UPDATED, Sunday noon with more information throughout.
Gene Saks, an actor-turned-director whose long kinship with Neil Simon led to the film versions of two of the most successful comedies of their time, Barefoot In The Park (1967) and The Odd Couple, and whose screen performances include playing Chuckles The Chipmunk host Leo in the Jason Robards film of Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns, died Saturday of pneumonia at his home in East Hampton, Long Island. He’s survived by his wife, Keren Saks, whom he married in 1980.
Saks, who was formerly married to the late Broadway and Maude star Bea Arthur, staged Simon’s autobiographical “double-B” trilogy (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound), plays that went far in redefining the country’s most successful gag-smith as a playwright whose humor could have a serious bent. He also staged Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1991. Along with Mike Nichols, who had staged the Broadway debuts of The Odd Couple and Barefoot, Saks was Simon’s favored choice for staging his shows, which for more than two decades generally were turned out at a reliable once-a-season.
“Gene was serious about funny,” Emanuel Azenberg, the Broadway producer of Simon’s plays beginning in 1974 with The Sunshine Boys, told Deadline this morning. “He actually knew what would be funny. Physical humor he understood — the look, here, a pause there.” Saks, who won three Tony awards for his directing (I Love My Wife, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues), also had a no-nonsense way with writers, even ones as famous as Simon. When something wasn’t working, the director wasn’t one for wasting time with niceties, especially with a Broadway opening on the near horizon.
”You use your diplomacy, your charm, your brains, if you have any, and of course trust,” he told me in a 1986 New York Times interview before the opening of Broadway Bound. ”Playwrights are naturally wary and protective — God, who’s more protective than a playwright? You read a play, the playwright wants to hear from you immediately. Neil wants to hear sooner. I’m generally diplomatic. But I’m not that diplomatic, I think, that I don’t hurt feelings. I’m pretty honest with people; it’s the only way I know how to be. Now, convincing them that they are wrong and you are right is another matter.”
One of the most famous stories about Saks’ collaboration with Simon concerned Broadway Bound, the closing play in the trilogy, in which Simon’s autobiographical stand-in, Eugene Jerome, and his older brother strike out as a sketch-comedy team for radio. The play’s most intimate scene takes place in the Jerome dining room, between Eugene, played by Jonathan Silverman, and his mother, played by Linda Lavin. Eugene urges her to finally reveal the details of a treasured memory, the night she danced with George Raft at the Primrose Ballroom. The scene was missing from the early drafts of the play; in its stead was a comic scene between Eugene and his girlfriend. It wasn’t working.
“Gene just said, ‘Get rid of it,’” the playwright recalled at the time. Azenberg was unhappy as well. But Simon knew instinctively both what was wrong and what he needed to do. He passed Azenberg a note scrawled on yellow legal paper that said, “Don’t worry. I know how to fix it.” “
“Forty-eight hours later, he came up with the George Raft monologue,” Azenberg recalled Sunday morning. As she tells her story, Eugene takes her in his arm and begins dancing with her. “It’s the kind of scene,” Saks told me at the time, “that you wouldn’t have known was missing until you saw it, and yet it captured the essence of the entire work.” Lavin won the Tony Award for her performance.
Saks never gave up his acting career, notably playing a one-legged lawyer in Nobody’s Fool, Robert Benton’s under-appreciated 1994 film adaptation of the Richard Russo novel, which starred Paul Newman, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith and Jessica Tandy (and an unknown Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Saks made his Broadway directing debut in 1963 with Enter Laughing, Joseph Stein’s punch-line driven adaptation of Carl Reiner’s memoir. His professional relationship with Simon crashed during the troubled tryout of The Goodbye Girl, a musical adaptation of the film. Saks was fired from the show, which later flopped on Broadway. Years later, the fracture healed somewhat, though they never again worked together. Saks’ most recent directing assignment on Broadway was William Luce’s 1997 Barrymore, Christopher Plummer’s bravura show about the last days of John Barrymore.