In Her Own Words: Little Shop's Ellen Greene Remembers Her Friend and Mentor, Filmmaker Paul Mazursky

Stage and screen star Ellen Greene, forever linked with the role of the lovably ditzy Audrey in both the stage and screen incarnations of The Little Shop of Horrors, remembers her friend and mentor, filmmaker Paul Mazursky, who cast the gifted actress in her first motion picture, "Next Stop, Greenwich Village."

Ellen Greene
Ellen Greene

It was summer 1974, and Ellen Greene's meteoric star was on the rise. The Brooklyn native had just concluded a wildly successful, sold-out run at Reno Sweeney in the Village, an intimate venue where she would hone her skills as both a singer and actress while redefining what cabaret could be. Having caused a bit of a sensation, Greene was called in by casting directors Mary Colquhoun and Rosemarie Tichler to audition for the legendary Joe Papp for the role of Chrissy in David Rabe's In the Boom Boom Room; although the actress had no formal training, her four auditions so impressed Papp that he cast her in the role, beginning a lengthy and nurturing relationship with Papp and the Public Theater, which would become her second home. And, it was Greene's dynamic performance in In the Boom Boom Room that brought her to the attention of another mentor, actor, writer and director Paul Mazursky, whose directorial credits included "An Unmarried Woman," "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "Harry & Tonto" and Greene's film debut, "Next Stop, Greenwich Village."

What follows are Greene's memories of meeting and working with the award-winning filmmaker and her life-long relationship with Mazursky and his family.

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Paul directing me in the final scene on the set of "Next Stop"
Photo by Adger Cowans

Last week, the day after I had just written myself a memo — to write again this year to The Academy of Motion Pictures to see if I could nominate Paul Mazursky for some sort of Lifetime Acheivement Award — I found out that Paul, my dear friend and mentor, had passed on June 30, 2014. Well, when one of the greats leaves the stage, homage must paid. It is said of Paul that "he was a brilliant auteur of humanist comedy."

Paul started his acting career Off-Broadway, before receiving his big break in Stanley Kubrick's first feature, "Fear & Desire." Even though Paul's future would be in filmmaking, he always loved the theatre and especially New York theatre actors. Like a Joe Papp, who cultivated young talent and kept the level of quality high in the projects they developed, losing Paul Mazursky is another loss for the up-and-coming. There are some artistic leaders who establish a level of taste and vision by their example, who hold up a mirror, reflecting our collective humanity, and, sometimes, give talent a chance … just because they believe in them. I can't throw a concert for Paul, like I could for my Howard [Ashman] or for my dear Peter Allen. And, so many who experienced Paul from my vantage point have gone … Lenny [Baker], Shelley [Winters], Dori [Brenner] and Mike [Kellin]… even dear, wonderful Jill Clayburgh (I got to work with her in Jack Hofsiss' "I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can," an early Scott Rudin and Jan de Bont film). I know a lot has been written about Paul, and for that I am very grateful, but please allow me to tell you about the Paul Mazursky I knew from a different vantage point, one of a young actor.

Every so often the stars are aligned, and karma, kismet, fate (or bashaart) is kissed, and that soul gets lucky. My stars lined up when The Public Theater and Joe Papp and Paul Mazursky crossed paths in my life. We had opened in David Rabe's In t he Boom Boom Room, produced by Joe Papp and cast by Mary Colquhoun (she and Rosemarie Tichler both became dear friends and advisers), Nov. 20, 1974, after a glorious rehearsal period. Christopher Lloyd played Al and was stunning. The day The New York Times review came out was a Thursday, and Paul was in the audience. I was lucky and got a rave. Ed Limato (with Joan Hyler's approval) had suggested me for Sarah in "Next Stop, Greenwich Village" and had given me Paul's script. After intermission Paul had left, and I was devastated. Did he hate me? Was he embarrassed to see the end (in which I was nude)? I had no idea, but I was called in to Marion Dougherty Casting for an audition a few days later, with Juliet Taylor and Gretchen Rennel... what an office!

Paul was personable and very hands on. He sat with me, talked and joked to put me at ease, and told me why he had left at intermission: "He had seen enough." That was Paul ... simple and succinct. He made decisons easily, calmly and followed his gut. He cast everyone, down to the extras, and he sat with each person asking them about themselves. He really wanted to know about their lives and listened intently, without any airs. It was the same credo as with the Public Theater (you left your ego at the door). Everyone mattered to Paul. This standard was typical of both Joe and Paul, a quality not the norm. So after two auditions I was awarded the part of Sarah opposite my dear Lenny Baker. Paul had built in a two-week rehearsal period with the company prior to filming. This was also unusual and luxurious, but everyone, including Alan Ladd Jr. at 20th, loved and respected Paul. We rehearsed early summer at a hotel on Fifth Avenue above Eighth Street, which also functioned as the production office. The hotel was diagonally across from One Fifth Avenue, where I went after rehearsal to visit my dear Donn Palladino, who was a Maître D' there, and regaled him with the stories of the day. During those amazing rehearsals, Paul taught me to "trust my instincts." I was so very fortunate to have Paul as my first film director.

There are many, many types of directors … some who just scare a performance out of you, and there are some who just love you. Paul was the latter. When someone sees you, your abilities and just adores you, well, you can do anything. You become brave and beautiful and, somehow, magical. At least that's the way it was for me. He opened a door, and I was free to be me. That magic moment, when you have no idea where something or someone has come from inside yourself, but in the quiet of the creative spell, the fairy dust falls out and into a character. Working for and with Paul was like that, for he wanted to bring out the humanity, the complexities of the human spirit and the conflict which existed therein. He loved showing that brink, being on the edge, standing with you on that ledge where everything is all at once sad and painful, but also mixed with humor and hope. Paul's style with an actor was to talk very quietly, intimately, always using humor, as he guided my dear Lenny and me through our scenes. He gave us full reign to explore and feel real feelings. He encouraged free thinking, loved to hear our opinions, and then we built on them, which gave our scenes real breadth and an originality. But we kept to his script, all of that touching dialogue — that pathos is written, with a very few exceptions. The rehearsing was my favorite part, the exploring and experimenting, and Paul was such a fun person to be around and create with.

Lenny and myself outside the health food store, publicity photo for "Next Stop, Greenwich Village"
Photo by 20th Century Fox

Paul made us into a family: Christopher Walken, Dori Brenner, Lois Smith, Antonio Vargas, Lenny and I. We were together on screen as if we had had a long history together. Lenny's folks — the great Shelley Winters (I later did "Stepping Out" with her), who was also a dear friend, and Mike Kellin — were so much fun to work with moment to moment (the great hat moment when I tell her we had sex). Lou Jacobi and Helen Hanft (she played my mother in In The Boom Boom Room) were fun, too. Lest I not forget...Jeff Goldblum — the most wonderful paranoid actor scenes ever.

During the filming of the last scene, where Lenny had to hit me several times, Paul was gentle with me and Lenny. He kept the set very quiet. He had a way of keeping the atmosphere, the tension of the scene on the set, too. So whatever the scene's attitude, it was reflected on the set. If it was a funny scene, he cracked jokes and made us all laugh (and he could be really funny), then the atmosphere of the set was funny. And with intense scenes, quiet and focused on the set. I learned so much from this man and owe him a lot. At the very end, when Lenny and I went in for the final embrace after the fight with heads overlapping, Paul said out loud, "That's our poster," and since Paul had been involved in every aspect of his picture, the studio let him participate in choosing the poster.

Paul loved location shooting, and he felt that a film gained so much — a sense of something vital. Take for instance, the last shot of the film in "Next Stop": That last shot alone gives credence to Mel Brooks dubbing him "The American Fellini." There's Lenny Baker walking down the street in Brownsville, Brooklyn, towards his future, with the violinist playing for the neighbors in their straight-backed chairs while the kids laugh and play stickball in the background. It was filmed with such heart and beauty. The cinematographer was Arthor Ornitz (he shot "The Goddess" with Kim Stanley and also "Serpico" and "Unmarried Woman"). Such beauty and authenticity were Paul's vision and trademark. Or Chris, Lenny and myself jumping up and down in the park after the doctor's visit, the conga line crossing on Sheridan Square, pre-abortion in Cafe Reggio (that shot with the hat) or the scene in the rain on Minetta Lane … all totally beautiful and 1953 authentic.

Also contributing were the beautiful costumes from Albert Wolsky, hair by William Farley and make-up by Robert Jiras — a cast and crew who would follow him anywhere, creating what Paul felt and saw in his mind's eye. You would be hard pressed to find one person from cast or crew who didn't love working for and with him. And the music, Paul had a great ear for music, Brubeck, Bill Conti and Paul Desmond on alto sax — such fabulous music. Sarah's entrance at the top of the film, for instance, you could tell by the music what just had happened previously, and it was so beautifully sexy. That was the only set, Lenny's apartment, designed by Phil Rosenberg… and the editing by Richard Halsey. So many really talented people... but this piece is about Paul.

The Gang: Dori Benner, Christopher Walken, myself, Antonio Vargas and Lenny Baker
 

The film opened in New York on Feb. 4, 1976. Pauline Kael wrote, "'Next Stop, Greenwich Village' has the intertwining of a classic American play. It's Mazursky's 'Amacord.' And I like it better than Fellini's. It isn't showy—Mazursky works on a small scale. Yet this satirist without bitterness and without extravagance looks to be a comic poet. His subject is the comedy of wisdom. How to become a good actor."

When Paul took the film to Cannes in May 1976 with Shelley (he was later to tell Lenny and myself many times, he had wished we had been there), the film was received extraordinarily well. "Next Stop, Greenwich Village" received a 15-minute standing ovation, which overwhelmed, but thrilled Paul. Cause for futher celebration was that his sweet film garnered him a Palme d'Or nomination at the Festival. Paul always had liked foreign films since he was a boy and was introduced to them by his mother. Paul grew up with an affinity for these filmmakers: Bergman, Fellini, Renoir and Truffaut. So when critics likened Paul to them, for his ability to bring out the interior lives of his characters, it made sense. He was happy they got him.

Paul's love of his family was paramount to him, and they were there during the filming. His wife, Betsy, the love of his life, who is strong, wise and warm. He was so crazy for her; it was just great to witness. (Paul and Betsy were married for 61 years.) His two girls, Jill, who was eight during the filming and was such a hellion (G-d I LOVED her!!). Paul's smile was hard to hide as he feigned yelling at her. She was so bright and sparkled from inside, and Paul was twisted around her finger. Then there was wonderful, gracious Meg. She was beautiful, funny, big-hearted, and had a great laugh. I loved the entire family (I had lost my father four years prior), and Paul was kind to let me feel a part of his. Both girls followed in Paul's footsteps. Jill is writing and directing on her own (I did a lovely and quirky short she wrote, "Persona non Grata," which takes place the year they spent in New York during the filming of "Next Stop"), and Meg became a casting director for her dad, and so sadly died in September 2009 of brain cancer. I remember our last phone call together, way before she got sick, catching up like girfriends and giggling about nothing.

Paul and Betsy both brought up their daughters to be strong women with their own opinions. I was the beneficiary of this trait. One time when Arthur Ornitz was setting up a shot, he signaled for me to move, "Would the breasts move camera left?" Shelley, standing next to me, wanted me to hold my tongue, but Paul let me stick up for myself and speak out. He loved and encouraged the strength in a free-thinking woman and the tenderness and vulnerability in a man, as witnessed by Lenny in "Next Stop" or Art Carney in "Harry & Tonto."

The last time I saw Paul was on Nov. 11, 2012. The DGA held an event saluting Paul's career of acting, writing, producing and directing, and I was invited. He always seemed to try to include me, all along these many years. It was a breakfast, and for some reason I got it in my head it was to be a casual affair. You know, with a bunch of Jews sitting around reading the Sunday paper in Birkenstocks and eating bagels. So I went alone and late, but I felt foolish when I arrived, for it was quite a lavish affair, with so many fabulous people from Paul's life there. I was quite happy to see Paul, Betsy and Jill, but shy to talk to anyone else.

When I walked into the screening room for the ceremony part of the tribute, I was shocked to see that they were going to show "Next Stop" in its entirety. I thought it would be represented only by a few clips. So I jumped out of my seat, two aisles in front of Paul and Betsy, and asked Paul who was seated on the aisle, "Are you showing 'Next Stop'?" To which he replied with a smirk and a shrug, "They asked me which film I wanted them to screen," and then gave a small hidden smile for just me to see. I was quite overwhelmed, but excited. Paul had worked with so many great actors, Donald Sutherland, Richard Dreyfuss, Nick Nolte, Susan Sarandon, and dear Raul Julia (my Macheath)... too many to name. Six of his actors got nominated for an Oscar: Dyan Cannon, Elliott Gould, Jill Clayburgh, Lena Olin, Anjelica Huston and Art Carney, who won an Oscar for "Harry & Tonto." So I was kind of shocked, but felt Paul's heart in the choosing. I hadn't seen the film for decades, except on a tiny screen when Paul and I separately put down the audio tracks for the re-release of "Next Stop" in 2005. Actually, I had never listened to the audio, until I was to write this piece.

Oh, I should tell you here, Paul's original name was Irwin Mazursky. On his audio track, Paul tells this story (I've shortened it a bit).

Kubrick was about to put the titles on for "Fear and Desire" and had Betsy call Paul. She asked Paul, who was in a phone booth in the Catskills, "You want to use Irwin Mazursky?" To which Paul answered, "Well, I hate Irwin, but I don't want to give up Mazursky. I like Mazursky. What about Bart Mazursky? Clark Mazursky? What about Humphrey Mazursky?" (This is a true story.) Anyway, finally the operator said, "You know, your three minutes are up." So Betsy said, "What about my father's name, Purdy?" He said, "What about Paul Purdy?" Then the operator cut in saying, "And your time." So he said, "Paul Mazursky," and he hung up. And that's how Paul got his name. Simple... succinct! That was Paul.

Right before they ran the film, several people got up and spoke, among them was Mel Brooks, who spoke lovingly and was very funny (he also read letters from Buck Henry and John Landis, who were also funny and loving). Then Paul got up, and mind you, he was a bit unsteady on his feet, but funny!!!! I started crying 'cause I was laughing so hard. He captivated us with his keen intellect, funny-but-touching stories and amazing timing. He had the audience rolling for what it seemed to be around 40 minutes. We were in the palm of his hand — his wit and warmth were a thrill to behold, but Paul always came to life with an audience. Paul never won an Oscar, and I had wished to get him an honorary one. But he had this great moment (and several others: a Hollywood Star and a tribute at Lincoln Center). We took pictures after with George Segal, Elliott Gould, Jeremy Kagan. I was feeling so much for this man that changed the direction of my life, so to lighten the mood, he whispered to me sotto voce — "love your coat" under his breath — while we held a smile for the camera. He was being truthful. He always noticed what people wore, but he was also doing his "Paul thing"... putting me at ease. As I said goodbye to Paul at the DGA event, he said an aside under his breath again, "Love your coat." Well, this was the third time, and it was funny. We laughed together, and I went to hug him, but he saw that I was welling up and filling with emotion. Paul just looked at me and ever so slightly, deftly poo-pooed my emotions with a warning hand quietly saying, "Eh eh." As a well-trained student, I was obedient and acquiesced immediately; he was the director and I stopped the flood. He didn't want me to cry, for as unsentimental as he acted, he had a heart like a marshmallow, and he didn't want me to make him cry. What a beautiful soul this man had.

The time that Paul came into my life was a pivotal moment for me. I likened Paul Mazursky to Joe Papp for they were both leaders with exquisite taste, generosity of spirit and vision. I and others were proud to follow their lead. And both were loyalists — when they believed in someone, they stuck by them. I was so very fortunate, for I had come to them with no credentials to prove what I felt I had inside; all I had was the opportunity they gave me and our shared belief. Like Joe, Paul was a crusader for young talent, and gave so many young burgeoning talents their first break.

At the end of the audio track of "Next Stop, Greenwich Village," right before I switched it off, I heard myself saying, "I'm proud of certain things I have done in my life, and this is one of them. I've always thought Paul deserved to be recognized as one of the great directors of our time. I really do feel that way."

I still do.

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Janet Maslin wrote of Paul in the New York Times:
"Like the best of Mr. Mazursky's work, it presents a very full spectrum of complicated and sometimes darkly funny emotions."

Sam Wasson, author of "Paul on Mazursky," wrote:
"Like Frank Capra, he had an open heart but a satirical squint. Like Jean Renoir, he never let jokes get between him and the hard truths of his characters. And unlike most New Hollywood filmmakers, Paul Mazursky, part hippie, part father, had perspective and tendresse. There was no other Hollywood writer/director with such a generous admiration of human foible, no other American auteur so shrewdly attuned to the cockeyed truths of how we love."

My agent and friend Gary Gersh wrote me this after the tribute to Paul:
"The most beautiful thing about what we do when we are lucky to make movies is to preserve a moment which would have been otherwise fleeting..we capture a piece of ephemera in a way few can understand while it is happening..."

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I was lucky with Paul… and "Next Stop"… and I will miss him.

At the tribute with Jeremy Kagan, George Segal, Paul, myself and Elliot Gould
At the tribute with Jeremy Kagan, George Segal, Paul, myself and Elliot Gould (Photo by Byron Gamarro)