Joseph Bologna obituary

Actor, playwright and Oscar-nominated screenwriter who took the part of the tyrannical comedian King Kaiser in the 1982 film comedy My Favourite Year

Tough cookies with soft centres were the stock-in-trade of the actor Joseph Bologna, who has died aged 82. Cinema audiences warmed to him from his performances as gruff, long-suffering or domineering fathers and father figures.

He was the tyrannical comedian King Kaiser, modelled on Sid Caesar, in the nostalgic comedy My Favourite Year (1982), starring Peter O’Toole as an alcoholic former matinee idol. He played one of Gene Wilder’s drinking buddies in The Woman in Red and a man whose teenage daughter (Michelle Johnson) is having an affair with his best friend (Michael Caine) in Blame It on Rio (both 1984). In Big Daddy (1999), he was Adam Sandler’s disapproving father; initially unimpressed when his son adopts a child (“He’d be better off living in a dumpster than living with you!”), he undergoes a change of heart in the courtroom climax.

Bologna also had a successful writing career with his wife, the actor Renée Taylor, that spanned almost their entire life together. They married in 1965 – the ceremony was broadcast by The Merv Griffin Show, on which Taylor had been a recurring guest – and later had at least five wedding renewal ceremonies filmed for various outlets including Entertainment Tonight. Unsurprisingly, it was marriage, described by Bologna as “a fight to maintain separateness while staying together”, that dominated their work.

Joseph Bologna with the actor Renée Taylor, his wife and writing partner, in 1987.
Joseph Bologna with the actor Renée Taylor, his wife and writing partner, in 1987. Photograph: Ron Galella/Getty Images

Their first play, Lovers and Other Strangers, was produced on Broadway in 1968. It featured four stories covering assorted scenarios, from preparations for an initial seduction to a groom having second thoughts on the eve of his wedding. The show, which starred Taylor, ran for only two months but the 1970 film version, featuring the screen debut of Diane Keaton, was a hit. It also brought Bologna and Taylor an Oscar nomination (along with their co-writer David Zelag Goodman) for best adapted screenplay.

They followed this by writing and starring in Made for Each Other (1971), about a couple who meet at a group therapy session. The New York Times called the pair “a very serious comedy team” and the film an “uncomfortable comedy of a fairly unusual sort in that it locates the sources of everybody’s vulnerability and does not disguise the misery of anybody’s pain”. Generally regarded as their best work, it was inspired by the culture-clash at the heart of Bologna and Taylor’s own relationship (she was from a reserved Jewish family, he a large and rowdy Italian-American one) as well as by their experiences with therapy. “I’m an Italian guy from Brooklyn,” Bologna noted. “We grew up repressing our subdominant feminine side.”

Made for Each Other, 1971, with Joseph Bologna and Renée Taylor

Their life together continued to inform their writing, with later film collaborations including It Had to Be You (1989), which began life as a play, and Love Is All There Is (1996), which they wrote, directed and starred in, and in which Angelina Jolie made an early appearance. Their other plays included the 1996 comedy Bermuda Avenue Triangle, which Variety said “moves at the pace of a marathon bingo game”, and If You Ever Leave Me … I’m Going With You! another affectionate autobiographical look at marriage, this time augmented by home movies and excerpts from their work. It enjoyed a brief run in 2001.

Bologna was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Anthony, who worked on a shoeshine stand, and Josephine. He graduated with an art history degree from Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, where he also got his first taste of acting. After a stint in the Marine Corps, he landed jobs directing commercials and writing jokes. After he met Taylor his writing career took off, and the couple wrote prolifically in the wake of their early success. They won an Emmy in 1973 for the TV special Acts of Love and Other Comedies and co-wrote and starred in the TV movies Paradise (1974), Woman of the Year (1976), Good Penny (1977), which Bologna co-directed, A Cry for Love (1980) and Bedrooms (1984).

He was also in demand as an actor outside his own projects. He was a police officer who turns to crime in Cops and Robbers (1973) and part of the ensemble cast in the disaster movie parody The Big Bus (1976). He starred in Neil Simon’s Chapter Two (1979) and got the stamp of approval from Mel Brooks, the uncredited executive producer of My Favourite Year: “I looked at Joe Bologna and I said, ‘That is Sid Caesar,’” Brooks recalled. “There’s a certain primitive energy that Joe Bologna and Sid Caesar share, a very basic animal energy. Eat. Go. Sleep.”

He played a scientist in the comedy Transylvania 6-5000 (1985) and a larky uncle to three brothers in the sentimental road movie Coupe de Ville (1990). Most of his subsequent screen work was in TV movies and long-running series, including The Nanny (1994-99), on which Taylor was a regular cast member. The couple made their last screen appearance together in Tango Shalom (2016), a comedy co-written by Bologna and directed by their son, Gabriel, who survives him, along with Taylor.

• Joseph Bologna, actor, writer and director, born 30 December 1934; died 13 August 2017

• This article was amended on 15 August 2017. The names of Joseph Bologna’s parents were corrected.


Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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