"What are you talking to me for?" asked Mel Brooks. "You need to talk to more Jews. Younger JEWS. Call Paul Mazursky."
Brooks was speaking to me for a Rolling Stone magazine piece about funny studio-executive notes. I'd heard of Mazursky's name, knew some of his movies, but had not connected that identity to the guy who had acted in recent episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the character "Larry David" would eventually kill via stress.
Mazursky had directed various important films about romantic relationships, had shared my New York background. I didn't know if the magazine would use his quotes, but I'd thought they'd appreciate me trying to get some good stories from someone who had been around some amazing sets.
I went to Mazurksy's Beverly Drive office, told him that Mel Brooks had sent me.
"What does he want?" Mazursky asked. "Oh, right. You're the kid."
"I'm the kid," I said. I was in my late twenties.
Next, Mazursky asked me about my background. He wanted to know everything. He'd said that he'd read something about me, something about cancer that his assistant had showed him. He told me very funny stories about the author Isaac Singer. Oh, and did I have cancer?
I said that it was hard to answer that question: Does anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer ever stop having it?
"My daughter," he said. "My daughter--"
Silence. Then tears.
Mazursky broke down in front of me. He bawled. His daughter also had a tumor, he'd said. She'd just been flown to a top hospital near us. He didn't know what to do. He was looking into "the guy who worked on Ted Kennedy at Duke."
Did I have suggestions, connections? What could they do?
The phone rang. Mazursky answered, gestured at me to stay.
"Yes, OK, that's the guy," he said on the phone. Then to me: It's Jeff Berg, you know him?"
Mazursky was speaking with one of Hollywood's most powerful talent agents who had been helping him make contact with a specific surgeon. He kept me in the office while he spoke with him. Then we talked some more.
I gave him the best contacts that I had, including one top neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai who had graced the cover of Time magazine.
He asked me to stay. "Let's talk," he said. "I'm sorry--"
"Don't worry," I said.
Then I sat in Paul Mazursky's office for an hour while he asked me more about my various medical problems related to surviving multiple cancers, the people I knew, the doctors, the therapies. He was suffering.
Eventually, he got a call from the hospital doctor that the agent had recommended. He answered the phone but asked the guy to hold before thanking me, saying that I should come see him again.
"I have so much to tell you about my career," he said.
I have this entire experience taped on one of my many old Olympus voice recorders that doesn't work with my Mac.
I shook Paul's hand, thanked him, reassured him that his daughter would be OK (as if I could know).
Then I went home and watched three Mazursky movies in the next couple of days.
I would not write about this experience until now, the day that I learned of Mazursky's death. His daughter had, in fact, died sometime after our meeting. But I am thankful that I got a chance to spend time with Paul, perhaps lend a hand in the moment, an ear, whatever.
I should have called him back to check on him and his family, but I kept putting it off. He had help, I told myself.
I don't put things like that off now.