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celluloid heroes never really die

Remembering Filmmaker Paul Mazursky, King of Breakfast

Paul Mazursky accepts the 2014 Screen Laurel Award onstage during the 2014 Writers Guild Awards L.A. Ceremony at J.W. Marriott at L.A. Live on February 1, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Paul Mazursky accepts the 2014 Screen Laurel Award onstage during the 2014 Writers Guild Awards L.A. Ceremony at J.W. Marriott at L.A. Live on February 1, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.

Paul Mazursky passed away yesterday. If that name means nothing to you, then you're in the same position I was in as of May 2012, when I was ordered to fly to Los Angeles and film him eating breakfast.

At the time, I was a freelance videojournalist. I'd received an email from an editor at a fledgling iPad-only magazine called Punch, offering me some quick cash for a gig. One of the magazine's writers — a talented journalist named George Gurley — was doing a long profile about the so-called Mazursky Table, and I'd been tasked with shooting some original video to accompany the finished piece. I had no idea what the Mazursky Table was. The editor briefly described it as a table in a Los Angeles market where a bunch of aging showbiz types hung out, one of them being director Paul Mazursky. He'd directed iconic films about bourgeois ennui, like 1969's Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, 1978's An Unmarried Woman, and 1986's Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Of course, I knew none of this when I got the assignment. 

On the appointed day, I arrived at Farmers Market, located next to the massive Grove shopping mall and midway between Central L.A. and Beverly Hills. After some confused wandering, I found the fabled table and its denizens: about a dozen men sitting around and bullshitting over coffee and pastries in the harsh Southern California sun. The median age seemed to be 70 or so, with a few middle-aged gents and one very incongruous 30-something in a black beret. Mazursky hadn't arrived yet that morning, and the men were making jokes about him finally going senile and forgetting where Farmers Market was.

And then he arrived. He slowly ambled through a gateway and toward the table, clad in a baggy coat, a purple ascot, and a Curb Your Enthusiasm porkpie hat. Accompanying him was none other than the hulking veteran character actor Richard Kind. They sat down at the table, and the morning truly began. I was a fly on the wall, trying to do as little as possible to get in the way of their routine, but most of these guys were more than happy to have the camera pointed at them. (Well, except Richard Kind, who repeatedly got mad at me for being there and "ruining" their nice time. Whatever, Richard.) They were mostly actors, directors, screenwriters, and various other kinds of show-business vets.

None of them had ever become household names (although one of them, Allan Havey, recently got a nice jumpstart by appearing as Don Draper replacement Lou Avery on Mad Men), though some had come close to glory in their better years. For decades, Mazursky had convened this informal group, and they met up there most mornings for eating, drinking, and kvetching. While I watched and taped, they mocked each other, did impressions, swapped sex stories, argued about Obamacare, told dick jokes (lots and lots of dick jokes), and just generally had a good time on a gorgeous May morning.

Here's one of the videos I made, in which we get an introduction to the table. The first speaker is actor/comedian Fred Stoller, the second is Mazursky, the third is screenwriter Greg Pritikin (the aforementioned beret-wearing youngster), and the final one is artist Charles Bragg.

And here's my personal favorite moment, when it appeared that Mazursky was losing his patience with actor Ronnie Schell.

After an hour or so, I could sense that I was becoming a bother, and I was pretty sure I had what I needed. So I bounced off and flew home the next day. George Gurley's article, unfortunately, is lost to time due to Punch going out of business soon after it ran the piece, but you can see some excerpts in this Huffington Post article.

If you look through today's obituaries for Mazursky, you'll see lots of references to his pioneering films of the late '60s and early '70s, many tales of his upbringing, and, if you read through to the end, you'll often see a reference to his Farmers Market hangout. I'll let Paul himself have the last word on the gatherings he convened, in this tweet from two months before his death:

We gather at the Farmer's Market, that's it. We can't do without it. It just has to be. Everyone should have a place like that.

— paul_mazursky (@paul_mazursky) May 2, 2014
Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images