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

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21 Jul 2014

Ellen Greene
Ellen Greene

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."

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.


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 the 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.


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