Interview: Renée Taylor of Tango Shalom

Going back to her beginnings as a nightclub comic and actress in the early Sixties through the stage comedies and screenplays she wrote and occasionally co-starred in with her late husband Joseph Bologna in the late Sixties and beyond, Renée Taylor has been putting smiles on our faces for decades. That she’s been discovered by subsequent generations through her television work in the Eighties and Nineties, led by her role as Fran Drescher’s irrepressible mother on The Nanny, is a testament to her perennially joyous talents. The stage beckoned her back, and beginning in 2018, she appeared Off-Broadway in the lauded one-woman biographical play My Life on a Diet, which then went on a national tour that’s slated to begin again this spring.

Ms. Taylor can currently be seen in the just-released film Tango Shalom, a sweet-natured, richly Jewish comedy that was directed by her son Gabriel Bologna and co-written by Joseph Bologna. The film revolves around lovely Tango dancer Viviana (Dancing with the Stars champion Karina Smirnoff) and Hora-loving Orthodox Jewish rabbi Moshe Yehuda (co-writer Jos Laniado), who needs money to save his Hebrew school from bankruptcy. With a plan to enter a televised tango dance competition, there are only a few obstacles in the way: Moshe’s wife and kids, the Grand Rabbi of his sect, his entire Hasidic community in Brooklyn and the fact that Moshe’s Orthodox beliefs forbid him from touching his dance partner! Ms. Taylor appears in the film as Deborah Yehuda, the put-upon rabbi’s even more put-upon mother.

Bronx native Ms. Taylor currently lives in Manhattan but was in Los Angeles when we spoke last week, the day after the New York region was slammed by Hurricane Ida. She called me directly and I can honestly say that her familiar voice and overall positivity provided the nicest hour of a dreadful week. It was a a pure pleasure from the moment I picked up the phone.

Renée Taylor: Hi, it’s Renée!

Disc Dish: Hello, Ms. Taylor! Thank you so much for calling.

RT: Of course, of course, I’m happy to. I only wish I was there under the water with all of you. I hope everyone is doing alright.

DD: It’s a real mess here—some very tough stuff. But we’ll get through it. May I call you Renée?

RT: Unless you want to call me sweetheart.

DD: Let me first say, Renée, that I go so far back with you, back to Lovers and Other Strangers and Made for Each Other. I’ve always enjoyed everything you’ve done, particularly your projects with Mr. Bologna. Your final project together is Tango Shalom, which is so fun and sweet and big-hearted.

RT: Thank you, thank you for your kind words. We had so much fun making it.

The kibbitz is on for Lainie Kazan and Renée Taylor in Tango Shalom.

DD: It looks like you did. I was describing it to a friend as a film that’s “Jewish with a vengeance.” What it immediately reminded me of, actually, was the movie you and Mr. Bologna directed and starred in back in 1996, Love Is All There Is, which I considered to be “Italian with a vengeance.”

RT: Oh, that was a sweet one, too. But I just loved the story of Tango Shalom.

DD: It’s just receiving a wide release now, but I know it was shot a while ago.

RT: Yes, my husband was diagnosed with cancer and [in 2017] he was going to have an operation. So, we asked him, “Are you sure you want to shoot this thing?” And he said, “Yes, it’ll get my mind off everything.”

DD: He had a couple of very nice scenes. I loved the idea of him as a priest giving advice to a Hasidic hero.

RT: [Joe] was going to be a priest when he was young, so it was full circle that the last part he played was a priest.

DD: How did you initially become involved with the film?

RT: [The producers] called me up to play Mrs. Yehuda, the rabbi’s wife, because Olympia Dukaikis was doing something else and she said, “Get Renée!” So they called me and said, “Would you come to New York and do a reading?”—we lived in Beverly Hills then—and I said, “If Joe comes with me.” Joe came with me and I said that I would do it if he could work on the script. And he did and then Joe said, “I know just the person to direct this—my son!” They watched a movie that Gabe did before, they liked it, and that’s how it all happened. It was a family affair.

DD: Quite! And your son’s wife Zizi Bologna, did the music?

RT: Yes, she’s a brilliant composer. And I got my friend Lainie Kazan to be in it. I’ve known her longer than I’d even known Joe. We were having such a good time while we were working on it.

DD: What’s it like to be directed by your son?

RT: It’s really great because he knows me so well. He says, “Ma, cry more.” And I said, “More?!” And he said, “Yeah! Remember when my cat ran away and how much you cried? Cry like that!”

DD: Directing Renée Taylor to go bigger is a brassy move. But it still must have been smiles all around.

RT: It was. When I wasn’t shooting, I came by and kibbitzed. You know, I could be on Dancing with the Stars like [Tango Shalom co-star] Karina Smirnoff was, but if I tangoed, I’d have to go “Oy” a lot. I’m telling everyone that our movie is like a Kosher Saturday Night Fever.

DD: What’s up next when the tangoing slows down?

RT: Now I’m getting ready to go back out [on tour] with My Life on a Diet this spring. I can’t wait. I love taking it around. I love playing Arkansas and hearing people laugh, seeing that all across the country people have a sense of humor. They’re all so nice to me.

DD: You aren’t one to slow down and just kick back and enjoy the sun, are you?

RT: I’m in my eternal middle age. A long, long middle age.

DD: You, too?!

Distributed by Vision Films, Tango Shalom is currently playing in theaters in Los Angeles and New York. It will be released on all major streaming and cable platforms, and on DVD, on October 29.


About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.