucker meet with Sellers in his dressing room and asked whom he would like to direct the film. "We named several good people. He said, 'You know who I want, Freddie Fellini.' Larry and I are just looking at each other." They were even more flummoxed when he suggested Ingmar Bergman.
"I know now he's crazy. One thing leads to another and Peter says, 'Wait a minute, Paul knows this stuff better than anybody, why doesn't he direct it?' A week later I set up a meeting with Peter at his house and I said, 'Can I bring my 12-year-old daughter to take a swim?' and he said, 'Please Britt's [Sellers' then wife, Britt Ekland] brother from Sweden is here and they can swim together.'
"Peter said let's chat first. He said, 'What do you think of my last three films?' His last three films were 'The Bobo,' 'After the Fox' and another one. I said, 'Peter the last three pictures were not up to your other pictures.' He said, 'Thank you for being honest.' He said, 'I'm going to have a kip' — a kip is a nap."
While Sellers napped, Mazursky was talking to Ekland about her upcoming role in "The Night They Raided Minsky's."
"The kids come out of the pool and I kiss her cheek goodbye. The next morning, Larry Tucker walks into the office and he said, 'Why did you do it?' I said, 'Do what?' Peter accused me of having an affair with Britt. I was never alone with Britt. I was no longer the director! He was crazy. He was a genius but definitely crazy."