Ask Renée Taylor how she sprained her wrist, and she can’t help but leap to a punch line. “I was making a sex tape.”
The actress and Emmy Award-winning comedy writer is known to multiple generations of TV viewers, from her star turn as Fran Drescher’s garishly glamazon mom in “The Nanny” to her early days on “The Perry Como Show” and Jack Paar’s “Tonight” show. She and her husband of 52 years, actor-writer Joseph Bologna, who died last year, collaborated on 22 plays, four films (including “Lovers and Other Strangers”) and nine TV movies.
Now she’s back onstage for the first time since his death in “My Life on a Diet,” a one-woman, Off-Broadway show based on her memoir, which opened at the Theatre at St. Clement’s on July 25 and runs through Aug. 19. Still charming and sexy at 85, Taylor dishes out laughs — and unexpectedly tender moments — recalling life, love and what she ate (or tried not to), plus a slew of pals she collected while breaking into show biz, including Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand, Jerry Lewis, Hugh Hefner and Lenny Bruce.
Taylor, who was raised in the Bronx and Jamaica, recently spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
It’s amazing all the screen icons you know, like Marilyn Monroe. It’s always fascinated me how she dared to study acting — with revered teacher Lee Strasberg and regular classmates, including you — when she was a major star. I can’t imagine a star today having the guts, or awareness, to do that.
Well, she felt so hurt by …[critics] dismissing her performances. She was working in class on scenes from “Anna Christie” and “Long Day’s Journey.” She could’ve had a theater career if her romance department didn’t unhinge her. Talk about bad choices in men! If she had a mother around, she’d have said, “What are you doing?”
Did your mother keep you in line?
Well, my mother objected to Joe, not because [I was Jewish and] he was Catholic but because he was a Capricorn. I’m a Pisces. She said, “I don’t know about Pisces and Capricorn.”
How have you applied what you learned in those classes about Method acting to comedy?
I do the relaxation exercises, the “sense memory” work. I’ve lectured on comedy, and one of the things I discuss is, can comedy timing be taught? It can, if you’re open, personal and sharing. It’s like hitting a note right in the center.
You’ve done this show before. Is this version different?
Much. It’s deeper. More honest. I even added some lines today — every night I learn something. I think, “Oh, I didn’t know thaaaat.” [She chuckles.] For instance, I got awards as a writer early in my career, and it was probably because [I didn’t stress] about writing. It didn’t mean that much to me. I really wanted to be an actor. It’s funny, being a writer meant everything to Joe. He was relaxed as an actor and I was always too much trying to prove myself. When I got so much audience approval on “The Nanny” for being overweight, it really helped me relax.
You fell in love with Joe quickly.
It was love at first sight. Not only that, I felt I knew him before in other lifetimes. It was definitely meant to be. For him, it took a while. [She laughs.] I scared the hell out of him.
What’s it like performing now that he’s gone?
Well, I hear Joe’s voice all the time. When he died, I asked a spiritual person, “Do you think I can continue my relationship with him?” She said yes. I said, “Well, have you ever done that with anyone?” And she said, “No, but be a mapmaker.” So . . . that’s what I’ve been doing. I talk to him and he writes me back.
How does he do that?
I change color pens. I talk [writing it out], and let myself hear his voice, and then write his answers. I write to him in purple, and he writes me back in gold.
Sometimes when he comes to me before the show, I say, “Don’t talk, just kiss me.” Have you ever had somebody you love die?
Not a partner, like Joe was for you. But I’ve lost friends. It’s tough.
Well, you can contact them if you try. With grieving . . . there’s unbearable pain. Then some joy comes into it — you see the gifts they gave you, the memories. I’d say there’s as much joy as sorrow in somebody’s death. If you experience the person the way I’m experiencing Joe, you have both worlds. I have this world. And I have one foot in the other world. It’s pretty great.