Joe Bologna Gets Laughs in My Favorite Year, but He Says the Real Comedy Is His Marriage

updated 11/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Since Joe Bologna tied the knot with Renee Taylor in 1965, he's been one half of the zaniest acting-writing team in show business. But their scripts can't compare to their marriage. "We play togetherness games," says Renee. "My favorite is when we pretend I'm not his wife and I'm meeting him for a love tryst in a hotel room." Once Renee posed as a hooker trying to pick up Joe in the lobby of New York's Plaza Hotel. When the house detectives escorted her outside, Joe played dumb, explaining, "How could I not? It's like handing a comic a straight line without giving him the punch line. Besides, I was embarrassed."

Sometimes, perhaps out of necessary comic relief, the two play it solo careerwise. Now it's Joe's turn. In My Favorite Year, this fall's comedy sleeper about the golden age of "live" television, Bologna, 46, is winning raves playing a Sid Caesar-like comic.

He was an art history major when Caesar's Your Show of Shows was America's favorite pastime in 1954 but sees a lot of himself in Caesar. So did Year's co-producer Mel Brooks (one of Caesar's former writers), who demanded that first-time movie director Richard Benjamin get Bologna for the role. Playing a laugh king whose ego is as large as the photo his comedy writers use as a dart board, Bologna delivers a wickedly funny caricature that nonetheless captures, as one critic noted, Caesar's "heroic pursuit of laughs."

The real Caesar reportedly was delighted by Bologna but unnerved by Peter O'Toole's portrayal of a fading star incapacitated by drink. Caesar's just-published autobiography, Where Have I Been?, suggests more devastating parallels there.

"I love Sid," says Bologna, who knows Caesar casually. "He was a pro, and he did his thing. But he was, like, nuts." Bologna never drinks. "I cut it out eight or nine years ago," he reveals. "All these ex-stars, when you see them they break your heart."

If Bologna were to come up with his favorite year, it probably would be 1964, when he met stand-up comedienne Renee Taylor. He did more than write material for her club act. Joe and Renee (divorced from actor Frank Baxter) married the following year. They held their Jewish-Italian wedding reception on the Merv Griffin show—it was cheaper. Their first collaboration was doctoring a flawed play bound for Broadway. Following a disastrous review, Joe recalls, "We thought our careers were over."

Not so. In 1968 they wrote and co-starred in the Broadway hit Lovers and Other Strangers, scripted the 1970 film version and the semi-autobiographical 1971 movie comedy Made for Each Other, in which they starred. Last year they returned to Broadway in It Had to Be You, one of three plays they wrote after leaving L.A. in 1978. Though they still own a seven-bedroom Tudor house in Beverly Hills (which is up for rent for $5,000 a month), Bologna gripes, "It's the old joke about California: You go out there when you're 30, you take a swim in your pool, have a drink and then you're 40."

Now at their recently purchased Victorian home in Englewood, N.J., near Manhattan, Joe and Renee are writing and producing an ABC pilot of Lovers and Other Strangers, an NBC comedy-drama series, and a new film, Love and Success, for Burt Reynolds. "The acting part of us is in conflict," says Bologna, who had co-starred in the 1979 Neil Simon film Chapter Two. "An actor is like a kid who says, 'Where's my cookie?' The writer is like the adult who says, 'Wait for your cookie.' "

Bologna learned patience from his Italian bootblack grandfather, who came to Manhattan at the turn of the century. But unlike his father, who went into the family shoeshine business, Joe directed and later wrote TV commercials (Right Guard, Gillette) as an entrée into showbiz.

Renee Wexler, a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx, attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She started her acting career off Broadway, became a regular on the Jack Paar and Perry Como shows and wrote some of her own material, including a biography that omits her age (about 50). "If I told her age," says Joe, "it would be grounds for divorce."

At times their marriage seems scripted. Affirms Renee, "We see our marriage as comedy, and we're observers of that comedy." Joe allows, "Working together forces us to get rid of our anger." Renee adds, "We can almost do the first line of a fight, then jump to the last line: 'Goodbye, it's all over. I never want to see you again.' (pause) 'All right. You want to go to a movie tonight?' "

Two ingredients that have kept them together, Renee confides, are "fidelity and pasta." Their only child, Gabriel, 13—who does a scathing impersonation of his parents fighting—gamely endures their zaniness and even his mother's penchant for health food. Quips Joe, "When Renee comes home with sperm whale oil pasta, Gabriel sits there, like, 'Here we go again.' "

The repartee rarely ceases. Confides Joe, "Once Renee and I were making love, and she said, 'Do you love me?' I said, 'Yes, but I love show business more.' " Renee didn't crack up, but neither did the marriage. Why? "That's the thing: After 17 years," says Renee, "I'm crazy about him."

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