BWW Interview: Renée Taylor on MY LIFE ON A DIET, THE NANNY and Her Long Career as a Funny Lady of the Stage and Screen
Renée Taylor is an Emmy Award winner, Oscar nominee, actress, screenwriter, playwright and comedy legend known for Lovers and Other Strangers, Made for Each Other, and of course, The Nanny, to name only a few of the projects that make up her long and impressive career. Renée is currently touring the country with her one-woman play My Life on a Diet, the hilarious and personal account of her career in Hollywood and on Broadway. In the show, Renée shares both deliciously entertaining tales about, and weight loss tips from, Hollywood legends such as Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe, and Barbra Streisand, and touching stories about Joseph Bologna, who was her husband and writing partner for 52 years.
I had the chance to speak to Renée about My Life on a Diet, The Nanny, her personal connections with Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, her process as a writer, and much more. They say that you should never try to meet your heroes, but Renée Taylor was every bit as warm, hilarious and witty as one would hope she'd be.
My Life on a Diet was adapted from your memoir, I'd love to hear about the process of turning it into a play.
My husband suggested it and I said "Oh no, I don't think anybody would be interested." And he said, "Why? Everybody's on a diet." He was always on one too. Being a movie actor, his weight was always under because he never ate dinner, and I never understood that. But now I do.
Are you still asking people about their diets?
Well, when I see somebody look great I say, "What diet are you on? What are you eating?" But actually, I'm on the Dr. Oz diet, which is you don't eat anything after sundown, or before sunup which is really a good diet. My show is really about my life expectancy. Expecting to be a famous actress and eating whatever famous actresses ate, thinking I would look like them if I ate what they ate.
You have worked with some of the most iconic actors, writers and comedians in history including Jerry Lewis, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Is there one story that you tell in the show that audiences usually have the biggest response to?
That would be Marilyn Monroe, being in Lee Strasberg's class with her and asking her for her beauty secrets and her diets and emulating her, and in every way being inspired by her. That was really the most fun, and the most inspiring to just follow her around and do what she did.
My Life on a Diet is one of twenty-two plays, four screenplays and nine TV movies and series that you had written with your husband, Joseph Bologna. Of all the projects that you had written together, what project would you say was the easiest to write, and what project would you say was the most difficult?
Well, nothing was easy. There were things where we had a lot of fun and we laughed a lot. You know when we wrote a play it was usually three years to write it, like It Had to Be You, which was a two character play. There's nothing harder than to write a two character play. But it was very challenging and it was very exciting to work with my husband. To be creative we usually wrote in Vermont. Although part of that we wrote in Beverly Hills and I was expecting the part we wrote in Vermont to be the better part of the play, but it wasn't. It's wherever you feel creative and inspired. That's really what the motivation is. It doesn't matter where you are.
Are you writing anything new at the moment? Do you write something every day even if it's just an idea for a joke?
No, I wait until my muse comes and tells me sometimes in the middle of the night what to write. And it's great when it just comes out of the blue like that. I'm writing a play about Mae West, and she comes to me in the middle of the night and sometimes I say, "Leave me alone." And she goes, "No, you have to write this down, this is very funny." So I always listen to her when she comes.
How long have you been working on the Mae West play?
I've been working on it for two years and it's gone through a lot of different... at the beginning it was just funny, and now it's gotten deeper. It's gotten to be about something. She was really somebody to emulate because of all the power she had as a writer, as an actress. She was given a lot of... she wasn't given, she took it. A lot of power in Hollywood.
Are you planning to star in that?
Oh yeah, she was 89 and she was playing in Vegas. And that's how the play ends, that she's starring in Vegas.
Is there a difference in your approach to writing when you're writing something that you know you're going to star in versus writing material for someone else?
No, it's the same. I want it to be real. I always want to go deeper. And of course, I always want it to be funny. I can find humor in the most serious subjects. Everything is funny to me. Even dying is funny... I can't help but think that everything is funny.
I was first introduced to you on the The Nanny, and I know that you're still close with Fran Drescher. When you started working on that show, were you all aware that you were working on something that was so special and would have such a lasting impact?
No, it was just funny and we just laughed a lot. We had a good time. We broke ourselves up at rehearsal, and I didn't know that other people would react to it the way we did. But Fran says that if The Nanny comes back [to television], she's gonna play me, her mother, and I'm gonna play the grandmother. So that'll be the next incarnation of it... That's our intention, so I don't see why it wouldn't happen. As long as we're young and healthy. She looks great. She is the age that I was when I played her mother.
When did you realize you were funny? Do you have a memory of trying to make somebody laugh for the first time? Or did comedy really only come to you after you had made the conscious switch from dramatic actress to comedian?
When I was in junior high school I remember going on and imitating a comedian that I had seen on television. I didn't know that you don't copy somebody's act. So, I just went on and copied somebody's act! I imitated them and I was very funny and I said, "Oh, I like that. I like that a lot."
What performances have you seen either on stage or on screen that really made an impact on you?
When I was very young in class I saw Jimmy Dean, James Dean, in a play. And he didn't have any dialogue. It was a play called The Immoralist with Louis Jourdan, and that was a good lesson on how you don't have to speak. It made a lasting impression on me. So, I've always been interested in what happens on stage when you don't speak. I love pauses. Brando was like that too when I saw him in Streetcar... it was when he wasn't speaking, when he was listening. They were good lessons for me to learn.
What would you tell people to expect when they come see My Life on a Diet?
Well, people are surprised, because they just expect it to be funny. But certain parts of it are very moving, and they say they didn't expect to shed a tear too. So that's nice, because I tell some sad stories of things that happened to me as well as funny stories. And I have to say that when I tell a sad story, you can hear a pin drop in the audience. People are so focused on listening. That's a wonderful experience.
In the last few moments of speaking with Renée, she summed up her experience working on My Life on a Diet with these words: "I'm just having a good time and I'm really lucky that at this time in my life I can go around the country doing the play that my husband and I worked on and that he directed, and I feel very fortunate. With him gone now, I find it a very healing experience too recall him and share it with the audience, some of our adventures."
Renée, we are the lucky ones.
My Life on a Diet will play the Bucks County Playhouse from January 30 - February 2.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
*After Renée and I spoke it was announced that The Nanny is currently being developed into a Broadway musical.