February 21, 2020

Renée Taylor’s Humorous Take on Weighty Issues in ‘My Life on a Diet

Renée Taylor in “My Life on a Diet.” Taken July 18, 2018, New York City Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Comedy veteran Renée Taylor reminisces about her life in showbiz, many of the famous friends she made along the way and her eternal battle with weight in “My Life on a Diet,” her autobiographical solo show opening at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on April 5.

Written with her late husband of 53 years and frequent collaborator, Joseph Bologna, who died in August 2017, the show had a successful off-Broadway run in 2018. The Journal had a chance to view a tape of one of those performances ahead of a phone conversation with Taylor. 

The octogenarian actress, known for her portrayal of Fran Drescher’s mother Sylvia Fine on “The Nanny” and appearances in “The Producers,” Adam Sandler’s “The Do-Over,” “How I Met Your Mother” and “How to Be a Latin Lover,” collaborated on 22 projects with Bologna, including plays, TV series and television movies, and four screenplays, most notable of which was the Oscar-nominated “Lovers and Other Strangers.” 

“Joe thought it would be very helpful and inspirational to people to share my experiences as a young actress and all the diets I’ve been on,” Taylor said. “I dedicate the show to him.”

Bologna is very much a presence in Taylor’s stories and the images projected behind her throughout the show. She also speaks lovingly and often about her mother, Frieda Wexler. “I knew my mother was very funny,” Taylor said. “She wanted to be an actress. I got her a role in [the 1971 movie] ‘Made for Each Other.’ ” 

Taylor began writing essays about her “wacky family” in junior high school and made her professional stage debut at age 15 as a slave girl in a Purim pageant at Madison Square Garden. “I got $5 for dancing across the stage,” she said. “Melvyn Douglas played the king.”

“Taylor made her professional stage debut at age 15 as a slave girl in a Purim pageant at Madison Square Garden. “’I got $5 for dancing across the stage.’”

Other famous names pepper her anecdotes, including Jerry Lewis, who cast her in her first movie, 1961’s, “The Errand Boy,” Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe and the women who became her close friends, Barbra Streisand, Lainie Kazan and Drescher. Like them, she became known for playing funny Jewish women, “very pushy” mothers in particular. Playing Drescher’s big-haired, food-obsessed mom “was my favorite,” Taylor said.

On the dramatic side, she was offered the role of Golda Meir in the Broadway play “Golda’s Balcony” and regrets not taking it. But she later wrote her own show about Israel’s first female prime minister and continues to perform it for organizations and synagogues.

Renée Taylor in “My Life on a Diet.”
Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Taylor feels a deep connection to her Jewish identity. “It’s a very strong part of me,” she said. Of Russian ancestry, she grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., in a Reform Jewish home and has been a member of Los Angeles’ Creative Arts Temple for many years. “Joe and I used to get up and read the prayers on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. We were very active in the synagogue,” she said.  She has been to Israel twice, the first time for her son Gabe’s bar mitzvah.

Now a writer and filmmaker, Gabe Bologna directed his parents in the movie comedy “Tango Shalom,” which will begin showing at film festivals soon. “Joe plays a priest and I play an Orthodox Jewish mother,” Taylor said, adding that Gabe is also a Holocaust scholar. “He wrote a Holocaust movie called ‘Brundibar’ that’s going to shoot in the Czech Republic,” she added.

Taylor is working on a few scripts of her own, one about Mae West and another a play called “The Book of Joe,” about her husband and their life together. “We loved each other and we respected each other,” she said. “We had so much fun and we had so many laughs. All our successes and our failures were an adventure. To me, the point of life is growing and having fun. People ask me, ‘Why don’t you retire?’ I say, ‘I’m having too much fun.’ ”

Taylor has always had a keen interest in psychology and behavior “and why people do what they do. I probably would have been a psychotherapist if I wasn’t a writer and an actress,” she said. “I also love fashion and I don’t think there’s such a thing as looking your age or dressing your age. You just dress to express yourself and how you’re feeling.”

She’s excited about being back onstage, making people laugh and sharing her stories. “I like communicating with an audience in person and getting feedback from them. I love when people come backstage and they tell me what experiences they’ve had on different diets and what they’ve learned,” she said. 

With a lifetime of crazy fad diets behind her, Taylor finally found one that works. She follows Dr. Oz’s plan and doesn’t eat after sundown or before sunrise. 

“Sometimes, in the middle of the night, you want to get up and eat something. I drink water instead and I make all my dinner dates at 5 or 5:30,” she said. For her, the key to aging well, staying healthy and remaining vital is “loving what you do, loving yourself and keeping your sense of humor. You can’t take yourself seriously.”

“My Life on a Diet” runs April 5-14 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.