ARCHIVE: Renee and Joe, Mad for Each Other

ne_104271One of THE classic show business couples visits Red Bank just in time for Valentine’s Day, when Joe Bologna and Renee Taylor come to the Count Basie Theatre with their “celebration of comedy and marriage” called IF YOU EVER LEAVE ME…I’M GOING WITH YOU!

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit Febuary 3, 2010)

Renée Taylor — Joseph Bologna — we need you here right away. Please get here as soon as humanly possible.

We need you to remind everyone that, despite your instantly familiar presences as stage and screen actors — Renee most famously as Fran Drescher’s mom Sylvia onThe Nanny TV series; Joe with major feature film roles in My Favorite YearBlame It On Rio and Big Daddy — it’s as the writers of some of the best and most-performed modern comedies that you’ve truly made your mark.

We need you to show them all how it’s done; all the brave players who’ve taken on those great plays on your collective résumé — the multilayered wedding-day ensemble piece Lovers and Other Strangers; the daffy duet (and holiday hostage scenario) It Had to Be You; the Vegas goldengirl gagfest Bermuda Avenue Triangle. You can start by inviting them all to see your show If You Ever Leave…I’m Going With You!, an intensely personal, yet universally funny, examination of your successful 44-year marriage (a Jewish-Italian union that was the stuff of the most sublime comedy, and that began on national television with your 1965 wedding on the old Merv Griffin talk show) — and your equally successful professional collaboration.

Most of all, with Valentine’s Day bearing down on us we need you to spill the secret, once and for all — namely, what is the key to a long-running marriage? A productive partnership? Even a relationship that outlasts Conan’s Tonight Show? When you hit the boards of the Count Basie Theatre on Thursday, February 11, you’ll be performing an intimate spectacle that juxtaposes scenes from your plays with stories of the real-life incidents that inspired them. We need you to bring your Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning stuff out in full force; steering Cupid’s arrows true and reinforcing the wisdom that nobody does it better.

Red Bank oRBit spoke to this most classic of showbiz couples in advance of their visit to Red Bank. What follows is a merry mash-up of two separate interviews, so Continue Reading for the best reason to get married on TV — and that promised Secret to a long and loving relationship!

Joe_and_Renee-Cropped-copyRED BANK ORBIT: Speaking as someone who’s had to sit through amateur productions of many of your shows, my first question is more of a cry for help — as in HELP! We need you over here ASAP!

JOE BOLOGNA: Well, in New York and California we have control over productions of our plays, but  everywhere else it’s community people having fun. And I’m happy that our plays are performed as much as they are. You know, as actors we want to do things just for us, but as writers we want the opposite; we want to do something universal, that can be played in many different ways.

A good example is Gig Young in the movie of Lovers and Other Strangers. He played the part in a much different way than it was conceived, but he made it work for him. Being a leading man rather than a character man, his power was hitting the fastball.

RENEE TAYLOR: There are people out there who think of all sorts of ways to ‘improve’ upon your work. We once had a secretary who typed up our scripts, and she would want to change a line here, add something there — she’d fret over every single word. And once we went to see a production of one of our shows, and the director took the end of the show and put it right at the beginning — they thought it worked better that way.

Now, of all your shows, IF YOU EVER LEAVE ME is by far the most personal, in that it’s literally your story — it couldn’t possibly be performed by anyone standing in as you.  

RENEE TAYLOR: We would have to fictionalize it a bit. But I think it can be adapted into characters. I feel like a character myself.

JOE BOLOGNA: Our whole raison d’etre here is we do a scene from one of our plays, then we tell you ‘here’s what it’s based on.’ Like in Lovers, there’s a scene where Mike wakes Susan, say three days before the wedding, in a panic over everything. Well, I would do that same thing — only I’d be doing it once each week. Every little thing, sending out invitations, would kick off this insane fear with me.

So what’s your most universal thing you’ve ever written together, in terms of how other actors can get a grip on it?  

JOE BOLOGNA: Bermuda Avenue Triangle, I guess — when Renee did it, she’d cry all the way through; just perform at this elevated emotional pitch. I couldn’t believe what she was doing out there on the stage. But then the understudy would come in and do it, and get a standing ovation.

RENEE TAYLOR: That’s our most popular show. The funniest show we ever wrote. The woman is based on my mother.

You’ve gone on record as saying your mother has influenced a lot of your characterizations.  

RENEE TAYLOR: I’ve included a lot of my mother in things that I’ve done, along with other women I’ve known in my life. When I was first cast as Sylvia in The Nanny, you know, it was originally going to just be a guest starring role — but she wound up becoming a regular part of the show, and I had to come up with a lot of things to fill in Sylvia as a person. I had a lot of fun exploring this very pushy character; looking for organic things to use, taking a lot from women I knew in Miami Beach.

That must have been a real golden age there in Miami.  

RENEE TAYLOR: Actually, when I grew up in Miami Beach it was just a sleepy little town — really, until just like 20 years ago. So was Beverly Hills in those days — just a town full of $17,000 houses.

JOE BOLOGNA: Renee being on The Nanny brought in a whole new audience for us. We’d get whole groups of people who never went to the theater before. They’d see If You Ever Leave Me and say, ‘that was an interesting story.’

Still, people respond to both of you primarily as actors, and you’ve never discouraged that, correct?   

JOE BOLOGNA: Renee is the real actor in the family — she studied eight years with Lee Strasberg! I think of myself as a director and a writer, which I was for years before I ever tried my hand at acting. I got into acting by basically playing myself — only playing myself as the best of me, you know?

As an Italian guy from Brooklyn, I maybe cried once in my life — but my job as an actor is to open up the part of me that I block in real life. It’s therapeutic! I’ll see myself on the screen and say, look at that tough, sensitive, good looking guy up there — now why can’t you be like that in real life?

I don’t mean to embarrass you here, but whenever I get a chance to talk to someone who’s had a long career in showbiz I like to dredge up one of the more obscure things on their resume — something they never get to comment upon — and in your case it would be a kiddie video I watched years ago with my daughter, BABY HUEY’S GREAT EASTER ADVENTURE.  

JOE BOLOGNA: Baby Huey! You know, I had fun doing that — I always do things that are fun as an actor, and they actually let me sing and dance in that one, which very few people would let me do on film. I’ve got another one for you —  Alligator 2! You remember the first Alligator with Robert Forster, right? Well, he looked like he had fun making that one; I was in the sequel and it was a lot of fun to do. If you ever wonder why a lot of well known actors wind up in horror pictures, it’s because of these horror fests that they have every year — my son, who’s a director, turned me on to them, and the level of fan support that comes from these things is amazing.

Now Renee, you kind of took the opposite path, from acting to writing — you’ve worked before with Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore, who’ve said similar things about taking control of your career and writing yourself a great part…   

RENEE TAYLOR: It was Elaine May who encouraged me to write, because I would get so discouraged, being offered all these one-dimensional parts. She told me, any time you do improv, that’s writing. So you write for yourself if you’re not happy with the way things are. Everybody has at least one story in them — theirs!

I guess the first time I really became familiar with both of you was the movie MADE FOR EACH OTHER, back almost 40 years ago. I was probably way too young to see it at the time, but there were all these great, raw, New York-y kind of movies winding up on the local TV stations in those days, and this one — it just really stood out from most movies you’d see; the emotions were that much elevated, and I just remember it impressing me as being so much more realistic than anything else.

RENEE TAYLOR: Well, thank you for saying that. It’s a very special movie for us.

JOE BOLOGNA: It’s a pretty sophisticated story; there’s a subtext of loving, versus needing to be loved. See, back then I was the love-ee, this half-a-person who needed that kind of attention. And Renee was the love-er, who had to take care of various wounded guys.

In that script we reversed the roles, and we said let’s take the two characters and strip them of everything but her need to be loved, and his need to love somebody. It became about all that’s going on underneath.

Basically, we try to write scenes of emotion — that doesn’t change; the outside references change. But we can do Lovers and Other Strangers in some place like Fort Smith, Arkansas; some place where there’s maybe one Jew and one Italian in the whole audience, and they’ll laugh from start to finish. Ethnicity adds exoticality, I suppose, but it’s the universal that we’re interested in — we’ll get people coming up to us after the show and tell us, ‘My wife and I have a mixed marriage too — she’s Polish, and I’m a cowboy!’

About that mixed marriage, and that wedding on national TV — that was way ahead of its time, even before Tiny Tim got hitched on Johnny Carson. How did that whole thing come about?  

JOE BOLOGNA: Renee would go on Merv and talk about her life; talk about our wedding plans, and he asked her ‘why don’t you have it here on TV?’ — she’s agreeing and I’m out in the audience waving my arms and going no, no, no…

RENEE TAYLOR: It wasn’t a big deal to me. If anything, half our families didn’t want to show up — his mother and father wouldn’t have come to a regular wedding — but everybody wanted to be on TV, and when they got to meet each other they got to like each other.

JOE BOLOGNA: That was 45 years ago, and it was the best thing we could have done. Since then, we’ve renewed our vows five times, which is a lot more fun than the original wedding. We’ve done it with a different religion each time — Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant —the last one was New Age, with Marianne Williamson doing the ceremony.

Well, that leads us into the inevitable question — you know how a doctor at a cocktail party would get people coming up and asking for free advice about their weird rash? You guys must get asked this all the time, but what is the secret to a successful marriage?

JOE BOLOGNA: The trick is you have to marry someone with the same sensitivity, but with opposite, complementary talents — love and sex are details, but a real partnership takes in all the details. Our working together is the single strongest reason for us to stay married.

RENEE TAYLOR: You need a sense of humor. We can disagree, but if you don’t take it so seriously you’ll get along fine. You’ve got to make up your mind over what not to break up over. Well, maybe infidelity.

JOE BOLOGNA: All marriages are mixed — you’re still different people, still going to be opposites in some way. But if you’re with a person and you don’t trust them, you’re with the wrong person.