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It’s hard to imagine that an iconic, multiple-Emmy-winning comedy series like Taxi ran for only five seasons and 114 episodes. But that was the case for the comedy that helped launch the career of future stars including Danny DeVito, Marilu Henner, Christopher Lloyd and Tony Danza.
The ABC turned NBC comedy, which this month marks 40 years since its series debut, told the story of a group of dreamers — drivers with aspirations always just outside their grasp and humiliations well within it. Finding a kinship inside a grungy garage, they build a refuge from the daily struggles of the outside world. Nobody wanted to be there, yet while they were, they celebrated and supported one another.
The pioneering sitcom — which premiered 40 years ago on Sept. 12, 1978 — didn’t crack jokes as much as derive humor from recognizable situations. The actors didn’t project as much as portray. No one wore a black or white hat, just different shades of gray. Smart writing, rich characters and the close bond of cast and crew forged a one-of-a-kind viewing experience.
In just five seasons, Taxi won three Emmys for best comedy series. It launched the careers of DeVito, Henner, Lloyd and Danza. It introduced Andy Kaufman to mainstream audiences. And if not for the machinations of network executives, it could have continued for many more years.
Taxi’s humor and comedic blueprint hasn’t been seen before or since. In celebration of the show’s 40th anniversary, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the cast and crew and discussed how they created one of television’s seminal series.
All great stories start from the kernel of an idea.
James (Jim) L. Brooks (co-creator/writer/producer): There was an article in New York magazine about a cab company where everybody worked at night because they wanted to be something else. They were chasing dreams while locked in a hard reality made better by their relationship with each other. It’s comedy with a Eugene O’Neill element in it.
Dave Davis (co-creator): Grant Tinker, head of MTM, put an option on it. Then Jim, me, Stan Daniels and Ed Weinberger left MTM and went over to Paramount to make movies. The deal included two put pilots for ABC.
Brooks: I called Grant up and asked if we could buy the rights to the article and he gave them to us. That’s who he was.
Brooks, an avid researcher, and the other producers dived into the world of taxi drivers.
Davis: We went to a cab company in New York to talk with the drivers whose shift ended in the early morning.
Brooks: It was great because we were seeing them as they came in. They all had these aspirations.
Davis: It turned out everyone was waiting around for this charismatic young guy, the “big booker.”
Brooks: We asked him what his aspiration was, and he said, “I’m a cab driver.” And we realized, that’s Alex.
Jim Burrows (director): He’s the only one who knows he’s going to stay and is at peace about it.
The producers went on a bicoastal hunt for the show’s lead: Alex Reiger.
Davis: We were auditioning everybody. Then somebody said, “What about Judd Hirsch?”
Hirsch (Alex Reiger): They said everyone rotates around Alex. You’re the center of a dance. I said, “Shit, I wanted to play the guy who can’t speak English.” He was originally named Alex Taylor. I said, “I can’t play Taylor. It doesn’t describe anybody.” Brooks looked at me and said, “Well, who could you play?” I tried to think of the funniest guy I ever met. I remembered there was this kid in junior high school. So, I said, “Rieger.”
Elaine Nardo (Henner), an aspiring art dealer, introduced single moms to situational comedies.
Henner: They wanted a 33-year-old Italian New Yorker with a teenage daughter. I was a 25-year-old Polish-Greek girl from Chicago. But Joel Thurm, the casting director, was really in my corner. He kept telling them I was a girl who could hold my own with the guys.
Brooks: Marilu’s the glue of so much of Taxi‘s spirit and enthusiasm. She got us to do that musical piece when everyone came out in tuxedos. It was her happiest moment.
The pilot called for an Irish heavyweight, Phil Ryan. Danza’s audition transformed that role into bum fighter Tony Banta, who envisions turning three-punch combinations into a couple of good fights.
Danza: I’d broken my third metacarpal on my right hand and had a black eye from knocking out a guy in the ring in Brooklyn. You couldn’t have made me up better for an audition. I was so ignorantly blissful. I’d never acted before. I didn’t know what I was doing, that’s for sure.
Banta became the first Vietnam War veteran to appear as a regular in a sitcom.
Danza: It was a big part of him. There’s this funny run where Jim’s talking about Vietnam and Tony gets mad and tells him he fought Jim’s battles while Jim was smoking pot and doing everything he was doing. What does he say about that now? And Jim goes, “Thank you?”
The Bobby Wheeler character wanted to be a star with his name in lights. For that, the producers plucked Jeff Conaway from Paramount’s hit movie Grease. Randall Carver rounded out the cabbies, playing the naive John Burns. All drivers in the garage answered to and kissed the yellow-cab ring of the canker-sore dispatcher, Louie De Palma (DeVito).
Brooks: When we were at the cab company, we saw the dispatcher taking a bribe from a driver for a clean cab. That gave us Louie.
DeVito: Louie made life miserable for everyone. The manifestation of what was going on inside of him came out in a mean-spirited way to those around him. Deep down he just wanted people to love him.
DeVito was blown away by the part, motivating him to try an unorthodox audition.
DeVito: The producers are all sitting there. Joel [Thurm] introduces me. I stand in the doorway, with the script in my hand, look at them and say, “One thing I want to know before we start, who wrote this shit?” There was a split second where it could have gone either way. Then they were just paralyzed with laughter. Jim was apoplectic.
DeVito: The first thing I did was decorate my cage. I was a fan of Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando. I got a picture from Taxi Driver and I think I got Robert to autograph it. One of the things I responded to early on was that there was a life for Louie. He lived with his mom. He had a great Mel Torme collection of vinyls, he was a guy who didn’t have a lot of success dating women he didn’t have to pay for.
The street reverend, Jim Ignatowski (Lloyd), first appeared as a guest in the season one episode “Paper Marriage.” Television had never seen a stoned ’60s relic like Jim before. He became a series regular the following season.
Lloyd: Jim ponders life. He watches the world go out in front of him with a detachment of interest. Everyone identified with him because he was kind of a symbol of the drug era.
Burrows: When Christopher walked into that room to audition, it was one of those things where you go, “Oh, my God.”
Lloyd: Something clicked in my head. I didn’t wash my hair or shave. I showed up in worn-down canvas shoes with this jeans jacket from the ’60s that a friend of mine found while clearing shrubbery around his house. I wore that for two seasons until somebody took it.
And as for that distant Jim stare that defined his look …
Lloyd: My brother had an expression on his face that was kind of Rev. Jim’s look. It just sort of worked. Every once in a while, we’d come back from hiatus and if I couldn’t seem to get the groove, my brother’s face would come to mind and suddenly it was there.
And then came Latka Gravas (Kaufman), the talented immigrant mechanic based on the eclectic Kaufman’s “foreign man” character he’d developed in comedy clubs.
Burrows: Andy wasn’t crazy. He was a normal kid from Great Neck, N.Y., who did crazy things. It was quite a dichotomy.
Danza: I had an attitude with him for a long time. I grabbed a fire extinguisher once when he was late and started shooting him with it. He just stood there. I couldn’t get a rise out of him. Later, I saw his show where he took the audience out for milk and cookies afterward. I realized he was trying a different kind of comedy. It was so brave and amazing.
Lloyd: We were rehearsing once, and the topic of levitation came up. Andy told everyone, “I could do that.” He sat down on the stage in front of all of us and got into the Buddha position. Eventually, the production manager said we had to go back to work. Andy reluctantly got up. I felt that if he had 30 more seconds, it might have happened.
Latka eventually married a fierce, independent woman from his homeland, Simka Dahblitz-Gravas (Carol Kane).
Kane: Andy didn’t want Latka to get married, which I understand. Latka was his creation and all of a sudden there’s another person participating in it.
Brooks: One of the joys of my life was making up a religion, marriage customs and an ethos. It was almost like a sci-fi character. You could do anything.
Kane: After I was hired, Andy took me to a Chinese restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard [in Los Angeles]. I asked him about Latka’s language and he said it’s like when you’re a kid and you speak Russian or Chinese. You don’t know there are rules to a language. But there’s a very specific rhythm. So, we figured out what I wanted to order. When the waiter came, I ordered in the language and he translated it to the waiter.
Kane: We’d work with a fake Andy who wore a sign around his neck that said “Latka.” But Andy gave me everything I needed for Simka to be in a relationship with Latka. And I think you can see in the shows we have together that we’re really together.
The writers and actors built a symbiotic relationship in which everyone contributed to the show’s voice and tone. Aspiring writers today still study episodes penned by sitcom legends like the Charles brothers, Sam Simon and David Lloyd for inspiration and education.
Brooks: I always thought that my job was for people to trust me. Do the script and make the honest call if something was at fault. It’s an amazing atmosphere to work in where everybody believes in everybody else.
Henner: You never felt like you couldn’t talk to anybody or express an opinion. Jim wanted to hear everything and then put it through his own filter.
Brooks: There’s this frenzied period before the audience comes in where all the producers are where the audience sits, and the assistant director says, “Cast to the rail” for notes after every scene. There have been shows where the cast wouldn’t come. Our cast ran.
Kane: I would mow people down to get there first because those notes were so brilliant.
Henner: We loved those moments. You wanted the feedback. Was this working or not? You knew they were going to tell you when you were great or terrible or when something didn’t look right.
Brooks: Whenever I gave Andy notes he’d be in character and look shocked to see this man giving him acting notes when he was a mechanic. But then he always did the note perfectly.
Kane: The second time I appeared on the show, I really wanted to please them, which translated into me wanting to be funny. Jim just lit into me. He said, “If we wrote it funny it will be funny and if we didn’t, we’ll fix it.” He wanted us to be true to our characters and the writing.
In the center of everything stood helmer Burrows, a relative newcomer who would go on to become the most prolific comedic director in the history of TV.
Burrows: There were seven to eight main characters in every show. It was a huge set, complicated and the first time four cameras were used on a filmed series. By the afternoon of camera day, my eyes were pretty beady, so Danny called me “Beads.”
Brooks: What Jimmy did was bridge worlds. He was with the actors all day and then he came into the writers’ room to talk to us. He lets us know problems he was having.
Henner: Jimmy’s brilliant at adding little goodies to a scene, like in an episode where I’m losing my mind, and someone says the champagne’s flat. Jimmy had me bend over and blow bubbles in the glass.
Kane: He would draw attention to only you and show you something you could try and then you’d get the big laugh and get credit for it.
Burrows: I tried to make the actors feel at home; make them into a group that loves one another and that’ll come across to the audience. I was like a captain of a ship. I want them to walk the comic plank and if they fall off, I’ll catch them and build another plank.
Everyone on the show has their favorite episodes and bits.
Kane: Because Latka slept with someone he worked with, Simka had to sleep with someone he worked with. She invites Alex over and throws herself at him. “Now peel me like a grape and I can get out of here.” The subtext was let’s get this over with. But listen to those words. Who gets to say that?
DeVito: Louie’s alone in the garage. He reaches up into the cage, takes out the microphone and sings. At the end, I say, “I always wanted to do that,” and hang the microphone up. That was a big, sweet moment in the first season. It made him an interesting character.
Henner: My negotiation scene with Louie in “Shut It Down, Part 1″ was my favorite. I couldn’t get through it all week without laughing because Danny was the devil. When I’d finally get used to what he was doing, he’d add something else. Eventually he was leaning forward on the word “stallion,” flaring his nostrils and stomping his foot. I wore painful boots in that scene to give myself a stomach ache so that I wouldn’t laugh.
Brooks: I had an alcoholic dad who was absent as well and I had gotten word he was in the hospital. It had been years since I’d seen him. My sister and I went to the hospital and saw this horrifically old man. I went over and said, “Daddy,” and it wasn’t him. He was two rooms down. We did that one.
Danza: One of my biggest laughs is when the garage closes and we all come together to share what we’d been doing. I talk about going to see a priest and telling him I lost my job and have to pay the rent. So, I took a job as a collector for my uncle, a bookmaker. I say sometimes I have to act tough, but I never hurt anybody. I try to do it nice. He says, “If you don’t think it’s wrong, why have you come to me so troubled?” And I say, “Because you owe 300 bucks.”
Hirsch: In Alex’s gambling episode, “Alex Goes off the Wagon,” I call Jim at the garage to get more money and instruct him, “Now listen Jim, I want you to run up to my locker … .” He drops the phone and runs to my locker and then runs back and says, “OK, Alex, now what?”
And then there’s one of the most famous comedic moments in the history of television: Jim takes his driver’s test.
Hirsch: The greatest six words you ever heard on television: “What does a yellow light mean?” That’s it.
Lloyd: A lot of people still come up to me and say that.
Burrows: The script called for Jim to say it a few times. I think I stopped it at four.
Henner: I’m literally digging a pencil into my hand to keep from laughing. It just kept going. Nobody could believe it.
Hirsch: I’m doing improvisation. I don’t know what to do next. I just turn around. In my mind I was walking away. I had nowhere to go.
Brooks: Jimmy finally said cut and to this day I wish he never did. We knew we could continue forever.
Many memorable guest stars and recognizable faces stopped by, adding to the show’s zeitgeist and in certain instances, launching careers.
Henner: My friend taking an acting class lamented to me, “What chance do I have of getting a job when there’s this unbelievably handsome guy in my class who can’t get arrested?” I saw the guy in a workshop and thought he was talented and gorgeous. When they were casting a role in the episode, “Memories of Cab 804,” the guy showed up for the audition. I said, “I know that guy. He’s great. Let’s get him.” It was Tom Selleck. Tom says it’s because of Taxi he got Magnum P.I.
Burrows: I knew about Ted Danson because he came in to read for another show. I really liked him and talked to the Charles brothers about him for Cheers. We knew he was going to be on Taxi, so we went down to see him in front of an audience.
Brooks: He played a gay hairdresser. It wasn’t working in dress rehearsal and we were all looking for what was missing. I said, “Fly, fly.” Ted turned from me instantly and just went bigger with the character and it all fell in.
The most unique guest star has to be Kaufman’s alter ego, Tony Clifton. Unbeknown to everyone, Kaufman had signed a contract for Clifton to appear in an episode. The escapade became a key moment in Milos Forman’s film Man on the Moon.
Henner: The producers tell us it’s Andy, but it isn’t Andy. Just play along. On Monday morning, this guy with very orange makeup, a wig and fake moustache shows up chain-smoking in a blue ruffled tuxedo shirt.
DeVito: He stank like, I can’t even defame the names of the perfumes that it smelled like.
Henner: We thought, “OK, that’s kind of funny.” Then he began to act. We thought this guy’s going to take down Taxi.
DeVito: He said he had some rewrites. That was the roller coaster going over the edge. Then it was a ride all the way to the finish.
Brooks: Dave said an artist doesn’t piss on another artist and that made enormous sense to me. So, then we had that fantastic experience of Ed and Andy figuring out the theater of firing him. Andy said that was one of the greatest moments of his life.
Danza: Clifton comes in through the back door with two hookers. He sits them down at the table and announces that he’s rewritten the script.
Hirsch: You won’t see it in the movie, but I threw him out of the studio. I was really angry. Later, I started to think about it and realized he knew someone’s going to come up and do this to him.
Danza: I happened to have a Super 8 camera with me and shot the whole thing. A week later, I had everyone meet me in my dressing room to see the film. Everyone’s laughing. Then Andy walks in and we all think, “Shit.” After the longest pregnant pause, he says, “What an asshole,” and walks out.
When not onscreen together, the cast often played together offscreen.
Burrows: They were all young except for Judd and they bonded as kids. We used to roller skate together. It was crazy.
Hirsch: We went to dances. We had a softball team.
Danza: Ed and Jim would constantly bring us all together. Danny and Rhea Perlman got married at lunch.
Henner: We were just at that time in our lives. It was the late ’70s and pretty freewheeling.
Danza: Jeff and I were the “lust brothers” because every week we’d look at the guest stars and see who the extras were. We were in our 20s and living. He was one of the sweetest guys. Unfortunately, he wasn’t built for the times. It made life difficult for him.
Every Friday night, after filming, the cast would spring for a party. These became legendary.
Henner: Our small parties seemed like everyone else’s big party. We were the cool kids on the lot because of those parties. All the Paramount shows hung out with us: Happy Days, Mork & Mindy, Laverne & Shirley, Bosom Buddies and Working Stiffs. John Travolta and Frances Ford Coppola came around. John Belushi stopped by often to hang out with Danny. He was there the Thursday of our show’s last week in 1982. He died the next day.
Hirsch: We all wanted to have something to do after the show because we didn’t want to go home. We wanted to be together more than anything else.
Lloyd: It was great to leave your dressing room and hang up your costume and go up there with everyone and have a feast.
Henner: We’d have four or five huge parties a year in the commissary or at Ed’s house. They’d go to 2 or 3 in the morning and then some of us would go out to breakfast.
DeVito: We knew we’d look back on this as a seminal experience in our lives and careers. Speak to anyone in the cast and crew and they’ll say they were aware of and savoring it.
Taxi originally aired after ratings juggernaut Three’s Company. ABC, however, decided in November 1980 to bump Taxi from its time slot for Too Close for Comfort. Thus began the show’s slow descent into the ratings graveyard.
DeVito: It was almost like a concerted effort to dodge the audience.
Brooks: We’d won best comedy three years in a row [1979 to 1981] and this guy in charge of programming, who only had a network job that year, canceled us. I was sitting in my office when the word started to go out. We weren’t in production, but everyone started drifting in.
Kane: We were all devastated. We all found each other, like when someone dies.
Henner: I was in a Pilates class and Jim called and said, “They canceled us, honey.” I said, “Where are we meeting?” He told me to come to his office. When I got there, he was already on the phone with Michael Fuchs about maybe moving to HBO. Nobody wanted to say goodbye. We were drinking and then carried it over to Tony’s where we had a wake and stayed up all night. Tony had this Taxi jar and put flowers around it. It was laid out like we were looking at a body.
Danza: When you get canceled you don’t get a chance to say goodbye because it happens after production is over. So, we were upset we didn’t get a chance to take a bow.
As luck would have it, DeVito had previously made a date to host Saturday Night Live that weekend.
DeVito: I said to my publicist I wanted to bring everyone on stage. The SNL audience is always so welcoming. I told them ABC canceled Taxi and they went nuts. I then introduced the cast and they came on stage.
The SNL fervor led Grant Tinker, then head of NBC, to make an offer for a full season of Taxi, which the show needed to reach the 100-episode milestone needed for syndication.
DeVito: We knew it was probably the last season and turned up the good-times burners. And we got syndication, which was important for everybody.
Hirsch: Nobody knows this but, NBC wanted to rewrite contracts to extend us for two years and I said I can’t agree to that. I had to call Grant to settle my contract because otherwise Taxi won’t be here. I told him I don’t want to extend my contract for two years for whatever you’re asking for. If it’s a hit, you have my promise that it’ll go on. If it’s a dud, you’ll cancel me. And if it’s in the middle, we’ll talk. And he said that’s agreeable.
Low ratings eventually led to cancellation in 1983.
Hirsch: At the end, I proposed a two-hour show where we get together and are all going to finally do something or not. Nobody did it.
Brooks: I was doing my first movie. Danny was in it and we were together in Nebraska when we got word the show was over. We were filming in a motel and it had a bar and we went in and the bartender said to Danny, “Aren’t you from Taxi?” and Danny said yes. We clicked our glasses and went back to work.
Henner: It felt like it was the end and you would move on to your next thing, but you’d always be part of Taxi even if you weren’t all getting together every single week.
DeVito: The one thing I always get is how surprised people are with how few years we did. They always go, “What?” because today, things run longer and they think they’ve seen so many episodes.
Brooks: There’s a lot of things that take a glow in retrospect. The great thing about Taxi was there wasn’t a moment on that show that we didn’t appreciate how lucky we were to have it. That was the show’s energy. I’ve never seen anything like it since. That’s what happens with specific shows. People show up at the right time and everyone’s lucky enough to have each other at a certain point. It becomes a beautiful team sport.
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