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)

He and Tucker shared an office on a stretch of Sunset Boulevard hopping with '60s bohemians. The setting inspired their first screenplay, "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas" (1968), a romantic comedy starring Peter Sellers as a lawyer who drops out of his conventional life after ingesting a marijuana-infused brownie.

Mazursky got his chance to direct with his next project. He had taken his wife to Esalen, the Big Sur retreat where members of the counterculture went to find their inner selves. The experience became grist for "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice." Co-written with Tucker, the film opens with a couple played by Robert Culp and Natalie Wood, who return from an Esalen-like retreat with a new awareness they want to share with another couple, played by Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould.

The movie made Gould a star, resuscitated Wood's career and was a box-office and critical hit; Pauline Kael, writing in the New Yorker, called it "the liveliest American comedy so far this year." It catapulted Mazursky onto the A-list of directors.

He was given carte blanche for his next picture, "Alex in Wonderland" (1970), which stars Donald Sutherland as a director who can't decide what to do with his life after his first hit movie. Mazursky meant it as an homage to "81/2," the autobiographical masterpiece by Federico Fellini, whom he idolized; Fellini even makes a cameo appearance. Mazursky gave himself the role of a groovy producer with wacky movie ideas.

Critics liked "Alex," but commercially it bombed. Adding to Mazursky's distress was his failure to find a studio to back "Harry and Tonto."

Feeling like a misunderstood artist, Mazursky moved to Italy for a while but found expatriate life unsatisfying.

When he returned to the U.S. some months later, he wrote a scene about "a guy sitting in a cafe in Italy trying to figure out what the hell he is doing there," Mazursky told People. That idea bloomed into the script for "Blume in Love" (1973), which starred George Segal as a man who realizes he is in love with his ex-wife, played by Susan Anspach.

It won admiring reviews from critics such as Roger Ebert, who wrote that Mazursky "seems to have pulled off what everybody is always hoping for from Neil Simon: a comedy that transcends its funny moments, that realizes we laugh so we may not cry, and that finally is about real people with real desperations."

Back on the top of the Hollywood heap, Mazursky finally was able to make "Harry and Tonto" (1974), a serious comedy about a 72-year-old man who goes on the road after being evicted from his New York City apartment. Lauded for its humanistic portrait of aging, it succeeded financially and made Art Carney of TV's "The Honeymooners" a movie star and best actor Oscar winner.

Mazursky followed with the highly praised, semi-autobiographical "Next Stop, Greenwich Village" (1976), about a Brooklyn boy in the early 1950s who moves to the Village to chase his acting dreams, and "An Unmarried Woman" (1978), which garnered three Oscar nominations including best actress for Jill Clayburgh, best picture and best screenplay.

After the disappointments of "Willie and Phil" (1980) and "Tempest" (1982), his next hit was "Moscow on the Hudson" (1984), which showcased Robin Williams as a Russian musician who defects in the middle of a Bloomingdale's department store.

"Down and Out in Beverly Hills" (1986) was Mazursky's greatest commercial success. A farce inspired by the 1932 Jean Renoir film "Boudou Saved From Drowning," it concerns a wealthy couple (Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss) who live in a mansion with a dog that has its own psychiatrist. Their posh life is disrupted by a homeless man (Nick Nolte) who tries to drown himself in their pool. Sympathizing with his plight, the couple invite him to move in.

The purpose of the film was "to reflect on the absurdity of having it all and still having nothing," Mazursky told the Chicago Tribune in 1986.

A longtime resident of Beverly Hills, Mazursky said he was poking fun at himself, too.

"I find it impossible to spend much time with someone who doesn't have a real sense of humor," he told People magazine. "Humor is not just a way of looking at life. It's the way you experience things. Nobody lives life free of pain, but you can get past the pain with humor. It's what separates me from some very nice people who simply don't get the joke."

elaine.woo@latimes.com

Twitter: @ewooLATimes