I’ve been working on a revised edition of Something Wonderful Right Away, my oral history of the founding and early days of Second City. It was originally published in 1978 and, inevitably, many of the people I interviewed for the book are no longer with us. (For that matter, the kid in his twenties who wrote the book is no longer with me.)
I have vivid memories of the circumstances of most of the conversations, though, and many of the voices are clear in my ear. Some of the people I talked to–Paul Sills, Mike Nichols, Barbara Harris, Del Close, Severn Darden, Avery Schreiber, Mark and Bobbi Gordon, and Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara–became friends and stayed in my life till they passed. Others I encountered only on the day I interviewed them for the book.
One I encountered only once was Paul Mazursky, whose connection to Second City was that he appeared in the cast that replaced the original cast after playing a pre-Broadway tryout in Los Angeles. Improvisation and the improvisational community stayed with him, though. As he told me, much of Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice was based on improvisations he and co-writer Larry Tucker did over a tape recorder one weekend. (This is also why so many of the scenes in the film are two-handers.)
After the smash success of his directorial debut with Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, Mazursky faced the challenge of coming up with a follow-up project. So he made a film about the challenge of coming up with a follow-up project, Alex in Wonderland. Donald Sutherland plays Alex Morrison, Mazursky’s stand-in, and much of the action involves him trying to cope with sudden success. It has an effect on his marriage, of course. It also has an effect on his dealings with his mother.
Mazursky’s daughter Meg played Alex’s daughter. According to a book-length interview Mazursky did with Sam Wasson, Paul on Mazursky, the director considered hiring his mother Jean to play herself. Jean apparently didn’t work for the camera, so he had to look elsewhere for someone to play Mrs. Morrison. In a fit of inspiration, he cast Viola Spolin.
Viola Spolin, of course, was the inventor of theater games and pretty much the catalyst for the improvisational theater movement. (Her son, Paul Sills, co-created The Compass and Second City and the story theater format. A previously-unpublished conversation I had with her will appear in the new edition of Something Wonderful.) When she was young, Viola had ventured to New York in the hope of acting with the Group Theater. That hadn’t happened, so she returned to Chicago and started the work that helped transform American theater, film and television.
Apparently, Mazursky’s mom didn’t appreciate the film or Viola’s performance in it. She thought she deserved to be played by a star. Who the hell was this Viola dame? (Mazursky says his mother even threatened to sue him.)
I think Viola is very good in the film. I particularly enjoy a dream sequence set in a circus in which– dressed in a showgirl costume, wearing a tiara and riding a plumed white horse–she gives her son shit, saying Fellini calls her more than he does.
Mazursky depicted his mother again. This time, yes, he used a star. Shelley Winters. His mother was dead by then. If she hadn’t been, she probably would have threatened to sue him again. Though the portrait Winters offers is essentially sympathetic, one could see why the son Lenny Baker plays, Larry Lapinsky, would want to flee Brooklyn and his childhood apartment for Greenwich Village. She is loud, needy, intrusive, frequently embarrassing.
The film is Next Stop, Greenwich Village. Released in 1976, it is Mazursky’s account of what it was like for him as an aspiring young actor in the Village of the 1950s. It had particular resonance for me because, though I arrived in the Village in 1967, much of what he depicted (including many of the buildings) was still around me when I was getting started as an aspiring young writer.
I’m not going to venture into much analysis here. I gather my friend Michael Feingold, by coincidence, is working on his own piece about the film, and I expect to learn much from him (as I usually do from a Feingold piece). I just thought I’d pass along a few things I picked up in doing some background reading.
One is that the obnoxious wannabe writer Christopher Walken plays is based on Howard Sackler, who, though he was Mazursky’s friend, couldn’t resist hitting on the women Mazursky was dating. (Or is that because he was Mazursky’s friend?) Sackler went on to write a couple of early films for Stanley Kubrick, won a Pulitzer Prize for The Great White Hope, co-authored the screenplay for Peter Bogdanovich’s underestimated Saint Jack and was the originator of the famous monologue Robert Shaw gives on the boat in Jaws. (John Milius and Robert Shaw contributed, too, but Spielberg has confirmed that the idea for the speech was Sackler’s.) The fictionalized portrait of Sackler in the film is not complimentary, but Mazursky and Walken make him a compelling character.
I was also amused by a passage in which actors were comparing their teachers. There’s mention of Sandy and Lee. At one point, Larry refers to studying with Herbert. One of the others comments that Herbert talks a lot. I had to laugh. Here’s the story …
Herbert was Herbert Berghof, co-founder (with his wife Uta Hagen) of HB Studios. One day I got a call from him. Mike Nichols had been scheduled to give a seminar but had a conflict. Apparently Mike had suggested Herbert get me to fill in and do a session on the roots of improvisational theater. So I told Herbert that I would be honored. I arrived and Herbert got up to introduce me. And he never stopped. He lapsed into memories of European theater during the war and went on and on. The time ran out and I never said a word. Yes, Herbert talked a lot.
Mazursky would later cast Herbert as one of Art Carney’s left-wing Upper West Side friends in Harry and Tonto.
Also visible in the film (if you look quickly) are Bill Murray (with a mustache and one line) and John Ford Noonan, who was a popular off-off-Broadway playwright of the time.
Three women in the cast are particularly striking. For those who know Lois Smith only from her astonishing later work (hooray for her recent Tony Award!), she’s remarkable as a young woman who flirts with self-destruction. Dori Brenner is so moving as the most empathetic of the gang that I wanted to reach out more than 40 years later and congratulate her on her performance; I was saddened to learn that she died in 2000. (Michael Feingold tells me he had the pleasure of working with her in the Yale Cabaret.) And then there’s Ellen Greene, playing one of Mazursky’s signature complicated postwar women. Today, we know her mostly for her iconic performance as Audrey in the musical The Little Shop of Horrors, but her work in Greenwich Village attests to her considerable dramatic shops.
Next Stop, Greenwich Village is not perfect. There are some clumsy and obvious scenes, and, though Lenny Baker is charming as the young Mazursky, the film leaves the question of whether he has any talent as an actor very much open to question. I was intrigued by its resemblance to another Mazursky film, Moscow on the Hudson. In that, a Russian musician named Vladimir Ivanoff, visiting New York with a circus (another Mazursky circus reference), impulsively defects in Bloomingdale’s. He ends up making a new life in New York, surrounding himself with a new family of friends (mostly also immigrants to New York). It occurs to me that the Greenwich Village of the 1950s is almost as alien a land to young Larry Lapinski as the United States is to Vladimir.
By the way, I think Moscow on the Hudson (which features my favorite Robin Williams performance as Vlad) is one of Mazursky’s best. But then I think Mazursky was one of our most underrated directors.
OK, now I want to read what Michael Feingold has to say.