Talk to actors who have worked with Paul Mazursky and the words "generous," "affectionate," "giving," "hands-on," "funny" and "smart" are liberally summoned without seeming obsequious. It's partly because Mazursky, who is receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Dec. 13, is not all that active these days, so nobody's lobbying for their next gig. More to the point: He's had a transformative effect on many of their careers.
Mazursky's movies have proved a springboard for several previously little-known performers, including Elliott Gould, who earned his sole Oscar nomination for "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice"; Christopher Walken, a young Adonis in "Next Stop, Greenwich Village"; and Molly Ringwald, who made her teen-aged film debut in "Tempest."
Art Carney, known primarily for his television work in "The Honeymooners" prior to winning an Oscar for Mazursky's "Harry and Tonto"; and Richard Dreyfuss, who had struggled with cocaine abuse in the early '80s before he rebounded with "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" (1986), in which he starred with an equally troubled Nick Nolte.
"He said that he cast the entire film out of the Betty Ford Clinic," recalls Dreyfuss, who subsequently worked with Mazursky on two other movies. "('Down and Out') was enormously important because I don't think I had a job for two years -- maybe three."
Mazursky had performed his due diligence, seeing Dreyfuss on stage at the Mark Taper Forum in "The Hands of the Enemy" prior to production. "And not only was he wonderful," says the 83-year old director, "I spoke to Gordon Davidson (the Taper's then artistic director) and he told me the truth: He said he was totally reliable; he's passed all that. And he was right."
Gould acknowledges that "Bob & Carol," one of the five top-grossing films of 1969, was a breakthrough, adding that he experienced an epiphany collaborating with the filmmaker. "I discovered during the course of making 'Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice' my first objective relationship with the camera," he recalls. "And realized that the camera didn't give me problems, I gave me problems. And that the camera would never lie to me and would never manipulate me but would just report what I was doing. And it really was extremely fruitful and took me a long way."
Although Mazursky wrote or co-wrote the bulk of his screenplays, he wasn't an autocrat about his material. "There was none of that 'say the words as they're written stuff,' " says Dreyfuss of his experience on "Down and Out." "You can't keep Nick Nolte, Bette Midler and myself tied to script. Forget it! When you have smart actors, and not smart-alecky actors, then you have a lot less to worry about. And Paul trusted us. When we thought of something and he started laughing, he'd shoot it."
Of course, Mazursky is more than just an actor's director. His experience wearing three hats -- actor, writer, director for the better part of six decades -- has given him a leg up on many of his better-known contemporaries who came of age in the so-called New Hollywood of the '70s.
"He's not a stylist on the order of Altman and Scorsese, which might work against him, because a lot of people have this false notion that you're only a great filmmaker if you make the camera dance," says Peter Rainer, film critic for the Christian Science Monitor and author of the book "Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in the Turbulent and Transformative Era" (Santa Monica Press).
"Part of it is the old bias against comedy, although that's a very slim term for what he does," Rainer adds. "Even 'Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,' which I saw a number of years ago at the Aero Theater with Mazursky sitting next to me, was quite a bit more interesting than I originally remembered. It seemed much more like a Rohmer film -- more emotionally complicated and offbeat than just some Hollywood comedy about wife-swapping."
If Mazursky is under-appreciated in the pantheon of his contemporaries, his oeuvre smacks of cultural significance. "Bob & Carole" marked a major signpost in the sexual revolution; "An Unmarried Woman" became a kind of feminist manifesto; and "Down and Out" proved that you could take a foreign-language classic (Renoir's "Boudu Saved From Drowning") and transform it into something original, as well as a box office hit.
"Sharp and loving at the same time -- that's what I think of with Mazursky, and that's an unusual combination," says David Thomson, film critic, historian and author of more than 20 books on the medium, including the recently published "Moments That Made the Movies" (Thames & Hudson). "And I think that kind of film has gone out of fashion. There really aren't too many people who make that sort of film anymore."
If Mazursky's kind of heart is missing from many of today's offerings -- consider the filmmaker's affectionate, undersung portrait of young bohemians in "Next Stop, Greenwich Village" vs. the Coen brothers' jaundiced view of the same milieu, "Inside Llewyn Davis" -- his razor-sharp studies of relationships, family bonds and artistic yearning remain timeless.
"There's a real Renoir-like streak to him," says Thomson. "That feeling of 'well, don't make judgements about people, just try to observe them as tenderly as you can.'"
And that attitude crosses over to Mazursky's chemistry with the people who make his movies sing. "His work with actors is peerless," declares Rainer.
Mazursky, a veteran of more than 75 film and television roles, knows the craft from the inside out. "I love actors," he says. "You gotta understand, they're out there naked. And they're nervous, and they're scared, and you want to treat them well if you can."