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Gene Saks, Director of Neil Simon on Stage and Screen, Dies at 93

Gene Saks, who helmed many Neil Simon plays on Broadway and won three Tonys — for the Cy Coleman-Michael Stewart musical “I Love My Wife” plus Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Biloxi Blues” — died Saturday. He was 93.

His wife, Keren, told the New York Times that he died from pneumonia in his East Hampton, N.Y. home.

Saks directed only seven feature films, all of them based on legit works. They included Simon adaptations “The Odd Couple,” “Barefoot in the Park,” “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” He also directed the 1969 “Cactus Flower,” which earned Goldie Hawn an Oscar for supporting actress.

After helming the hit Broadway musical “Mame,” Saks did the big screen version in 1974. For the film, Lucille Ball played the title character, with many critics complaining that Angela Lansbury could repeat her Broadway triumph. Both the stage and screen versions of “Mame” co-starred Saks’ then-wife Bea Arthur.

Saks started as a stage and television actor and later did occasional roles in films and on TV, most memorable in his film bow with the 1965 film “A Thousand Clowns.” Later screen credits include the 1994 Paul Newman vehicle “Nobody’s Fool.”

He will always be associated with the works of Simon. Saks also directed his plays “Jake’s Women,” “Rumors,” “Lost in Yonkers” (Saks picked up a Tony nom), “Broadway Bound” (the last of Simon’s autobiographical trilogy), “The Odd Couple” (in a 1986 revival) and “California Suite.”

Talking to the New York Times in 1987, Saks said, “Aside from Neil’s wit, his brightness and his ability to characterize, 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.’’

“Gene’s direction of comedy is grounded in human behavior rather than jokes,’’ Philip Sterling, who played the father in ‘’Broadway Bound,’’ told the Times. “Neil wants the more serious aspects of his work to emerge now, and Gene’s work and style is in tune with that because he has an organic sense of character and works with the development of the entire play. He doesn’t work just for the laughs.’’

Other plays Saks helmed on Broadway include “Enter Laughing” (Carl Reiner directed the bigscreen adaptation of his autobiographical novel and play), the Tommy Steele musical “Half a Sixpence” (Saks drew a Tony nom; George Sidney helmed the Brit film), “Same Time, Next Year” (another Tony nom for Saks; Robert Mulligan directed the film) and “Rags.”

Saks was born in New York City, attended Cornell U. and trained at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research.

He made his debut as an actor on Broadway in “South Pacific” in 1949. He also appeared in “A Shot in the Dark,” Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Tenth Man” and Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns.”

Saks had made his TV acting debut in 1951 on an episode of “Out There” and subsequently appeared on the likes of “Omnibus,” “Producer’s Showcase,” “Kraft Theatre” and “The United States Steel Hour.”

Later thesping credits include the bigscreen adaptation of Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” Reiner’s “The One and Only,” Marshall Brickman’s “Lovesick,” Gardner’s adaptation of his play “The Goodbye People,” and Woody Allen’s “Deconstructing Harry” in 1997.

He made his final screen appearance as a judge on a 1998 episode of “Law and Order.”

His last bigscreen directing work was the 1992 “A Fine Romance,” starring Julie Andrews and Marcello Mastroianni. Three years later, he directed ABC’s adaptation of “Bye Bye Birdie” that starred Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams.

Saks and Arthur divorced in 1978, and she died in 2009. He married Keren Saks in 1980. He is survived by her; two sons,  TV set designer Daniel Saks and actor Matthew Saks; and daughter Annabelle.

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