How to gefilt a fish

How to gefilt a fish

Renee Taylor gives the skinny about her life on a diet on Broadway

Renee Taylor
Renee Taylor

Renee Taylor is a piece of show business history.

She took classes with Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio. That’s where she became besties with Marilyn Monroe.

She performed comedy at a night club in Greenwich Village, and Barbra Streisand was her opening act.

Mel Brooks picked her to play Eva Braun in the original “The Producers.” She became a regular on Jack Parr’s “Tonight Show.”

Along with her late husband, Joe Bologna, she wrote plays and movies.

And perhaps most famously, she played Sylvia Fine, the nanny’s mom on CBS’s “The Nanny.”

Throughout it all, in a career marked by both highs and lows, there was one constant: Renee Taylor was always on a diet.

And that is the subject of “My Life on a Diet,” a play based on her 1986 memoir now making its New York City debut. It was co-written with Joe Bologna and is a delight, both funny and poignant and always truthful.

Well, mostly truthful.

“Everything is true,” Taylor, 85, said, “but sometimes I changed the time around.”

Giving into age and various medical conditions — “arthritis, bursitis, sciatica, the beginning of osteoporosis, and a broken foot” — she spends the entire 90 minutes sitting behind a desk on a kitschy-filled living room set.

“The doctor wanted me to retire,” she explains. “When I asked him what would I do, he replied ‘perform for elderly people.’”

Pause and look at the audience: “That’s what I do now.”


Renee grew up in the Bronx, the daughter of Frieda and Charlie Wexler. Frieda was obsessed with movies and had dreams of starring on the silver screen and Charlie was a gambler with get-rich-quick dreams and schemes whose claim to fame was a 30-second role in a silent Tom Mix western.

In her desire to assure her daughter the show business success that eluded her, Frieda started Renee on a diet when she was 11. It was the start of a roller-coaster life, losing and regaining weight, alternately starving and binging.

“I have a wardrobe filled with every size clothes I’ve worn,” she told me. “I know I’ll get down to that size again and then back up.”

She landed some extra roles in films, a lead in a Broadway production that opened and closed the same night, but a good personal notice in the Daily News got her into Strasberg’s class at the Actor’s Studio.

Her classmate, Monroe, already was a player. “She had her picture on the cover of Life magazine and was a tremendous star in Hollywood, maybe the biggest,” Taylor said. “But she didn’t feel that she was accepted [as an actress]. That’s why she went to Lee’s class, and why she had such stage fright. I was very touched by her vulnerability and her bravery. She’d come to a class where young people felt free to criticize.

“I found it very inspiring that a big star [like Marilyn] would put herself at such risk. When I saw her backstage shaking, it made me think that maybe I should feel my fear instead of believing I knew everything about acting because I did what I thought Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable were doing.”

In the show, Taylor recounts a conversation she had with Marilyn, who asked if Taylor were her real name. Renee said, “No, I’m Jewish,” to which Marilyn replied “I wish I was. Do you feel chosen?”

“Not yet.”

(Of course, years later, Marilyn did convert when she married Arthur Miller.)

In the interim, Renee kept experimenting with a variety of regimens: those from supposed professionals (the Southampton and Scarsdale diets), those suggested by friends (Marilyn told her to eat grapes) and those suggested by boyfriends (amphetamines). She also sought therapy.

Ultimately she decided to stop chasing fame and become an artist. And then her luck seemed to change. She began to write skits for an improvisational group run by Elaine May. Her agent introduced her to another writer he thought she could work well with. His name was Joseph Bologna, and for her it was love at first sight.

“I just saw him and had a psychic hit that I had known before and he was the man I was going to marry and I just looked at him. He told me at the time he wondered why is this woman looking at me funny?”

Renee, who is not a cook, remembers the first time she went for dinner at the Bologna house. His mom asked if she could cook and she said yes. Panicked, she added her specialty was gefilte fish.

Asked how you make it, she replied: “You go to a market. You get a big fish and, uh, you gefilt it.” Simple.

Her mother was upset about her marriage to Joe, but not because he wasn’t Jewish. “What she objected to was that he was a Capricorn, and she didn’t know that a Pisces could be happy with a Capricorn.”

Renee’s lucky streak continued when she landed an understudy role in the Broadway production of Murray Schisgal’s “Luv.” She went on for Anne Jackson the night Mel Brooks came to see Gene Wilder. He was impressed and asked her to audition for the Eva Braun role in a film he was making. “The Producers.”

“I just saw him a few months ago,” Renee said. “He said, ‘Did I ever thank you for playing Eva Braun? I remember your audition. There were 300 girls and you came in and said Ich libe dich, ich liebe dich nicht.’ He remembered that 45 years later.”

Renee and Joe were as close to perfect a couple as you can be. They wrote plays together. “It was great working with him,” she said. “Now that I’m thinking about it — I think I’m gonna cry…” She pauses briefly to catch her breath.

“I worked with him. I wrote with him, I acted with him because I loved to flirt with him on stage and everywhere. He’d walk into a room and I’d asked him, ‘did you come alone?’ and he’d say ‘that depends.’ We would play games together all the time.”

Of course there were arguments. “But we would negotiate. I’d say if you put in this line I love, I’ll go with you to your family for Easter.”

Together they wrote “Lovers and Other Strangers” and received an Oscar nod for their screenplay of the film versions of “It Had to Be You” and “Made for Each Other,” which was nominated for a Screen Writers Guild best comedy award.

It’s around this point in her life that the play ends. She’d told me how the production had changed over the years, and I asked her why she didn’t update it to the present.

“That’s a whole other play I’m working on,” she said. “‘The Book of Joe.’ It’s the story of our romance and adventures. After he died I had double pneumonia. They didn’t know if I was going to live. Joe started talking to me. He talks to me practically every day, and we still have a wonderful relationship. Now I say to him, ‘just kiss me. Don’t talk.’”

“My Life on a Diet” opened officially at the St. Clement’s Theater (423 W. 46th St.) on July 25. It runs at least through August 19. Tickets are $65 at Ticketmaster.

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