Gene Saks dies at 93; Tony-winning director teamed with Neil Simon

Times staff and wire services
Gene Saks, Tony-winning director who collaborated with Neil Simon, dies at 93

Gene Saks, a director best known for bringing Neil Simon plays to life on Broadway and in their Hollywood film adaptations, has died. He was 93.

Saks, the recipient of three Tony Awards, died of pneumonia Saturday at his home in East Hampton, N.Y., his son Daniel told the Associated Press.

An actor for 15 years before venturing into directing, Saks is also remembered as Chuckles the Chipmunk, the neurotic, child-hating host of a children's TV show in Herb Gardner's "A Thousand Clowns." Saks played Chuckles on Broadway in 1962 and in the 1965 film with Jason Robards Jr.

In 1977, he directed three shows on Broadway simultaneously: "Same Time Next Year"; Simon's "California Suite"; and "I Love My Wife," a zany musical about sexual liberation for which he received his first Tony.

In 1985, Saks had another bumper crop of Broadway shows. He directed a new version of Simon's "The Odd Couple," with Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno playing Oscar and Felix — that is, Olive and Florence. At the same time, Saks was directing the Simon autobiographical comedies "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Biloxi Blues," for which he received his second and third Tonys.

Saks was at the helm of the hit musical "Mame" from 1966 to 1970. It starred Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur, who was married to Saks at the time and later played TV's "Maude." Saks and Arthur divorced in 1978 after a 28-year marriage.

The Simon-Saks collaboration had its beginnings in 1963 when Simon asked Saks to critique a tryout of "Barefoot in the Park" in New Hope, Pa.

Simon didn't need his suggestions, as it turned out. The crowd at the tryout loved it, and the play, directed by Mike Nichols, became one of the decade's biggest hits, running for more than 1,500 performances.

But three years later, when Simon was preparing the film version of "Barefoot in the Park," he persuaded producer Hal Wallis to hire Saks as its director. The 1967 film, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, was a huge success.

Their other films were "The Odd Couple" (1968), with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau; "Last of the Red Hot Lovers"(1972); "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" (1975); and "Brighton Beach Memoirs" (1986).

In interviews, they attributed the longevity of their working relationship to a shared comedic sensibility.

"We both come from middle-class, first-generation Jewish families, and our humor springs from the same roots," Saks told the New York Times in 1987.

Six years later, Simon fired Saks during a pre-Broadway production of "The Goodbye Girl." In turn, Saks angrily described working for Simon as "servitude."

The two eventually reconciled but did not collaborate again.

Born Nov. 8, 1921 in New York City, Saks grew up in Hackensack, N.J., where his father ran a women's wholesale shoe business.

Graduating from Cornell University in 1943, he joined the Navy and landed at Normandy during the D-Day invasion.

After three years of military service, he took acting classes in New York. He was an understudy in the musical "South Pacific" and appeared in plays including Paddy Chayefsky's "The Tenth Man."

Saks made his Broadway directing debut in 1963 with "Enter Laughing," a show-biz, coming-of-age comedy based on a novel by Carl Reiner.

He said he never thought much about whether a particular production would be a hit.

"That's what I really like about this business," he told the New York Times. "If you don't think, 'They'll hang me from the highest building for doing this,' there's great joy. As long as we're in that rehearsal hall down on Second Avenue over the Ukrainian restaurant and I'm making something out of nothing with some talented actors, and we're having the back-and-forth, and we get something that works, it's thrilling."

"We put on the best plays we can find," he said. "And if they're imperfect — well, what's perfect?"

Saks' survivors include his wife, Keren, whom he married in 1980; their daughter Annabelle; sons Matthew and Daniel, from his first marriage; and three grandchildren.

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