His name may not be instantly recognizable, but his face, voice and singular style of humor are. He is Taylor Negron, a raconteur/flâneur for the 21st century, one who also made a rather large mark in films, television, the stage and the page in the last millennium. Truth be told, Negron is still quite visible, be it from reading original monologues around town, or whenever such classic films as 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Last Boy Scout, pop up at classic screenings.
Yes, that was a very young Negron delivering a pizza to Sean Penn‘s Jeff Spicoli in the Amy Heckerling-directed film; then, cast against type, Negron was the badass, Milo, going up against Bruce Willis in Tony Scott‘s action flick. Other films range from Easy Money and Punchline to lesser-known gems, including The Fluffer, which was, shall we say, a poetic look at love set in the San Fernando Valley porn industry. Small screen devotees will recall Negron from shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld. He was also a recurring character on numerous TV series, including The Hughleys and So Little Time, the latter featuring Negron as a foppish Latino nanny to the Olsen Twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley, before they started having plastic surgery.
And the list goes on, with Negron playing an edgy elf to Whoopi Goldberg‘s female Santa in that TNT classic, Call Me Claus, and as one of the many comics discussing the world’s dirtiest joke, The Aristocrats. Seriously, Negron’s hundreds of appearances, including giving a Ted Talk last year, stand out because…Negron stands out. And so do his paintings. Negron is also a gifted artist and prolific whose portraits are tiny gems, which got us wondering how Negron — of Puerto Rican and Jewish descent — can straddle so many art forms? And to do it with the ease, grace and finesse, say, of a Bolshoi ballerino. We recently caught up with Negron at the Four Seasons, where we learned how the 56-year old not only negotiates these cultural arenas, but how he seems to be part of the zeitgeist. During our chat, Negron, whose zingers flew fast and furious and whose piercing blue eyes mesmerized, we left few stones unturned, gleaning insight into his always fascinating, if occasionally surreal, take on life.
VL: You’re a native Californian who was born in Glendale and grew up in La Cañada Flintridge. That town doesn’t sound funny, not the way Cleveland or Buffalo do, so how does a boy from La Cañada Flintridge become funny? Do you remember your first stand-up appearance?
Taylor Negron: My first stand-up appearance was when I was in high school and went to the Comedy Store with a friend, because we’d seen an article in the L.A. Times. We went up and did our act, which involved two men jitterbugging. Everybody was a little amazed and shocked, but I realized I was funny. Then I became an extra in the movies and thought this would be great because I could get paid just for being there, and since extras aren’t supposed to move or talk, I could also draw them — I was sketching constantly. It’s still my dream life. I wish that I could make $175,000 being an extra and only work one hour a week.
VL: Somehow you parlayed those extra gigs into speaking roles, including some 17 appearances on the Dating Game in the ’70’s?
TN: I won enough Rice-A-Roni to clog San Francisco Bay. The Bachelorette asked me, “If you could be any kind of car in the world, what kind of car would you be?” I said “Used.” Chuck Barris loved me. He was so sweet that he finally set it up for me to win by putting an [a gay man] and a man from China who was barely able to speak English on the panel with me. She had to pick me. I ended up going to Rio de Janeiro where our chaperone lost all of her money buying one bottle of bourbon at Regine‘s.
VL: Okay, but what is it about pizza boys — you’ve played three — in Fast Times, Bio-Dome and Vamps?
TN: My trilogy of pizza men, yes. The New York Times said I was the first onscreen slacker, which meant that I was just slightly older and more prepared for the job that I was given. People remember Fast Times because it was almost like the Purple Rose of Cairo moment, where anybody could have been knocking at that door. Even now I look at Sean Penn as, ‘I can’t believe you get lines in this movie — and I’m delivering you a pizza.’ I’m slightly perturbed by it all. That was actually very real with me — looking at him going, ‘Look at what I’m forced to do now,’ and I think people really like that in a movie. I became the alternative everyman in the movies.
VL: Well, not quite, if you consider your villainous turn in Last Boy Scout. Was that a stretch?
TN: It wasn’t a stretch, but it came as a surprise to me, because Bruce Willis, Tony Scott and Joel Silver had this idea in their head. So when they offered me the part, I thought it was a joke and they had made a mistake in the printing — that I was going to play the first goombah to the left. I realized very early on that Joel and dear, dear Tony Scott really cared about appearances, so with great detail they blonded my hair and gave me that asymmetrical ’60’s cut. It was like Hitler, only softer. I wore Dolce & Gabbana clothing and I looked so strange and otherworldly, and just by the sheer virtue of the fact that I had a gun in my hand, that did all the acting for me.
VL: Fair enough. But did you ever feel like you were being typecast?
TN: They want to typecast me, but I made a little rule with myself, and that’s that I wouldn’t do the same thing twice. I was a pizza delivery guy on Vamps, and Sigourney Weaver eats my heart out then pulls my head off. I thought, ‘That’s a nice way for that character to end.’
VL: But you’ve got real acting and comedy chops, having studied with both Lee Strasberg and Lucille Ball.
TN: I was in a work-study program in the Actors Studio, which meant that I was Lee Strasberg’s assistant. I got into a fight with Strasberg because he never said good morning to me or even hello. I said, “I don’t think I can help you unless you say, ‘good morning’ or good night’ to me, because I would have to pick him up and take him places – and he just ignored me. I remember being brusque with him, but I didn’t really know who he was.
VL: And Lucille Ball…?
TN: Lucy was 68-years old and having been a workaholic, she had nothing to do. I worked for her at Sherwood Oaks Experimental College, at the corner of Hollywood and Ivar. It was 1977 and I was 19 years old. This is when Hollywood Boulevard still sold platform shoes and there were working boys and girls on the street. Lucy went to an optometrist on Ivar, and we went running out and got Lucy to teach. She came and I was assigned to be her intern. She wanted Pogens, a bottle of Scotch and Pall Mall cigarettes. Pogens are those fancy goyesha cookies in the white paper from Pillsbury Farms. I saw her when life was changing, and I learned from Lucy that you never get what you really want and you have to be flexible. She wanted a husband [Desi Arnaz], that stayed at home and she got a man that went to prostitutes. She never could come to terms with that. Back then celebrities would actually come out for free and they’d wear their turquoise [‘turkwaz‘], and their thick glasses, they’d wear musk and smoke joints. [Chinatown screenwriter] Robert Towne, Warren Beatty, they’d all come out to do lectures. We would charge people $10. to spend an afternoon with Orson Welles. I saw that incredible generosity and how many of the old Hollywood people felt it was their responsibility to pass it along. And that’s what the school was about. It was a different time in Hollywood – it was fashionable to make believe you had no money. In that, there was great modesty, and out of that, came great art. There were also great movies. George Lucas had a screening for us of Star Wars. I fell asleep and don’t remember one word. I was too embarrassed to tell people I never saw it. To me, Star Wars is about a modeling agent that loses all her clients to a better agent.
VL: Wow, those were the days. But what did you learn from Lucy about comedy?
TN: Lucy drank a lot of brown liquor and she smoked a lot and ate a lot of sugar and was a real salty customer, an old-style girl. What I learned from her was what she learned from Buster Keaton – know your props, know what you’re doing, know where the exit is, know the entrances, know where the camera is. Get there early. Know everyone on the set. Do not pull any funny business. Be a professional. I think that Lucy’s interesting to watch, and if you do watch closely, she’s imitating Chaplin, who was somebody she watched when she was 10 years old. She also created the ‘Lucy’ character, which was a bratty kid that could start crying and lying to get whatever she wants. It was not flattering, but I loved that she didn’t editorialize it. She trusted her makeup people to make her look as pretty as possible then she just dissolved into ugliness and mayhem. That’s what I learned – that you can’t really have ego when you’re doing comedy, but you have to have some bone of elegance about it and your own humanity.
VL: You had a place in France for 20 years — since sold — and are now bi-coastal. How has living in New York affected your writing and performing?
TN: I’m openly bi-coastal, I’m not closeted, like so many poor men at NBC. I live in a beautiful apartment with a big back yard, located in the only Black freehold of New York. It was called Seneca, between 82nd and Riverside, and it had 20 streets and churches — it was the Black [Greenwich] Village. I feel like I’m living the life of 12-1/2 Days a Slave. I really do — I just don’t know if I’m Lupita or Brad, and I’ve decorated my apartment in itinerant stable boy.
VL: Stop! You’re cracking us up. But it’s all about reinvention, isn’t it?
TN: No one takes you seriously in America, unless you completely reinvent yourself, and in New York I’ve done that. Also, I became middle-aged there. Here in L.A. they don’t like it when you age, they’re not into that. In New York, I just like the idea that I’m older and there’s a value to it, where people really do ask questions like, “Grandpa — tell us about Sam Kinison.” Then there’s that creeping alcohol problem that no one’s really addressing — in L.A. and New York — where drinking’s become recreational to the level of a Hogarth print and they’re going to drop babies out the window. L.A. has become one slender happy hour. It starts at 11 a.m. and goes until 2 in the morning. It’s tough here, but I will always consider this home. In fact, some day I’d like to get a Quonset hut in the Ballona Wetlands.
VL: We can see absolutely see that. You’ve also written several plays, including, Gangster Planet, where the audience got to “re-experience the joys of the LA Riots,” when it was first staged in 1993 and again in 2002. You direct theater, as well, including your ode to Telly Savalas, Who Loves You, Baby, which had runs in both L.A. and New York. Then there are your monologues, which you’ve been performing at Beth Lapides’ UnCabaret, The Moth and Sit ‘N Spin, the monthly spoken word event at the Comedy Central Stage. They’re powerful, hysterical – and could only have been written and performed by you. What keeps you coming back to this format?
TN: They began because I was connecting standup to storytelling, but then I realized, the audience is very discerning now and is so weary from commercial crap. They really crave and want the truth. My stories, especially living in New York and going through the winters like I do there, reading Strindberg and Ibsen, I realize that each life is a play. So if you can write a story that says come out and be around the fire and really examine why something happened and our participation in it, the stories are an incredible opportunity for me to understand something again.
VL: You were on the board at LACMA as a child ambassador, and studied art in high school where you were president of the art club. Let’s talk about some of your paintings, your process, some influences, and what’s behind the Modigliani-like portraits.
TN: I was saved by my art. My biggest lesson was, when you have a problem and you make a mistake, outline it. I once spilled a bottle of ink all over one of my paintings and my teacher said, “Outline it in orange.” I did that and it looked like a de Kooning. Art was something I thought I could fall back on. But I decided I didn’t want to risk it, so I’d fall back on comedy. As for process, I will ask people to sit for me, but generally people become very self-aware — they don’t know it takes forever to paint somebody, so give it up — you’re never going to keep that expression for more than an hour. I like the Virginia Woolf Bloomsbury look. I love interiors, [Pierre] Bonnard and [Edouard] Vuillard. I love to see a pretty girl on a couch reading and seeing part of her leg. I love fires and windows and scenes of domesticity. Bonnard was kind of an agoraphobic in a highly dysfunctional relationship. The wife didn’t want him going out and that’s why his pulsating windows are so exciting because he was really into what’s out there. The paintings are most exciting when people don’t know I’m painting them then at the last minute I say, “Okay, now look at me.” Once I get their form down and they look right at me, then it becomes something.
Taylor Negron died January 10, 2015. This interview was originally published by KCET Artbound, May 15, 2014, and conducted as a preview to Negron’s one-person exhibition, Snow Flowers, curated by Joshua Elias as part of The Laemmle series, Art in the Art House.
Top Image: Abina in Berkeley by Taylor Negron
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist who has been a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, KCET Artbound and other outlets, including her widely-read blog, The Looseleaf Report. In addition, she covers arts festivals around the world, filing datelines from cultural hot spots that include Berlin, Venice and Abu Dhabi. Her feminist novella in verse, Isn’t It Rich? is being adapted for the stage.