Actor, screenwriter and director whose films were a barometer for the 'me decade'
As a director and screenwriter, Paul Mazursky, who has died aged 84, was middle America's most successful interpreter of the lifestyle changes inspired by the swinging 60s, and his films served as a barometer for the "me decade" of the 1970s. Over a career that spanned 60 years, including acting and standup comedy, and during which he earned four Oscar nominations for screenplays and one for best picture, Mazursky brought a degree of comic affection to his characters and stories, which sometimes led critics to label his films as soft-centred. This perhaps reflected his unique background among the explosive generation of young American directors who came to prominence at the same time.
Although Mazursky did not star in his own films, he bears comparison with Woody Allen, another writer-director with roots in New York Jewish comedy. Both were influenced heavily by the great European directors whose films made such an impact in the US in the late 50s. But where Allen often seemed to be exploring the dilemma of people caught in the godless universe of Ingmar Bergman, and could be harsh with them, Mazursky's best work reflects the impossibility of satisfying the peculiar American requirement to be "happy", particularly, as any Jewish comedian of the era would tell you, when that happiness was linked to love and sex.
He was born Irwin Mazursky in Brooklyn, New York. His father, David, was a labourer, and his mother, Jean (nee Gerson), played the piano at a dance school. She encouraged his early love of movies, sometimes allowing him to skip school and going with him to see two double-features. He began acting at Brooklyn College, and changed his name to Paul when he was cast in Stanley Kubrick's first feature film, Fear and Desire (1953).
He studied under Lee Strasberg and worked as a jobbing actor in New York theatre and live television, as well as playing a juvenile delinquent in The Blackboard Jungle (1955). He directed an off-Broadway theatre production of Madwoman of Chaillot, and partnered the comedian Herb Hartig in a standup duo called Igor and H, before moving to Los Angeles in 1959, where he began studying film at the University of Southern California and formed another comedy partnership at the Second City company with Larry Tucker. In 1962 he directed his first short film, Last Year at Malibu, a parody of Last Year at Marienbad. Although he and Tucker landed a job writing for The Danny Kaye Show, Mazursky continued to act, most notably on TV in The Twilight Zone, and playing one of the leads in Vic Morrow's low-budget film of Jean Genet's Deathwatch (1966).
Off that success, he and Tucker wrote I Love You, Alice B Toklas! (1967), in which Peter Sellers copes with falling in love with a hippy. Mazursky had been promised the chance to direct, but that did not come until Warners rejected his and Tucker's next screenplay, which was then sold to Columbia with his directing attached. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) was about two couples experimenting with free love. The idea came after Mazursky and his wife, Betsy, attended sessions to help them "find themselves". The film earned four Oscar nominations, including for its screenplay, and for its supporting actors Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon, establishing Mazursky's reputation as an actors' director.
The lead character in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was a screenwriter, and Mazursky's next film, Alex In Wonderland (1970), concerned a director trying to follow up his smash first movie. It was a flop, and Mazursky moved to Italy. When he returned, he broke up the partnership with Tucker, and between 1973 and 1978 made the four films that defined him, reflecting the new uncertainties of dealing with life's basic problems.
They progress from Blume In Love (1973) where a divorce lawyer tries to regain the wife who divorces him, to An Unmarried Woman (1978), starring Jill Clayburgh in the title role as Erica, whose husband leaves her for a younger woman. Clayburgh was nominated for a best actress Oscar.
But Willie and Phil (1980) was an unsuccessful homage to Jules et Jim, shot by Bergman's regular cameraman Sven Nykvist. After Tempest (1982), Mazursky made three uneven comedies, Moscow on the Hudson (1984) and Moon Over Parador (1988) sandwiched around his biggest commercial success, Down and Out In Beverly Hills (1986), an adaptation of Jean Renoir's classic Boudu Saved From Drowning, which starred Nick Nolte and Bette Midler; funny as it was, it lacked Renoir's sharp edge.
Perhaps his best film was Enemies: A Love Story (1989), adapted with the crime writer Roger Simon from an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. Ron Silver plays Herman Broder, married to the Polish woman who saved him from the Holocaust, and having an affair with another Holocaust survivor. The movie received three Oscar nominations, for best screenplay and for both Angelica Huston and Lena Olin as best supporting actress.
Mazursky and Simon's follow-up, Scenes From a Mall (1991), brought Allen and Midler together, in an ill-thought-out version of Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage, while The Pickle (1993) saw Danny Aiello revisiting Alex in Wonderland. The best of Mazursky's later work was Winchell (1998) made for HBO television, starring Stanley Tucci as the columnist Walter Winchell. His final film, Yippee (2006), was a documentary chronicling the pilgrimage of 25,000 Hasidic Jews to the Ukrainian town where their sect's founder is buried.
Mazursky's acting outside his own films included roles in A Star Is Born (1976), Carlito's Way (1993) and Miami Rhapsody (1995). In recent years he appeared on television in the Sopranos, and had recurring roles in Curb Your Enthusiasm and Once and Again, which could be seen as a reworking of Mazursky's 70s films for a new generation. He provided voiceovers for films including Antz, and, in his final role, for a bunny in Kung Fu Panda 2.
Mazursky is survived by Betsy, whom he married in 1953, and his daughter Jill, both of whom played bit parts in his films. His other daughter, Meg, who had a larger role in Alex In Wonderland, died in 2009.
• Paul Mazursky, film director, screenwriter and actor, born 25 April 1930; died 30 June 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/jul/02/paul-mazursky