Paul Mazursky

Paul Mazursky (1930-2014) -- An Oscar nominated writer-director who also co-wrote the 1966 TV pilot for "The Monkees." (Christina House / For The Times)

Paul Mazursky, the Oscar-nominated writer-director who excelled at mining the urban middle class for laughs as well as tears in such movies as "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "Blume in Love," "An Unmarried Woman" and "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 84.

The cause was pulmonary cardiac arrest, family spokeswoman Nancy Willen said.

A gentle satirist of contemporary society, Mazursky at his best chronicled the social trends of the late 1960s and '70s, including the era's touchy-feely self-improvement fads, drug experimentation and shifting rules for love and sex.

In the process he created characters memorable for their struggles and vanities: the well-heeled couples in his 1969 directorial debut "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" who believe spouse-swapping is the cure for their hang-ups; the divorce lawyer in "Blume in Love" who thinks sexual freedom is great until his wife wants it; and the divorcee in "An Unmarried Woman" who steps gingerly into the singles scene after 15 years of what she thought had been a happy marriage.

Like Woody Allen, Mazursky wrote and directed most of his 17 films and acted in nearly all of them. His acting credits spanned six decades, from a leading role in Stanley Kubrick's first feature in 1953 to voicing a musical bunny in "Kung Fu Panda 2" in 2011. He also appeared in the HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "The Sopranos."

His experiences in front of the camera gave him a special affinity for actors' rhythms and a preference for long takes that allowed them room to develop their characters.

Critic Molly Haskell compared Mazursky to Ingmar Bergman in the caliber of performances he coaxed out of his leading women in particular.

"They allow his camera to seek out and find subtleties of expression and echoes of a complex, sensual intelligence that never surface in their work for other directors," Haskell wrote in New York magazine in 1978.

He made his share of flops, including "The Pickle" (1993), which was so bad Columbia wouldn't show it to most critics. That movie was bookended by the poorly reviewed "Scenes From a Mall" (1991) and "Faithful" (1996), his last feature. He also made a documentary called "Yippee" (2006), about Hasidic Jews in Ukraine.

His feature films were frequently criticized for being sentimental.

"His specialty is to take a core of sentimental goo and coat it with either bittersweet nostalgia or crude jokes — preferably both," critic John Simon wrote in the National Review in 1986.

But Mazursky dismissed the barbs, arguing, as he did in the Atlantic in 1980, that "my movies aren't sentimental, they just have sentiment."

He received his last critical raves for "Enemies: A Love Story" (1989), adapted with Roger L. Simon from an Isaac Bashevis Singer story about a Holocaust survivor who winds up in America with three wives. It brought Mazursky his fourth screenwriting nomination, after "An Unmarried Woman," "Harry and Tonto" and "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice."

Born Irwin Mazursky in New York City on April 25, 1930, he was the only child of David, a laborer, and his wife, Jean, a movie lover who let her son skip school so they could watch two double features in one day. "By the time I was 12," Mazursky told People magazine in 1986, "I was already dreaming of being an actor. I'd go into the bathroom in our house, the only place you could be alone, and do imitations of Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart."

While a student at Brooklyn College he was cast as a psychopath in "Fear and Desire," the 1953 film that marked Stanley Kubrick's directorial debut. He changed his first name to Paul.

That year he also married Betsy Purdy, with whom he had two children.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by their daughter Jill Mazursky, four grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Their daughter Meg died of cancer in 2009.

After the Kubrick movie, Mazursky studied Method acting with Lee Strasberg. One of his early roles was a juvenile delinquent in "Blackboard Jungle" (1955).

In 1959, he moved his family to Los Angeles and joined the improv group Second City. When it closed, he teamed up with Second City alum Larry Tucker to write gags for CBS' "The Danny Kaye Show." He and Tucker also co-wrote the 1966 pilot for "The Monkees," the TV series about a struggling rock band, but their work was uncredited at the time.

Dissatisfied with television, Mazursky began taking classes on film editing at USC and fantasized about becoming a director.