“No Vivaldi in the garage!” — Louie De Palma

May 20, 2011

JEFF CONAWAY

Like everyone else, I suppose, I was very sorry to read that Jeff Conaway was comatose in a hospital in Encino. Conaway occupies a special pantheon in my family because of his role as Bobby Wheeler on the television series Taxi. Like some other entertainment media, television can do that for a person, throw at least one role his way that guarantees that his career will never be thought of as altogether ordinary.

Conaway was perfectly cast as the egotistical but insecure young actor, and he played the part in the midst of an ensemble of performers, many of whom were already experienced and all of whom were also perfectly cast. This fact, plus the excellent writing, made Taxi, one of the best situation comedies in television history.

JUDD HIRSCH

There were 114 episodes of Taxi from 1978 to 1983, and every one was an artistic success. The series won 18 Emmy awards, a fact that speaks for itself.

The cast was remarkable: Judd Hirsch, Danny De Vito, Rhea Perlman, Christopher Lloyd, Andy Kaufman, Carol Kane, Marilu Henner, and Tony Danza. The selection of Danza was a particular stroke of genius. He was a prize fighter (9-3) when he was cast as boxer/cab driver Tony Banta and, although he had been type cast, he displayed impressive acting acumen, including pinpoint timing and a worthy double take, throughout the series.

Besides the regular cast, the producers imported outstanding guest players, including Julie Kavner, Barry Nelson, Louise Lasser, Jack Gilford, Ruth Gordon, Wallace Shawn, J. Pat O’Malley, Victor Buono, and Vincent Schiavelli.

A particular strength of the writers of Taxi was their ability to create unique characters – the nasty dispatcher Louie De Palma (De Vito), the dizzy immigrant Latka Gravas (Kaufman),  the pickle-brained Jim Ignatowski (Lloyd), and the glowering Reverend  Gorky (Schiavelli). The faux Eastern European language spoken by Latka, his wife Simka (Kane), Reverend Gorky, and Latka’s mother and cousin, was an ingenious and hilarious invention.

VINCENT SCHIAVELLI

Taxi dealt with ordinary people with recognizable, ordinary problems, and in the context of its comedy it tastefully touched on sensitive topics such as bisexuality, blindness, old age, single parenthood, obesity, premenstrual mood disorders, drug addiction, and sexual harassment. Taxi’s writers never went for cheap laughs.

Taxi was similar to The Honeymooners in its heyday in the sense that it had a kind of grim realism. Until Jackie Gleason made the fatal error of moving the Kramdens and Nortons out of their tenement milieu, a haunting aspect of that show was the realization that those folks were never moving out of that neighborhood, Ralph and Ed were never leaving the bus company and the sewer system, no matter how hard they dreamed. The same thing was true of the characters in Taxi –ironically, with the exception of Bobby Wheeler– and the writers were faithful to that truth.

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5 Responses to ““No Vivaldi in the garage!” — Louie De Palma”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    I can’t believe I’ve never seen a complete episode of “Taxi”. Not one. I do have a visual of the garage in my mind, but that could have come from a commercial.

    In 1978 I’d just come back from West Africa and was getting settled into graduate school – that helps to explain some of it. An entire decade given over to education, new jobs and so on didn’t leave much time for tv watching. I’m not even sure I had a tv at that time.

    I have come to enjoy ensemble acting, so it might be worth giving it a go. Heaven knows it has to be better than most of what passes for entertainment these days.

    Your mention of “The Honeymooners” reminds me – I just learned this past week of the program’s connection with “The Flintstones”. Once I heard the connection made, it was obvious.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I don’t know where you’ll see it. None of the TV networks we receive here re-run Taxi. My kids, all of whom are Taxiaficionados, gave me two seasons on DVD, and I intend to order the rest so I can see it once in a while. A curiosity about the series is that three of the actors — De Vito, Lloyd, and Schiavelli — appeared as patients in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Vince Schiavelli, who — I’m sad to say — died a few years ago, also had a wonderful role in the movie “Ghost” — as the subway ghost who teaches the dead character played by Patrick Swayze how to move material objects. Vince also occupies a unique place in television history: he was the first actor to play a sustained gay character in a series. The series was “The Corner Bar.” Vince was also an expert on Italian cooking and had a cooking show for a while.

      I can appreciate what you’re saying about being away from TV when you came back from West Africa. We had that experience when we went to State College, Pa., while I was in graduate school at Penn State. That was in the mid 1960s, and there was virtually no TV reception there, unless you subscribed to what was then known as “cable.” What that meant was that there was a tower on the top of a nearby mountain and you could pay to be hard wired to it. The closest station was in Altoona, about 30 miles away, but that antenna would bring in stations from a lot farther away than that. However, we were living on $77 a month, so TV didn’t seem essential. So there’s a year-long blank in our television experience. We didn’t miss it at all, because there was so much to do on that campus.

      When my wife and I were in Poland about ten years ago, we saw a TV show that we recognized as an updated version of “The Honeymooners.” My wife understands some Polish, so between the snatches of conversation she caught and what we could just observe, we recognized it as an episode in which Ralph Kramden decided to take a job as janitor in his apartment building while trying to also hold down the bus-driving job. The principal character in the Polish version was a trolley conductor, but it appeared that they were actually using the script from the Gleason show. We wondered aloud whether the producers got permission to do that and, sure enough, when the credits rolled, there was an acknowledgement of Viacom, the company that distributes “The Honeymooners.” Many many years ago, I visited Joyce Randolph, who played Trixie on that show, and she told me that some viewers would mail curtains and table cloths to the studio because they thought the Kramdens actually lived in that dingy apartment. As outlandish as that may seem, I heard a similar thing from Don Hastings, who for decades played Dr Robert Hughes on the soap opera “As the World Turns.” He told me that people would approach him in restaurants or stop him on the street and ask his medical advice, because they couldn’t distinguish the actor from the character.

  2. shoreacres Says:

    Well, lookie here what I found! Full episodes of “Taxi” online!

    Your mention of that $77 living expense reminds me again why it might be a little difficult for today’s kids (ranging in age from about 14 to 44) to grasp how much things have changed. What we lived on in those days wouldn’t pay the electronic gadget bill for most folks.

    As for tablecloths and medical advice – unsophisticated as those examples are, I wonder if they don’t show us the very beginnings of a process that now has people unwilling to distinguish themselves from actors and celebrities. At least if you’re sending a tablecloth, you still see the Kramdens as separate people. 😉

    • charlespaolino Says:

      Thanks for the link. I had no idea. “The Lighter Side of Angela Matusa” won the Peabody Award. I think “Like Father Like Daughter” was the first episode in the series. “Elaine’s Secret Admirer” is one of my favorites. “Tony’s Sister and Jim’s sister” is the source of “No Vivaldi in the Garage.”

      In 1973, John Lahr wrote a novel, “The Autograph Hound,” about a subculture of people who have a pathological obsession with celebrities to the degree that their own personalities are virtually nullified. After I read that book, several actors told me about being haunted by real people who were just as Lahr had described them. In fact, when we were waiting to have lunch with a friend of ours who was appearing in a Broadway show, she pointed out two men who had stopped her to inquire about the health of her Great Dane; she told us that they were the sort of people John Lahr was writing about. She said she must have had a hundred conversations with those men during the run of that show.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      Correction: It was “The Blind Date” that won the Peabody Award. “The Lighter Side of Angela Matusa” was a sequel to “The Blind Date.”

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