15 Behind-the-Scenes Facts About Taxi

Paramount Home Entertainment
Paramount Home Entertainment

Unlike many sitcoms of its era, Taxi focused on a group of blue-collar workers who—despite having aspirations of bigger and better careers—were never really destined to be anything other than what they were: cab drivers. The series won 18 Emmy Awards during its five-year run and will always be remembered not only for its clever writing but also for some truly quirky characters and sometimes bittersweet storylines. On the 40th anniversary of its premiere, here are some behind-the-scenes facts about the beloved sitcom.

1. THE SERIES WAS INSPIRED BY A MAGAZINE ARTICLE.

When The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended its successful seven-season run, co-creator James L. Brooks formed a new production company, the John Charles Walters Company, with David Davis, Ed. Weinberger, and Stan Daniels, all writer/producers whom he had worked with on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Brooks got the idea to create an ensemble show set at a New York cab company after reading “Night Shifting for the Hip Fleet,” an article about a Greenwich Village taxi garage that ran in New York Magazine in 1975.

2. TONY DANZA WAS "DISCOVERED" IN THE BOXING RING.

In the mid-1970s “Tough” Tony Danza was a professional boxer who trained at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. Gleason’s was home to many famous fighters, and the go-to place for filmmakers and authors who were researching the sport. That was how producers Larry Gordon and Joel Silver happened to be ringside one night when Danza knocked out Billy Perez and they invited him to audition for Walter Hill's The Warriors, which they were producing. He was just about ready to ink a deal with them, too, when James L. Brooks called and asked him to read for the part of a boxer on his upcoming sitcom, Taxi.

3. "TONY BANTA" STARTED OUT AS "PHIL RYAN."

The original boxer character Brooks had in mind was an Irish heavyweight named Phil Ryan, but he liked Danza’s audition enough to tailor the part to the actor. So Phil Ryan became Phil Banta, an Italian middleweight. Danza was impressed when three days into rehearsal he got the news that his character’s name had been changed to “Tony” Banta. “They must really like me,” he said at the time. That little ego boost didn’t last long; producer Ed. Weinberger revealed to Danza that they’d changed the name because they had a feeling that he wouldn’t remember to answer to “Phil.”

4. THE PRODUCERS WANTED JUDD HIRSCH, BUT HIRSCH DIDN'T WANT A SERIES.

Judd Hirsch was primarily a stage actor who had done a few films. In 1977 he guest starred on two episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show spin-off Rhoda, and decided that he didn’t enjoy working on television. His agent contacted him shortly after his appearance, however, and informed him that the Taxi producers really wanted him for the role of Alex Reiger on their new show.

Hirsch read the pilot script and worried that the show would probably last at least three seasons and he didn’t want to be committed that long; he wanted to be free to do plays and perhaps films. He instructed his agent to make the producers an offer they wouldn’t accept ... but to his surprise, they accepted it. They also put his name over the title of the show, which surprised him, and he worried that it would cause resentment from his castmates on the set.

5. DANNY DEVITO TRASH-TALKED HIS WAY INTO THE ROLE OF LOUIE DE PALMA.

When casting director Joel Thurm asked Danny DeVito to audition for Taxi, both Michael Douglas and Jack Nicholson warned DeVito against doing television because “it uses you up.” “Sure, they could say that, they were big rich movie stars,” DeVito later recalled during an interview for the Archive of American Television. But DeVito loved the Taxi pilot script and decided to go into full “Louie” mode for his audition.

DeVito walked into the conference room where Brooks, Weinberger, Daniels, and Davis were sitting, waiting expectantly. He took one step then threw the script onto the coffee table and bellowed, “One thing I wanna know before we start—who wrote this sh**?!” Luckily his outrageousness paid off; the producers not only laughed at his opening gambit, they proceeded to guffaw at his every remark that followed.

6. MANDY PATINKIN AUDITIONED FOR THE ROLE OF ALEX.

While Judd Hirsch was still undecided, Broadway and film star Mandy Patinkin was a contender for the role of Alex Rieger; in fact, when Tony Danza auditioned, he read with Patinkin, not Hirsch. Patinkin later showed up in a memorable guest spot in the episode “Memories of Cab 804."

7. BOBBY WHEELER WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BLACK.

The character of aspiring actor Bobby Wheeler was originally written with a black actor in mind. Blazing Saddles’s Cleavon Little was in serious contention for the part, and it eventually came down to him and Jeff Conaway. Conaway had a foot in the door with the production team by way of a guest appearance on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (He’d also recently co-starred in the film Grease, though it hadn’t yet been released.) The series creators had Conaway in mind for the role of naive John Burns, but Conaway thought he was better suited for the Bobby character and campaigned for the part. He was eventually given a reading with Judd Hirsch which ultimately won him the role.

8. ANDY KAUFMAN'S CONTRACT ONLY REQUIRED HIM TO WORK TWO DAYS PER WEEK.

Taxi’s producers were fans of Andy Kaufman’s stand-up comedy and were anxious to have his “Foreign Man” character (renamed Latka Gravas for the series) on the show. Kaufman wasn’t anxious to work the long hours required for a series, so concessions were made. He only came to the studio on Tuesdays for the run-through and Fridays for the actual taping. A stand-in for Latka was used during rehearsals for the rest of the week. Even with such a light work schedule, Kaufman was still frequently late, holding up production and irritating some of his co-stars.

9. KAUFMAN'S CONTRACT STIPULATED THAT HIS ALTER EGO, TONY CLIFTON, BE GIVEN A SEPARATE CONTRACT.

Tony Clifton was another of Kaufman’s characters, a sleazy, obnoxious Vegas lounge-lizard. Kaufman insisted not only that Tony Clifton be written into several Taxi episodes, he also insisted that Clifton be treated as a separate and unique entity, with his own contract, dressing room, and parking spot. Kaufman also required that all the staff and actors address him as “Tony,” never “Andy.”

Clifton was cast as Louie’s brother in the episode “A Full House for Christmas,” and he didn’t endear himself to the cast when he arrived late and then retreated to his dressing room for over an hour to have very loud sex with two prostitutes he had brought with him. When rehearsals finally got underway, Tony kept changing the dialogue and announced that he’d written parts for his hooker friends as well. Jeff Conaway stormed off the set and Judd Hirsch got into a shouting match with Tony that ended up with punches thrown. Ed. Weinberger summoned security guards to escort Tony Clifton off the Paramount lot, which Andy Kaufman later stated had been his entire purpose behind that bit of “theater.”

10. REVEREND JIM'S LOOPY CHARACTER WAS ORIGINALLY ASSIGNED TO TONY.

The evolution of the show's characters got a little confusing: In the beginning, Phil Ryan (the boxer) was supposed to be somewhat punch drunk and dim-witted. When Tony Danza was hired, the producers decided that he was more convincing playing a young, somewhat naive and innocent type, rather than a confused bumbler. Problem was, Randall Carver had already been cast as John Burns, a wide-eyed country bumpkin new to New York City. As season one progressed, the producers realized that the two characters were too similar and their lines were almost interchangeable. So John Burns was written out after the first season and Christopher Lloyd, who played 1960s drug casualty Reverend Jim Ignatowski, was added to the cast to provide the eccentric goofiness originally intended for Tony Banta.

11. REVEREND JIM'S CLOTHES CAME FROM CHRISTOPHER LLOYD'S OWN WARDROBE.

Well, sort of. The old unwashed jeans were his, and the shoes belonged to his ex-father-in-law. The jacket was something his next door neighbor found discarded in his shrubbery while he was gardening one day. When Lloyd arrived in that outfit for his audition, unshaven and unshampooed, the receptionist thought he was a homeless person who had managed to wander past security and onto the Paramount lot. He said she looked genuinely surprised to find his name on the appointment list.

12. THE THEME SONG WAS CHANGED AT THE LAST MINUTE.

The original choice for the theme song was “Touchdown,” by jazz musician Bob James. But a James composition that was used for a sequence in the series's third episode, “Blind Date,” somehow seemed more appropriate. The melancholy tune was played while Alex walks up to an apartment door on his dubious second date with the acidic Angela Matusa.

13. BOBBY WHEELER WAS WRITTEN OFF AFTER JEFF CONAWAY WAS FIRED.

In 2008, Jeff Conaway told the Calgary Herald that he quit the show in 1981 because "they dishonored me. They disrespected me, they didn't keep their deal. You know I didn't have to do a TV series at that time—I had a movie career going. I mean if I had not done that series I'd be a $20 million movie actor right now. I'm better than most of those jerks out there. When I left the show it dropped 20 rating points and it was cancelled."

It’s possible that Conaway's declaration was colored by a call Taxi writer/producer Sam Simon made to Howard Stern’s radio program two months earlier where he described finding Conaway, a known drug addict, on the floor of his dressing room one day, too high to report for filming. His lines were divvied up between Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd with no reduction in the amount of audience laughter, which is when the producers realized that Bobby Wheeler was expendable. Conaway passed away in 2011 at the age of 60.

14. THAT'S TONY DANZA DRIVING THE CAB IN THE OPENING CREDITS.

He’s piloting his Checker cab across New York’s Queensboro Bridge. The segment loops several times while the credits appear onscreen, giving the appearance of a taxi traveling on an endless bridge, getting nowhere, much like the characters in the show.

15. TAXI WAS CANCELED NOT ONCE, BUT TWICE.

ABC, which had been Taxi’s home for four seasons, abruptly canceled the show in 1982. The cast bid their farewells but then got the news that both NBC and HBO were interested in picking up the series. NBC won the bidding war and ran the series for one more season, which put it just over the 100 episodes necessary to make a good syndication package.

Additional Sources:
Happier Days: Paramount Television's Classic Sitcoms 1974-1984, by Marley Brant
The Taxi Book: The Complete Guide to Television's Most Lovable Cabbies, by Jeff Sorensen
Andy Kaufman: The Truth, Finally, by Bob Zmuda and Lynne Margulies
Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community, by Saul Austerlitz

The Psychology Behind Kids' L.O.L. Surprise! Doll Obsession

Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Isaac Larian, the founder and CEO of toymaker MGA Entertainment, is an insomniac. Fortunately for him, that inability to sleep forced him to get up out of bed one night—a move that ended up being worth $4 billion.

Larian’s company is the architect of L.O.L. Surprise!, a line of dolls with a clever conceit. The product, which retails for about $10 to $20, is encased in a ball-shaped plastic shell and buried under layers of packaging, forcing children to tear through a gauntlet of wrapping before they’re able to see it. The inspiration came on that highly profitable sleepless night, which Larian spent watching unboxing videos on YouTube. It resulted in the first toy made for a generation wired for delayed gratification.

The dolls first went on sale in test markets at select Target stores in late 2016. MGA shipped out 500,000 of them, all of which sold out within two months. A Cabbage Patch Kid-esque frenzy came the following year. By late 2018, L.O.L. Surprise! (the acronym stands for the fancifully redundant Little Outrageous Little) had moved 800 million units, accounted for seven of the top 10 toys sold in the U.S., and was named Toy of the Year by the Toy Association. Videos of kids and adults unboxing them garner millions of views on YouTube, which is precisely where Larian knew his marketing would be most effective.

A woman holds a L.O.L. Surprise doll and packaging in her hand
Cindy Ord, Getty Images for MGA Entertainment

The dolls themselves are nothing revolutionary. Once freed from their plastic prisons, they stare at their owner with doe-eyed expressions. Some “tinkle,” while others change color in water. They can be dressed in accessories found in the balls or paired with tiny pets (which also must be "unboxed"). Larger bundles, like last year’s $89.99 L.O.L. Bigger Surprise! capsule, feature a plethora of items, each individually wrapped. It took a writer from The New York Times 59 minutes to uncover everything inside.

This methodical excavation is what makes L.O.L. Surprise! so appealing to its pint-sized target audience. Though MGA was advised that kids wouldn’t want to buy something they couldn’t see, Larian and his executives had an instinctual understanding of what child development experts already knew: Kids like looking forward to things.

Dr. Rachel Barr, director of Georgetown University’s Early Learning Project, told The Atlantic that unboxing videos tickle the part of a child’s brain that enjoys anticipation. By age 4 or 5, they have a concept of “the future,” or events that will unfold somewhere other than the present. However, Barr said, they’re also wary of being scared by an unforeseen outcome. In an unboxing video, they know the payoff will be positive and not, say, a live tarantula.

L.O.L. Surprise! is engineered to prolong that anticipatory joy, with kids peeling away wrapping like an onion for up to 20 minutes at a time. The effect is not entirely novel—baseball card collectors have been buying and unwrapping card packs without knowing exactly what’s inside for decades—but paired with social media, MGA was able to strike oil. The dolls now have 350 licensees making everything from bed sheets to apparel. Collectors—or their parents—can buy a $199.99 doll house. So-called “boy toys” are now lurking inside the wrappers, with one, the mohawk-sporting Punk Boi, causing a mild stir for being what MGA calls “anatomically correct.” His tiny plastic genital area facilitates a peeing function.

Whether L.O.L. Surprise! bucks conventional toy trends and continues its popularity beyond a handful of holiday seasons remains to be seen. Already, MGA is pushing alternative products like Poopsie Slime Surprise, a unicorn that can be fed glitter and poops a viscous green slime. An official unboxing video has been viewed 4.2 million times and counting.

The 8 Most Anticipated Horror Movies of 2019

Jessica Rothe in Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
Jessica Rothe in Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
Michele K. Short, Universal Pictures

Between Hereditary, A Quiet Place, and Halloween, 2018 was a killer year for horror moviesand 2019 is shaping up to be just as impressive. While remakes seem to be dominating the schedule in the coming months, there are plenty of sequels, adaptations, and even a few promising original titles coming out as well. Here are some of the scary movies we're most looking forward to seeing this year.

1. Us

In 2017, Jordan Peele revolutionized the horror genre with Get Out. The Academy Award-winning filmmaker plans to do the same again with Us, which features a predominantly black cast—a rarity for a horror movie. "I dedicated a lot of myself to creating a new horror mythology and a new monster," Peele said of the film. "I think that monsters and stories about monsters are our best ways of getting at deeper truths and facing our fears as a society ... It’s also important to note that this movie, unlike Get Out, is not about race. It is instead about something I feel has become an undeniable truth. That is the simple fact that we are our own worst enemies." Us, which stars Elisabeth Moss and Lupita Nyong'o, arrives in theaters on March 22, 2019.

2. IT: Chapter 2

Stephen King fans were thrilled with 2017's IT, the second adaptation of the horror master's beloved 1986 novel. Andy Muschietti is sitting in the director's chair again for the second chapter, which will follow the Losers Club as they return to Derry, Maine in their adult years. While Bill Skarsgård will reprise his role as Pennywise, impressive new additions to the cast include Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, and James McAvoy. The film debuts on September 6, 2019.

3. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

If you’ve been a horror fiend since childhood, you’ll no doubt remember Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book series. The books included memorable illustrations by Stephen Gammell, some of which no doubt haunted many children’s nightmares. The film adaptation will be released on August 9, 2019.

4. Zombieland 2

Venom director Ruben Fleischer's feature debut, 2009's Zombieland, was an instant hit with both horror and comedy fans. And they've been waiting 10 years for a sequel. Finally, we’ll be getting a second film this year with Fleischer directing and Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, and even Bill Murray all confirmed to return. Zombieland 2 is set to hit theaters on October 11, 2019.

5. Happy Death Day 2U

The hilariously bad-but-fun Happy Death Day (2017) surprised audiences with how flat-out entertaining it was, so much so that fans were thrilled to hear there were plans for a sequel. Much like the original movie, the second film will follow protagonist Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) as she’s killed every single day. But this time, the killer is coming for her friends, too. Happy Death Day 2U premieres on February 14, 2019.

6. Pet Sematary

Though Mary Lambert's original Pet Sematary (1989) was not met with much critical acclaim, fans of the Stephen King novel were pleased with the adaptation, and are excited to see the story come to life again. The remake, which is directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer and stars John Lithgow and Jason Clarke, debuts on April 5, 2019.

7. Child’s Play

When rumors began swirling that there was going to be another Chucky movie, and that it would be a remake of the original Child’s Play at that, people—including the original series creator Don Mancini—didn't initially seem too excited.

But as more details—including a cast list that includes Aubrey Plaza and Brian Tyree Henry—were made public, interest in the project seemed to grow. Child’s Play hits theaters June 21, 2019.

8. The Prodigy

Creepy kids will never fail to make terrifying horror movie villains. In The Prodigy, Taylor Schilling’s character discovers something supernatural might be happening to her son when he starts acting as if he’s possessed. (Spoiler alert: He probably is). The film will be released on February 8, 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER