Gene Saks

Director, Performer
Gene Saks

Also known as: Jean Michael Saks

Male

Born: November 8, 1921
New York, New York

Died: March 28, 2015
East Hampton, New York

Obituary:Gene Saks, who directed numerous works by Neil Simon, both on stage and on screen, winning Tony Awards for three of his efforts, died March 28 of pneumonia in East Hampton, NY. He was 93.

Mr. Saks was doing all right for the first decade and a half of his theatre career, playing parts in the Broadway hits South Pacific, The Tenth Man, A Shot in the Dark and A Thousand Clowns. But he had far greater success as a director. His first Broadway assignment was Joseph Stein’s Enter Laughing, based on the book by Carl Reiner, in 1963. It ran for a year and made a star of Alan Arkin.

He followed that hit with the comedy Nobody Loves an Albatross, which ran half a year. Half a Sixpence, a musical starring English star Tommy Steele, did better. It played for more than a year and won Saks his first of many Tony nominations. George Jenkins’ Generation, starring Henry Fonda, was another hit. With Mame, Jerry Herman’s 1966 musical, however, he tapped into a goldmine. The smash show became one of the most successful musicals up till that time, playing more than 1,500 performances, and netting Mr. Saks another Tony nomination. (It won one for his then wife, Bea Arthur, who played Vera Charles.)

Following that triumph, Hollywood came calling. His first two film credits were the cinematic adaptations of Neil Simon’s "Barefoot in the Park," starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and "The Odd Couple," starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. It was the beginning of an artistic partnership that would last thirty years. Next, in 1969, came another adaptation on a hit stage comedy, "Cactus Flower," starring Matthau, Ingrid Bergman and Goldie Hawn. The film won Hawn an Oscar, turning the “Laugh-In” actor into a bankable film star.

Mr. Saks’ next two films, an adaptation of Simon’s "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" (1972) and the film version of "Mame" (1974), bombed, and his film career never recovered thereafter. He would later say that he had not found his film jobs artistically satisfying.

However, in the theatre, he was about to begin his most fruitful period. Bernard Slade’s romantic comedy Same Time, Next Year, which he directed on Broadway in 1975, proved a massive hit, running three years. The next year, he staged California Suite, his first Simon play. It was a success. Over the next 16 years, he became Simon’s go-to director, filling the role occupied by Mike Nichols in the 1960s and the early ‘70s. He directed nine more Simon works on Broadway, including what many consider the playwright’s crowning achievement: the autobiographical “Brighton Beach Trilogy” of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound.

Speaking of his affinity for Simon's work, he said, "he writes about things I know about and care about. We both come from middle-class, first-generation Jewish families, and our humor springs from the same roots."

His other Simon credits included the comedies Rumors, Lost in Yonkers, Jake’s Women and a 1985 revival of The Odd Couple cast with women in the leads. He won Tony Awards for I Love My Wife, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues and was nominated for Lost in Yonkers. He had little success outside of the Simon canon, missing with A Month of Sundays, The Supporting Cast, Special Occasions and the musical Rags. But his final Broadway credit, Barrymore, starring Christopher Plummer, was a hit.

On screen, his directing career having dried up, he returned to his first love, acting, taking supporting parts in “Deconstructing Harry,” “I.Q.,” and “Nobody’s Fool” in the 1990s.

Jean Michael Saks was born Nov. 8, 1921, in New York City. He was trained at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research and Cornell University. He got his start in the late ‘40s in the then nascent Off-Broadway movement as a member of a Greenwich Village group called the Interplayers. The company included future stars Kim Stanley and Harry Guardino, Michael V. Gazzo, who would go on to write A Hatful of Rain, and Merle Debuskey, who later became one of Broadway’s most successful press agents.

“Off-Broadway started because we wanted to act,” Mr. Saks recalled of those days. “There wasn’t much chance to act on Broadway. There was a chance, but it was a long shot. So we gathered together in little bands and began the Off-Broadway movement. It was the only way to go.”

By 1949, the troupe had been winnowed down to its core players and renamed Off-Broadway Inc. A newcomer, Bea Arthur, was added to their ranks. They married in 1950 and had two children. The company secured the rights to Gertrude Stein’s Yes Is For a Very Young Man and found itself with a hit on its hands. It was followed by two failures, however, and the group dissolved.

Mr. Saks is survived by his two sons with Arthur, Matthew and Daniel; his wife, the former Keren Ettlinger, whom he married in 1980; and their daughter, Annabelle.

 

Roles

Playbill Cover - Barrymore Barrymore
Mar. 25, 1997 - Nov. 2, 1997
Director
(Original)
Who's Who
Playbill Cover - Jake's Women Jake's Women
Mar. 24, 1992 - Oct. 25, 1992
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Lost in Yonkers Lost in Yonkers
Feb. 21, 1991 - Jan. 3, 1993
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Rumors Rumors
Nov. 17, 1988 - Feb. 24, 1990
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - A Month of Sundays A Month of Sundays
Apr. 16, 1987 - Apr. 18, 1987
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Broadway Bound Broadway Bound
Dec. 4, 1986 - Sep. 25, 1988
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Rags Rags
Aug. 21, 1986 - Aug. 23, 1986
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - The Odd Couple The Odd Couple
Jun. 11, 1985 - Feb. 23, 1986
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Biloxi Blues Biloxi Blues
Mar. 28, 1985 - Jun. 28, 1986
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Brighton Beach Memoirs Brighton Beach Memoirs
Mar. 27, 1983 - May 11, 1986
Director
(Original)
Who's Who
Playbill Cover - Special Occasions Special Occasions
Feb. 7, 1982 - Feb. 7, 1982
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - The Supporting Cast The Supporting Cast
Aug. 6, 1981 - Sep. 5, 1981
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - I Love My Wife I Love My Wife
Apr. 17, 1977 - May 20, 1979
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - California Suite California Suite
Jun. 10, 1976 - Jul. 2, 1977
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Same Time, Next Year Same Time, Next Year
Mar. 14, 1975 - Sep. 3, 1978
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - How the Other Half Loves How the Other Half Loves
Mar. 29, 1971 - Jun. 26, 1971
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Mame Mame
May 24, 1966 - Jan. 3, 1970
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Generation Generation
Oct. 6, 1965 - Jun. 25, 1966
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Half a Sixpence Half a Sixpence
Apr. 25, 1965 - Jul. 16, 1966
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Nobody Loves an Albatross Nobody Loves an Albatross
Dec. 19, 1963 - Jun. 20, 1964
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Enter Laughing Enter Laughing
Mar. 13, 1963 - Mar. 14, 1964
Director
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - A Thousand Clowns A Thousand Clowns
Apr. 5, 1962 - Apr. 13, 1963
Leo Herman Performer
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - A Shot in the Dark A Shot in the Dark
Oct. 18, 1961 - Sep. 22, 1962
Morestan Performer
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Love and Libel Love and Libel
Dec. 7, 1960 - Dec. 10, 1960
Norman Yarrow Performer
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - The Tenth Man The Tenth Man
Nov. 5, 1959 - May 13, 1961
Rabbi Performer
(Original)
 
Howie
Sep. 17, 1958 - Sep. 20, 1958
Professor Performer
(Original)
 
The Infernal Machine
Feb. 3, 1958 - Mar. 9, 1958
The Captain of the Patrol Performer
(Original)
 
The Good Woman of Setzuan
Dec. 18, 1956 - Jan. 6, 1957
First God Performer
(Original)
 
South Pacific
May 4, 1955 - May 15, 1955
Professor Performer
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - All You Need Is One Good Break All You Need Is One Good Break
Feb. 9, 1950 - Feb. 11, 1950
Marty's Double Performer
(Original)
 
    Second Discusser Performer
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - South Pacific South Pacific
Apr. 7, 1949 - Jan. 16, 1954
Professor Performer
(Replacement)
 
 

Awards


Drama Desk Award

Year Category Production Winner/Nominee
1987 Outstanding Director of a Play Broadway Bound Nominee
1985 Outstanding Director of a Play Biloxi Blues Nominee
1977 Outstanding Director of a Musical I Love My Wife Nominee
1975 Outstanding Director of a Play Same Time, Next Year Nominee

Outer Critics Circle

Year Category Production Winner/Nominee
1991 Outstanding Director Lost in Yonkers Winner

Tony Award

Year Category Production Winner/Nominee
1991 Direction of a Play Lost in Yonkers Nominee
1985 Direction of a Play Biloxi Blues Winner
1983 Direction of a Play Brighton Beach Memoirs Winner
1977 Direction of a Musical I Love My Wife Winner
1975 Direction of a Play Same Time, Next Year Nominee
1966 Direction of a Musical Mame Nominee
1965 Direction of a Musical Half a Sixpence Nominee
 
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