By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
When 86-year-old Renee Taylor takes the stage for her “My Life on a Diet” at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts beginning July 16, she won’t spiritually be helming a one-woman show.
A comic actress who also handled dribs and drabs of drama in a career dating back to childhood, Taylor will again have her life partner, Joe Bologna, with her through all her ethos. The audience will have to accept Bologna in absentia. He won’t be in Skokie in corporeal form. After a 52-year marriage, he died at 82 on August 13, 2017.
No matter. Taylor will channel Bologna throughout the performance. That will be easy.
“It’s very healing talking about him,” she said of “My Life on a Diet,” which made its debut to raves last summer off-Broadway in New York.
The couple were collaborators in real life, in front of the cameras and on stage. Joe had his hand in inspiring “My Life on a Diet” and doing the initial prep work before he passed away. The production is one of 22 plays, four films, and nine TV movies and series that Taylor and Bologna created together.
Taylor and Bologna were soulmates. “We were madly in love,” she said. “We had a lot of fun. We’d have a fight, we’d say, ‘Hold that thought.’”
As with any entertainer out promoting a show, free samples are eagerly dispensed. “His family said wait til you meet her, she doesn’t cook and she doesn’t clean.”
Traditional Ashkenazic cooking was not a strong suit in the Charles and Frieda Wexler household. Adopting the stage name of Taylor, the Bronx-born Renee did not master the culinary arts going forward.
“My mother would put a piece of flanken in the pot and we’d eat when (the water) boiled off.”
Bologna’s presence in her current show won’t be the last time his all-encompassing union with Taylor will be available for public consumption. They appeared together in a movie, “Tango Shalom,” filmed before Bologna’s death. The film, now being edited, is projected for a 2020 release.
Taylor plays Deborah Yehuda, a senior Orthodox Jew who speaks with a thick Yiddish accent. The plot revolves around a rabbi whom G-d chose to dance the tango. The rabbi consults with a slew of holy men of all faiths, asking how he can dance without touching his female partner. One of the consultees is Bologna, playing a priest.
All the triumphs and few tragedies of their lives will entertain the North Shore Center audience. But a social message will underlie Taylor’s title theme about diets. Never blessed with a rail-thin figure in a medium that demands a prime, often sexy appearance for female stars, she nevertheless has carved out a satisfying career while battling weight issues. At one time, though, self-confessed “diet junkie” Taylor believed if she ate like a star, she’d look and live like one.
Many Jews shared her challenges. The old saying was the difference between a Jewish country club and a non-Jewish club was the former had a bigger food bill than liquor bill.
“It’s repressed emotions,” Taylor said. “People eat their feelings away. I’ve been on 100 diets. Some were pretty dangerous diets. On the Vogue Champagne diet, I had two glasses of champagne before a meal. But cheap champagne had more calories. I lost eight pounds, but became a drunk.”
In “My Life on a Diet,” Taylor shares culinary tips she gleaned from Hollywood’s biggest names with whom she has crossed paths. Of course, she cannot reveal all; otherwise, why come to the show?
“I was in an acting class with Marilyn Monroe, and I asked what she ate. Grapes, she said. I got to know Grace Kelly. She gave me a yogurt diet. When she got married to Prince Rainier, I gave her a home yogurt machine.”
Taylor also conferred with grand dame Joan Crawford. But the funniest anecdote involved her mother, who went up to Crawford cold, greeting her with, “Hi Joan, I’m Frieda.”
Long before Taylor rubbed shoulders with Hollywood royalty, she caught the acting bug. She made her professional stage debut at 15 in a Purim pageant at Madison Square Garden. At 19, she earned her Actors Equity card for appearing in “The Rehearsal”at The President Theatre. Taylor took classes with the famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg.
She finally landed a decent movie co-starring role as “Miss Giles” in “The Errand Boy,” a 1961 film in which Jerry Lewis starred, directed and wrote. But good dramatic roles in movies and on TV for women were not that common in the era.
“It was always hard to get good roles with all the ‘buddy’ movies,” she said. Women were relegated to lesser roles as spouses, girlfriends, mothers and grandmothers. Taylor could not break into the all-male casts of the likes of “Bonanza” and Rawhide.”
Taylor had an interesting role on the much-praised CBS series “The Defenders,” airing on April 20, 1963. She played the wife of Frank Thorpe, portrayed by character actor Arch Johnson, who is accused of hiring an employee to kill a contracting competitor. Just before the jury renders its not-guilty verdict, the Thorpe character admits to star E.G. Marshall, his defense attorney, that he indeed was guilty.
One of the guest stars with Taylor was an up-and-coming Gene Hackman. “I loved acting with Gene,” she said.
Fast-forward to 2010, when Taylor played Maude Monaghan on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.” “That was fun,” she said. “I had to go in and read (for the part). I was an agent who was suspected to be a murderer.”
In between “The Defenders” and “SVU,” though, Taylor comfortably carved out her niche as a comic actress on screen and the stage. She worked with Dustin Hoffman and Gene Wilder in off-Broadway shows before both made it big. She also starred on stage with Alan Arkin.
Taylor gained more notoriety in a fittingly oddball part for her background, re-united with Wilder in Mel Brooks’ zany “The Producers” in 1967. The plot is summed up by shady producers grifting a play about Adolf Hitler meant to be so bad but which ends up good at the box office. Taylor portrays an actress playing the part of Hitler wife Eva Braun. “You can’t even think about it,” Taylor said of the irony of a Jew playing Braun.
Her best-known role was an obviously Jewish one as Sylvia Fine, mother of lead actress Fran Drescher’s Fran Fine in 94 episodes of the CBS comedy “The Nanny” from 1993 to 1999.
“I really loved playing Sylvia,” Taylor said. “She really reminded me of my aunt…They make your hair look so high. People told me because they liked me in ‘The Nanny,’ they’ll come see me in the theater.”
Meanwhile, Bologna carved out his own reputation with several madcap roles. Best was the Sid Caesar-inspired TV show host, King Kaiser,” in “My Favorite Year” with Peter O’Toole in 1982. Bologna portrayed a “Rabbi Goldman” in “Chicken Soup for the Soul” in 2000. The year before, he played Lenny Koufax, father to star Adam Sandler’s Sonny Koufax’s character. International Movie Data Base said the Koufax family is “ambiguously Jewish,” but the implication seems obvious in adopting one of the most famous Jewish names of modern times.
Taylor and Bologna garnered their top honors together — Emmy Awards in 1973 — for writing ABC’s “Acts of Love and Other Comedies,” a series of sketches about people having trouble with love and sex. The couple were nominated once again the following year for writing the TV movie “Paradise.” They also co-directed, co-wrote and co-starred in the 1984 HBO movie “Bedrooms” (Writers Guild Award).
Taylor and Bologna appeared together on Broadway in their plays “Lovers and Other Strangers”(1968),” “It Had to Be You” (1981), and “If You Ever Leave Me … I’m Going With You!”(2001); and Off-Broadway in “Bermuda Avenue Triangle” (Promenade Theatre, 1997). For film, they received an Academy Award nomination for the 1970 film adaptation of “Lovers and Other Strangers.” The following year, they co-wrote and co-starred in “Made for Each Other” (Writers Guild of America Award nomination for Best Comedy). Taylor and Bologna co-directed, co-wrote, and co-starred in the 1989 film adaptation of “It Had to Be You,” and the 1996 film “Love Is All There Is” (which introduced a young Angelina Jolie).
Working obviously is in Taylor’s blood. Tony Bennett is playing Ravinia once again this summer at 93. So getting on stage at 86 is a relative breeze.
“I’m not that old,” she said. “I’m just 86. I love what I do. I love people and sharing with people. My favorite part is after the show, when people talk to me. They ask, ‘Are you tired?’ My answer is ‘no’ because this is my favorite time. The other day, I saw ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ with Lee Grant, who is 93 and in better shape than me.
“It’s really healing being in the theater.”
She never shies away from political activism or exercise of the First Amendment, with stand-up comic touches.
“My joke about Donald Trump is that he has very feminine qualities,” she said. “He decided to bomb (Iran), and changed his mind. He’ll take a daisy, start picking at it, and says, ‘Does he love me, does he love me not?’”
But the take-away of “My Life on a Diet” is very serious.
“You’re eating because you don’t want to deal with other things going on,” Taylor said. “When you eat, you’re not necessarily hungry. How many problems do we have with body image, looking a certain way. My whole life, I didn’t feel thin enough, pretty enough.
“Finally, I just accepted myself and it was OK. It isn’t how you look. It’s what your soul is. That’s what my husband would say: ‘You’re a good person.’”
Ticket range is $45 to $92 for “My Life on a Diet,” running from July 16 to Aug. 4 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie . Tickets are on sale now at the North Shore Center box office, NorthShoreCenter.org, or by calling 847-673-6300.