April 19, 2019

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.

Lainie Kazan happily goes ‘Greek’ again for comedy sequel

In her more than five decades on screen, Lainie Kazan has played many Jewish mothers in movies such as “My Favorite Year,” “Beaches,” “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” “What’s Cooking?” and “I Don’t Buy Kisses Anymore.” But the Jewish actress’s most famous role is Maria Portokalos, the matriarch of a large and boisterous Greek family in the 2002 comedy hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Fourteen years later, she is reprising the role in the sequel, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” which finds Maria at a turning point. “Her marriage is rusty and she tries to fix things and make it better,” Kazan said, unable to say more about a plot twist the filmmakers want kept secret. 

Kazan was eager to reunite with her fellow cast members, including the first film’s star and screenwriter, Nia Vardalos, as well as co-stars Gia Carides and Joey Fatone, with whom she has remained close over the years. “Every time I saw Nia, I’d say, ‘So?’ And she would say, ‘Not yet, I’m not ready,’ ” Kazan said of getting a sequel off the ground. When Vardalos called to say she had a script, “We were so thrilled. We celebrated at a Greek restaurant on Larchmont,” in Los Angeles, she said. 

For Kazan, shooting the sequel felt “like coming home, really special and lovely. And I think the audience will feel the connection that we have.” 

She said she found playing Maria for the second time “so easy, like wearing an old shoe. I knew who she was, and I could embellish it. I love her joy in life, in everything. She loves her children and her husband in the most generous and warm and fun way. Even the troubles get lost in the laughter.”

The original, much-loved “Wedding” made $245 million at the box office domestically, but Kazan said she didn’t think about matching that success when making the sequel. “I couldn’t do that,” she said. “I had to just be in the moment, and it was a very comfortable place to be. I didn’t have any expectations, and I still don’t. I hope it’s a success, I hope we did a good job — that’s all I can do.”

Kazan also felt comfortable in an ethnic milieu that she finds quite familiar. “There are a lot of similarities between the Greeks and the Jews,” she said. “The way they deal with their families, the emphasis on education, a great love of family, and they give their children a lot, like we do.”

Widowed since 1989, Kazan has a daughter, Jennifer Bena, and grandchildren Isabella Blue, 16, and Grayson, 1. She grew up in a Conservative but not particularly religious family in Brooklyn, celebrating the traditions of both her mother’s Sephardic family and her father’s Ashkenazic one. 

 “We had big Pesach dinners. We had a huge family. It was very celebratory,” she recalled. “I knew I was Jewish, and I was very proud of my Jewish heritage and the fact that my grandparents were from Israel.” They made their way to Manchester, England, before moving to Brooklyn, and remained active Zionists.

Kazan has been to Israel herself, including her few months there making 1986’s “Delta Force.” “It was fabulous,” she said. “I looked up relatives and spent time with them. I’ve been back several times since. I sang at the jazz festival there.”

Today, she considers herself a “holiday Jew,” attending synagogue for the High Holy Days. But it was important to her to pass on Jewish traditions to her daughter and her grandchildren. “My granddaughter is very curious about Judaism and what it means,” she said.

Kazan’s grandmother, Jennie, born in pre-Israel Palestine, would take her to the Yiddish theater to see Molly Picon and other greats of the time. It created a special bond between them and sparked young Lainie’s interest in the stage.

“I didn’t know what they were saying, but I understood. They made me laugh, and they made a big impression on me,” Kazan said. So did her parents, particularly her father. “He was very funny, like Abbott and Costello rolled into one. My mother was very dramatic and gorgeous, always the first one in the neighborhood to do this or that. She always took me to museums and put me in a little theater group at the Metropolitan [Museum].”

Kazan’s own triple-threat talents as a dancer, singer and actor have kept her in demand on stage and screen over the years, but as much as she enjoys acting, she said, “There’s nothing like singing. The joy and fulfillment that I get is so complete. It’s also about the physical experience of singing. It’s No. 1 in my life.”

She will perform in concert around the country this spring through October, with a stop in Las Vegas at the Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz on Oct. 28-29. 

Since 2012, Kazan has also been an adjunct professor at UCLA, teaching a class titled “Acting for the Singer,” and producing and directing her students in an end-of-semester show. Last December, they did a tribute to Frank Sinatra. She also is on the boards of her alma mater, Hofstra University, the Young Musicians Foundation and the California Jazz Foundation, and loves the opportunity it gives her to help young people launch their careers. 

As for herself, she hopes a juicy dramatic role is in her future, although she gets comedy offers more often. There’s an as-yet uncompleted independent movie called “Tango Shalom” with Renee Taylor, who Kazan shared screen time with in the television series “The Nanny,” and she believes there will be a third “Greek Wedding.” 

“Nia is talking about it,” she said.

Kazan also is active in raising money for B’nai B’rith, AIDS organizations and other charities, and will be honored at the Visiting Nurses Association’s “One Enchanted Evening” gala on May 7 in Palm Springs. She likes going there, or to the beach, to “just be quiet and read a book,” she said. 

“I’ve reinvented myself over and over again,” Kazan said. “It’s hard work but I enjoy my career, and, now, teaching. I’m proud of my ability to survive.”

“My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” opens in theaters on March 25.

Tradition meets Hollywood at annual Spago Seder

Actress Lainie Kazan, restaurateur Barbara Lazaroff and singer Melissa Manchester lit candles on the evening of April 4 at Spago Beverly Hills, prompting Claudia Cagan, a Hollywood producer and Manchester’s sibling, to wax nostalgic for a moment.

“My mother used to do that and never told me what she was doing,” Cagan said of the lighting, seated at one of the many tables at the restaurant’s 31st annual second-night Passover seder, which raised approximately $10,000 to $15,000 for MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, according to Lazaroff, co-owner of the Wolfgang Puck restaurant. 

Cagan was among the approximately 230 attendees at the evening, which was open to all — seating for adults was $190, and $80 for children. 

Run as a traditional family seder, it featured a menu of gefilte fish made from carp, pike and whitefish; chicken-liver mousse; chicken and vegetable soup with Judy Gethers’ matzah balls; braised beef short rib “flanken”; roasted wild salmon with ginger-almond crust; ratatouille and roasted Moroccan carrots; and a selection of deserts that included a “Menagerie of Macaroons.” Live music was provided by Cantor Ruti Braier of University Synagogue of Irvine, serenading with acoustic guitar, performing numbers that included the song “Web of Women,” along with singer Carol Connors and the West Los Angeles Children’s Choir and more. 

Held in one of the city’s finest restaurants, the seder began at approximately 6 p.m. and continued past 11 p.m. 

A paperback of the Silverman haggadah was at each place setting in the restaurant’s open-air dining area. Participants did everything from dipping their pinkies into the wine glasses and letting fall onto their plates a drop of red wine for each of the Ten Plagues, to munching on matzah — shallot and thyme matzah, that is. 

Executive chef Lee Hefter, chef de cuisine Tetsu Yahagi, chef Justin Katsuno and executive pastry chef Della Gossett prepared the meal. 

Throughout the night, Lazaroff mingled, making her way from table to table, saying hello, embracing the likes of Kazan’s granddaughter, Bella Kazan.

“We have a number of celebrities here tonight, but I think of everyone as a celebrity, Lazaroff, wearing a sequined dress, said as she strolled the restaurant’s courtyard. 

Rabbi Arnie Rachlis of University Synagogue led the proceedings, sprinkling a self-aware humor about the seder into his shpiel

“Just like our ancestors did,” he said of waiters who passed warm Japanese towels to each of the participants to use during urchatz — the hand-washing  segment of the seder. He instructed each guest to wash the hands of the person to his or her immediate right (which meant that I was washing my mom’s hands). 

The event has come a long way. Lazaroff began the event in 1980, at the urging of Spago regulars, as a way to ensure that people like her would not be alone during the holiday. 

Lazaroff said that this year’s was the largest group the event has ever had.

At the seder, Lazaroff spotlighted MAZON’s crucial work, telling the crowd that the Los Angeles-based nonprofit has given out grants totaling more than $73 million for hunger-relief programs and policy work since its inception in 1985. Lazaroff said the organization helps many, including the low-income elderly,  who often must choose between life-saving medicines and food. Funds raised by MAZON can help empower seniors to have both, she said.

“We’re very proud of the partnership with Spago and delighted that Barbara continues to host the seder to benefit MAZON and the work we do to fight hunger,” Cari Uslan, director of development at MAZON, said in a phone interview afterward. 

Lazaroff spoke to the Journal about the preparation that the event requires, saying she closed the restaurant for the night to accommodate the affair. This was no small matter, given that the second night of Pesach took place on a Saturday this year, Lazaroff said. 

Guests appreciated the effort. Manchester — who recently released her 20th studio album, “You Gotta Love Life” — said Lazaroff deserves props for organizing the lavish seder year after year. 

“This becomes an extension of Barbara’s family and friends, and an extension of her heart and [she is] bringing her community close to MAZON,” Manchester said in an interview. “And the food is fantastic.” 

Attendees included Todd Krim, president and CEO of The Krim Group. The former attorney, who now connects celebrities with charities, attended with Matt Cook of the Tyler Perry television series “The Haves and the Have Nots,” and others. At one point, Lazaroff told the room that there were eligible bachelors in the crowd, signaling toward Krim’s and O’Connell’s table. 

The crowd was not exclusively Hollywood, however. Mitchell Flint, a U.S. Navy veteran who, despite laws that make it illegal for Americans to fight on behalf of foreign nations, flew with the Israeli Air Force during the 1948 War of Independence, turned out with his son Michael. However, even those two apparently aren’t completely immune to the allure of the entertainment industry: Michael Flint is currently working on an Israeli Air Force documentary titled “Angels in the Sky,” due out in 2016, for which Connors — according to a recent Times of Israel report — contributed a song. 

Among the participants who described for the Journal their favorite Passover memories were Marc and Louise Sattler of San Pedro, who were seated with Manchester and Kazan. Marc Sattler kept it real, if simple: “The seder, and getting the family together for a seder.”