I want confess something right up front: I love this woman. It started back in 1970, when I went to a near-deserted Royal moviehouse in Waikiki to see “Made for Each Other” (1971), one of the greatest romantic misfit comedies ever made written by and starring the unknown-to-me husband and wife team of Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna. Walking in from the usual Hawaiian sun-and-surf dazzled day, I suddenly became immersed in a strange new world, darker and chillier, but hilariously funny and real, called Manhattan, populated by all these Jews and Italian Catholics who were very neurotic and very, very loud. Ironically, all this was as exotic to me as palm trees and pineapples might have been to mainlanders, and I determined to become a part of it some day, no matter what.
Bologna unfortunately died last year, but his spouse of 53 years, Tayolor, is very much alive and making her much-anticipated New York comeback in her one-woman show, “My Life on a Diet,” at Theater at St. Clement’s through August 19. An interview with her can now be crossed off my bucket list, after she met me — during her rehearsals — one recent sweltering afternoon.
You know when you realize, almost immediately, that you’re in the presence of true greatness? This made itself felt through her very low-key, deeply and delicately observant, and sharply intelligent presence, with the added bonuses of her being ultra-warm, asking almost as many questions about me as I did of her, as well as the visual, for she was quite a sumptuous sight, clad in a muted gold lame Harlow-ish cocktail dress with decolletage for days, her hands covered with the most intriguing rings I’ve ever seen. To the end of my days, the sound of her emblematic “Oh my God!” and “Oh, yeah?” will echo in my ears and bing a smile to my face.
“Yes,” she began, “this is a memoir of my life. Remember when Nora Ephron remembered her life through what she wore? Well, I remember mine through what I ate. Literally, something would happen and I’d remember it as when I was on the grapefruit diet. I’ve been on countless diets. I always wanted to be skinny, and was always a little zaftig. After this show, I’m doing one about Mae West and when Hollywood told her she was too heavy, she said, ‘Well, the men like me this way and that’s what I’m gonna do.’”
Born in the Bronx, Taylor moved with her family to FloÉrida at a very young age.
“It was my mother who wanted to be a movie star — Renée Adorée was her favorite. You’re too young, oh, you know ‘The Big Parade?’ She was beautiful, and my Pisces horoscope said I would be a movie star, so she encouraged me. But it’s all in the show! Nothing will be a surprise when you see it. When are you coming anyay?’”
After assuring her I would be at the opening, I pumped her about “Made for Each Other.”
“It was about Joe and me first getting together, with exaggerations. We thought it would be more fun if my character, Panda, wasn’t talented and the guy was more of a roue. Wasn’t Olympia Dukakis great as his mother [dressed a la 1940 in 1970 and anti-Semitic]? And her husband, Louis Zorich, also young then, played my father. They just came in and read for those parts.”
Although its modest budget and intimate scale made it like an early indie film, it was actually produced by Twentieth Century Fox.
“They tried to talk us out of playing our roles, saying Streisand and maybe Midler had expressed interest, but I said, ‘I wanna play it.’ They let us do it because we’d just been Oscar-nominated for our script for ‘Lovers and Other Strangers,’ and this one was a wonderful script.
“We didn’t have much money, so the shoot was very fast. Luckily, we had written it, so we were very familiar with the material. We rehearsed it while we were writing it and also wrote during the filming. We were very lucky — like my whole career. It was my husband’s very first movie but I had said, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to get Marlon Brando?’ [Laughs.] But he said, ‘No. I wanna be the one who says, “I love you.”’
“I had no idea he wanted to be an actor. He was first a director, then he was a writer, then he was an actor. He was gorgeous — here’s his picture [on the desk of the set where she’s performing].
“A Jew like me marrying an Italian like him was a big deal back then, now it’s nothing with so many biracial, bi-religious marriages. But back then, people said, ‘I’m not coming to the wedding if you marry an Italian.’”
They got married on “The Merv Griffin Show.”
“I was a young actress who didn’t have any money but he liked me and I was on his show weekly. He said, ‘Let me give you away,’ and then everybody came only because they all wanted to be on TV.”
“Made for Each Other” was an artistic but not a commercial success. “It had no distribution because Fox was taken over by someone who was not behind the movie. After that we wrote for TV a lot, winning an Emmy, doing shows, specials, 22 Broadway plays. We had a good time, 53 years together, a wonderful working partnership.”
When Bologna passed away, “It was like a dream. I woke up this morning and thought, ‘This is like a dream because he was so alive.’ I still hear him, though. I speak to him and he speaks to me. And I don’t have to go to the cemetery like you tell me Mitzi Gaynor does for her husband. He just comes and talks to me. He’s still so present, even in this play we wrote together. In the near future, I will be doing another show, all about him, ‘The Book of Joe.’ Sometimes I am overcome with grief but sometimes overcome with joy about what we had together.
“Sure, we fought a lot, but I really don’t understand when people say how tough marriage is. It was very easy for me to be happily married for 53 years. Joe was gorgeous and women threw themselves at him all the time. I’d say, ‘What did you think of that girl that was winking at you?’
“He’d say, ‘What girl?’ He only had eyes for me. I was once in this play with Bea Arthur and I overheard her telling someone on the telephone, ‘You should see the way he looks at her! And when she talks he listens!’
“All of a sudden, I thought, ‘I have to start looking at him when he looks at me, because I really hadn’t noticed it.’ So I would say something, and then look to see if he was looking and listening . And he was!”
Of all her work, Taylor’s personal favorite is the play “It Had to Be You.”
“It was just great to to be in that with my husband on Broadway. It took years to write because two-character plays are hard — the butler can’t just walk in — it’s just me and him.”
They lived for years in a fabulous 1926 Tudor Revival mansion in Beverly Hills. When she showed it off for the first time to her family, all her aunt said was, “It’s a lot to clean.” They hung with the stars like Streisand, going to a birthday party at which Barbra’s then-lover Jon Peters gave her a diamond ring. Taylor heard Streisand’s formidable mother asking, “Is that real?”
Streisand answered, “Is that real? You think someone would give me a diamond that wasn’t real?!”
“Beverly Hills was a sleepy town then. I went to the butcher shop and there was Lucille Bll,, fighting with the butcher, “Whaddya mean, lamb chops $1.49 a pound? Are you crazy?!’ I said to my mother, ‘I think she’s the richest woman in the world and she’s fighting like it’s life and death!”
At a dinner party chez Ball, Taylor watched in astonishment as Lucy brought a tub of Kentucky Fried Chicken to the table and threw pieces of it onto her guests’ gold plates.
“I couldn’t believe it, thought it was a joke, but Lucy said, ‘What are you talking about?’ Partially, she was cheap, always thought she’d be back in poverty at any time, and, partially, she loved KFC.”
Taylor really knows the 411 about all the Hollywood icons and serves up the deepest dish but I have to honor her request for discretion, ‘Oh my God! You can’t print all of this — I’ll never be able to work or have lunch anywhere again!”
It’s going to be nice to have her back here, as she’s put the Beverly Hills house on the market for $8.5 million — who says writers don’t make money? —and just signed a one-year lease on a Manhattan apartment. I told her the ladies who lunch at the Zabar’s counter — one of my favorite city spots — would be thrilled to see her. She said, “I think I have to go.” Twice.
Taylor is often recognized when out in public, particularly for her appearances as Fran Drescher’s mother on “The Nanny.”
“I just had dinner with Fran last night,” she said. “She’s doing great, into a million different things. I loved being on her show, so much fun!”
Taylor studied acting with Lee Strasberg and my old teacher, Stella Adler.
“Marilyn Monroe was in my class, and she was really gorgeous, her skin was translucent — you could see through it. When she got up to act she was so frightened and nervous, she actually shook. She’s now got this reputation as being difficult and blah blah blah, but I thought she was great, everything she did, ‘Bus Stop,’ ‘The Misfits!’”
When Taylor said, “You know, I do an impersonation of Stella,” I had to make her do it. She took my arm and gently stroked it, looking deep into my eyes and crooning, “You want so much to be an actor. That’s wonderful, wonderful! You have wonderful instincts.”
“She was always touching people, feeling people. She would touch all the boys in class. From Strasberg, I got inspiration, passion for the theater seeing it through his eyes, passion for actors and acting. Relaxation and being in the moment, Stanislavski, Boleslawski. I still hear his voice before I go onstage: ‘Relax the shoulders, relax everything. Just let it come out. You can’t write on a blackboard that’s been written on. You have to erase everything.’”
As for the Method and the dredging up of one’s emotional past for a performance, Taylor said, “That’s great! I love that, and I love actors [especially two she saw on the stage — Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and James Dean as an Arab boy in Gide’s “The Immoralist,” in which he had no lines but just stared at Louis Jourdan and stole the show]. I was in therapy for 22 years and I love dredging things up. But by now everything has been dredged, I think, but I love taking it out and looking at it.
“I cried and carried on, and was in group therapy, did it all. I remember a few years ago, someone said to me, ‘You are the saddest person I’ve ever met.’ And I thought it was a compliment, only years later did I realize that it wasn’t. You said I was kind of Chekhov. I love him and identify with his people — ‘I am in mourning for my life’ — all that. It’s weltschmerz, the joy of suffering.”
Taylor has a son, Gabriel Bologna.
“He’s a writer and director, doing a couple of movies now, one of which, ‘Tango Shalom,’ I’m in. Here’s the thing: he writes sad things, historical thrillers, never comedy, and I don’t know why. He did a horror film that I had to walk out of, it was so gruesome. ‘How can you make a horror film?,’ I asked him. He said, ‘They looked at my scripts and said, “Come back when you have a horror movie.”’”
When I remarked that that’s all movies are about today, Tayor said,
“It’s all gonna change after Trump goes. People will be going the other way. He’s an implement of change. Look a him! And I I think you should try acting again. The thing you fear most you should always do! I wish I was drinking. We’d go have a drink now but I can’t because we’re taking pictures tomorrow, but we will do it!”
RENÉE TAYLOR | “My Life on a Diet” | Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th St. | Through Aug. 19: Thu.-Sat. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $65 at mylifeonadietplay.com or 212-239-6200 | Ninety-five mins, no intermission