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 nomination. 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.