The Gene Saks Centennial

Do you get your three Genes mixed up — Gene Frankel, Gene Saks, and Gene Reynolds? Well, I always have. All three were both actors and directors. Frankel, whom we’ll be writing about next month, was associated with Broadway and Off-Off Broadway, and also a teacher. Reynolds, whom we wrote about here, became a giant in television. Which leaves us with Gene Saks, born 100 years ago today.

Just as Gene Reynolds was associated with one Sid Caesar Your Show of Shows writing staff alum (Larry Gelbart), so was Gene Saks (Neil Simon). Saks directed the films of Barefoot in the Park (1967), The Odd Couple (1968), The Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), the Broadway premiere of California Suite (1976), both the Broadway and Hollywood versions of Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983, 1986), the Broadway premieres of Biloxi Blues (1985), Broadway Bound (1986), Rumors (1988), Lost in Yonkers (1990), and Jake’s Women (1992), as well as the all-female version of The Odd Couple (1985) with Rita Moreno and Sally Strothers. Saks also gave a memorable performance as Jack Lemmon’s older brother in movie of The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975). (Was Mike Nichols peeved? He had directed the Broadway premieres of Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, yet wouldn’t get a chance to direct a Neil Simon film until Biloxi Blues in 1988 — in which case was Gene Saks, in his turn, peeved? Meanwhile his old partner Elaine May was entrusted with The Heartbreak Kid in 1972).

Simon wasn’t the first Caesar alum whose work Gene Saks got to direct. His first Broadway production as director had been Carl Reiner’s Enter Laughing (1963); he later appeared as an actor in Reiner’s 1978 film The One and Only. He also appeared in Deconstructing Harry (1997) by Woody Allen, another Caesar alum! He also directed the 1969 film of Cactus Flower by Abe Burrows, Woody’s cousin, and acted in the 1983 film Lovesick, written and directed by frequent Woody Allen collaborator Marshall Brickman. In 1975 he directed the Broadway version of Bernard Slade’s Same Time, Next Year starring frequent Simon actor Charles Grodin (replaced in the later film version by Alan Alda).

Why the association with TV comedy writers, I dunno! That wasn’t Saks’ background. The son of a ladies shoe manufacturer, he’d attended Cornell, landed with the US army at Normandy, studied at the New School with Erwin Piscator, and also the Actors Studio. It was at the latter that he met that great force of nature Bea Arthur, to whom he was married from 1950 through 1978. Saks directed Arthur in both versions of Mame, the 1966 Broadway version, and the 1974 film, playing Vera Charles, best friend of the title character in both versions. For the first dozen-plus years of his career, Saks was primarily an actor, on countless live television dramas, and on Broadway, where he had supporting roles in the original productions of South Pacific (1949), Paddy Chayefsky’s The Tenth Man (1959), the future Pink Panther comedy A Shot in the Dark (1961, with fellow Piscator alum and Neil Simon cohort Walter Matthau), and Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns (1963, playing the same role in the 1965 movie). He would later act in the film version of Gardner’s The Goodbye People (1984). In his early years Saks did work at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and was in Broadway productions of Brecht’s The Good Woman on Setzuan (1956) and Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine (1958).

Saks last screen directing credit was the 1995 TV movie version of Bye Bye Birdie with Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams. His last Broadway job as director was Barrymore (1997) starring Christopher Plummer as the Great Profile in his last days. A part as a judge on a 1998 episode of Law and Order was his last professional credit. He died in 2015 at the age of 93.