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Gene Saks has died


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Mame director Gene Saks, Bea Arthur's husband at the time, has died at the age of 93.


Gene Saks, an actor who switched to stage and film directing in midcareer, winning three Tony Awards and becoming the leading interpreter of the plays of Neil Simon, died on Saturday at his home in East Hampton, N.Y. He was 93.


The cause was pneumonia, his wife, Keren, said.


As a director, Mr. Saks focused on comedy, and he excelled with the kind of snappy, battle-of-the-sexes material that might be termed the theater of repartee. He often said he was concerned that laugh lines be not simply jokes but also expressions of character; nonetheless, he was known for his comic instinct and for helping actors with line readings and timing to make a scene work. That said, he was never a cutup or a wit.


“He could direct actors to be funny, but he wasn’t funny himself,” said Emanuel Azenberg, who produced nine Broadway shows directed by Mr. Saks, including eight written by Mr. Simon. “He would say, ‘This is funny,’ in a very serious way. And you’d laugh, because that was funny. All of those fundamentals — pacing, timing, line readings — that had to do with: If you said it this way it would be funny, but if you said it another way it wouldn’t be funny. That’s what he was good at.”


Quick wit and effective cadence — the backbone of verbal humor — were hallmarks of the musicals Mr. Saks directed on Broadway: “Mame,” the long-running hit (from May 1966 to January 1970) with Angela Lansbury as the famously charismatic and irrepressible control freak of an aunt, and Mr. Saks’s first wife, Bea Arthur, as her perpetually pixilated pal, Vera Charles; and “I Love My Wife,” a spoof of the so-called sexual revolution about a pair of married couples and their experiment with partner-swapping, which ran for two years in the late 1970s (of course) and earned Mr. Saks his first Tony Award.


Mr. Saks also directed Bernard Slade’s two-handed bittersweet comedy, “Same Time, Next Year,” about a couple’s annually recurring adulterous tryst. With an initial cast of Ellen Burstyn and Charles Grodin, it opened in 1975 and ran for more than three years, largely owing to what Walter Kerr, writing in The New York Times, called its conscientiousness “about getting a laugh every 40 to 60 seconds.”


Mr. Simon was, of course, the king of this sort of comedy, and in the latter part of his career, Mr. Saks became his go-to director, staging eight of Mr. Simon’s plays on Broadway, beginning with “California Suite” in 1976 and including a distaff revival of “The Odd Couple” in 1985 that starred Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers as the famously mismatched roommates.


Mr. Saks directed what many critics considered Mr. Simon’s more serious comedies and his finest and deepest work — “Lost in Yonkers” (1991), which won the Tony for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and the original productions of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” (1983), “Biloxi Blues” (1985) — he won Tonys for both — and “Broadway Bound” (1986), an autobiographical trilogy for which Mr. Saks felt an especial affinity; after all, he once pointed out, Mr. Simon’s alter ego and protagonist in the three plays, Eugene Jerome, was 15 in 1937, precisely his own age.


Mr. Saks also staged Mr. Simon’s “Rumors” (1988), a farce set at a dinner party with Christine Baranski and Ron Leibman, and “Jake’s Women” (1992), which starred Alan Alda as a writer with marital (and other) problems. And he directed four screen adaptations of Mr. Simon’s plays: “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”


“Aside from Neil’s wit, his brightness and his ability to characterize, he writes about things I know about and care about,” Mr. Saks explained once, in an interview with The New York Times, about his connection to Mr. Simon. “We both came from middle-class, first-generation Jewish families, and our humor springs from the same roots.”


Jean Michael Saks — he legally changed the spelling of his name as an adult — was born to Morris Saks and the former Beatrix Leukowitz in Manhattan on Nov. 8, 1921, and he grew up in Hackensack, N.J., where his father ran a wholesale women’s shoe business.


He graduated from Cornell and, after serving in the Navy during World War II — he took part in the Normandy invasion — studied acting at the New School for Social Research and the Actors Studio. He helped start a theater cooperative at the Cherry Lane Theater and appeared in a number of productions as Off Broadway blossomed.


In the 1950s and early 1960s, Mr. Saks appeared on Broadway in small roles in a number of hit shows, including “South Pacific”; “The Tenth Man” by Paddy Chayefsky; and “A Shot in the Dark,” adapted from a French comic mystery that later became the source material for the Blake Edwards film of the same name starring Peter Sellers.


His best-known stage role was as a temperamental and phony children’s television star, Leo Herman, a.k.a. Chuckles the Chipmunk, in the 1962 Herb Gardner comedy “A Thousand Clowns.” He reprised the role in the 1965 film, but by then he was mostly a director.


He subsequently appeared in a small role in the film version of Mr. Simon’s “Prisoner of Second Avenue” (1975), and in the 1990s he revived his acting career somewhat, playing a handful of character roles in films including “Nobody’s Fool,” Robert Benton’s adaptation of the Richard Russo novel, starring Paul Newman, and Woody Allen’s dyspeptic comedy about a blocked writer, “Deconstructing Harry.”


Mr. Saks’s final Broadway show was “Barrymore” (1997), in which he directed Christopher Plummer’s Tony-winning tour-de-force performance as the legendary actor and tippler at the end of his career.


His first, offered to him by the producer Morton Gottlieb, whom he had met at the Actors Studio, was “Enter Laughing” (1963), a joke-laced play by Joseph Stein based on the memoirish novel by Carl Reiner.


“I didn’t think it was a great play, but I laughed,” Mr. Saks recalled. “And there were a couple of theater scenes, and I thought, ‘I can do that.’ It was a great lesson to me. When you read something, if you have the feeling you can contribute something, then it’s for you. If it doesn’t ring any bells, and you can’t do anything to make it better, then it’s not for you.”


Mr. Saks’s marriage to Ms. Arthur, whom he met at the New School, ended in divorce. He is survived by their two sons, Matthew and Daniel; his wife, the former Keren Ettlinger, whom he married in 1980; their daughter, Annabelle; and three grandchildren.


Mr. Saks met Mr. Simon in the early 1960s when he was asked by Mr. Simon’s agent to sit in on a tryout performance of “Barefoot in the Park,” directed by Mike Nichols, which was struggling on the road, and to offer his advice. But the night he saw the show the audience loved it, and Mr. Simon didn’t ask for any advice. The next time he heard from Mr. Simon was several years later, when he was asked to direct the film version of the play, which starred Robert Redford and Jane Fonda and appeared in 1967.


Mr. Saks’s relationship with Mr. Simon endured for more than quarter of a century, and though professionally rewarding, it was not necessarily close and not always smooth. They had an explosive falling out in 1993 when Mr. Simon and the producer, Mr. Azenberg, replaced Mr. Saks as the director of “The Goodbye Girl,” the musical based on the film of the same name written by Mr. Simon, during a pre-Broadway run in Chicago. After his dismissal, an angry Mr. Saks said it was only the latest of the slights he’d endured from Mr. Simon over the years.


“I have enjoyed conversations with him,” Mr. Saks said. “I have enjoyed moments of creativity. But I have not enjoyed his friendship because I didn’t have it.”


Directed by Michael Kidd, “The Goodbye Girl,” which starred Martin Short and Bernadette Peters, was a Broadway flop. The rift between Mr. Saks and Mr. Simon was eventually sewn; they resumed a social relationship. But they never worked together again.



Odd the the Times does not really mention his career as a film director. He directed Goldie Hawn to an Oscar with Cactus Flower.

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Realized the other night as I passed my subway size poster if I Love My Wife that I have memorabilia from 2 things he directed hanging on my walls. Gene won a                             Tiny                  for ILMW.

Awwww, too bad, wish they'd given him a regular size one.

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