Of the thousands of sitcoms created since the dawn of television, few have been as memorable and as influential as Taxi, which aired from 1978-1981 on ABC and in its final year, the 1981-82 season, on NBC.
Set at the fictional Sunshine Cab Company in Queens – the opening featuring a taxi crossing the Queensboro Bridge – the show featured the lives of a handful of its employees. Smart-mouthed dispatcher Louie De Palma (Danny DeVito), veteran cabbie Alex Rieger (Judd Hirsch), aspiring actor cabbie Bobby Wheeler (Jeff Conaway) aspiring boxer cabbie Tony Banta (Tony Danza), heavy-accented foreigner cabbie mechanic Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman), and Jim Ignatowski, a Harvard-preppie turned 1960s druggie, brought into Sunshine to drive a cab by Alex and the gang.
This male-dominated cast featured one woman, Elaine Nardo, played by Marilu Henner, whose father was first-generation Polish and mother first-generation Greek.
The Taxi alumna, who has been in countless films and television shows since, hosts a daily radio show, appears on the Food Network, and is working on her tenth book, spoke with The National Herald in late October, a couple of weeks before preparing to emcee the Hellenic Charity Ball in San Francisco.
GROWING UP GREEK(ISH)
“I didn’t learn to speak Greek, except for a few phrases,” Henner said, “and my mom didn’t speak Greek, either.” But she attributes her childhood – so eventful that it made showbusiness boring by comparison – as having been the colorful experience it was because of the Greek influence of her mother and uncle. “My mother had that Mediterranean spirit. There were always people sleeping over. Coming to dinner. It seemed like one big party 24 hours a day.”
Seemingly utilizing every feasible square inch in their Chicago home, Marilu’s mother, Nicoletta Kalogeropoulos, had a dance studio in the garage. There were about 200 students, “ages 2 to 80, including nuns,” Henner said. But Nicoletta also ran a hair salon out of the kitchen inserting a hairdrying chair in the nook designed for the refrigerator. So, what happened to the fridge? “In the basement,” Henner said.
As for her mother’s brother, he was the neighborhood astrologist, living upstairs with his boyfriend, and his numerous dogs, cats, and fish. He also ran a cat hospital from the house.
FROM SUNSHINE TO ELIOS
Whereas Elaine worked for the Sunshine Cab Company, Marilu does work for the Elios (“sun” in Greek) Society, an organization dedicated to preserving the values, spirit, and ideals on Hellenism through the support of arts and education. It was through her involvement with Elios that she was asked to attend the Hellenic Charity Ball in 2009. What they didn’t tell her was that she would be an honoree. “They honored me,” Henner said – “it was a fantastic event! I met such wonderful people!” In 2013, she was asked to serve as Mistress of Ceremonies for the Ball, and will do so again this year (on November 14, in San Francisco).
“WHERE TO, MACK?”
For the better part of a century, the stereotypical New York City taxi driver was a gravely-voiced hack wearing a flatcap and chomping on a cigar (back when smoking inside a taxicab, and anywhere else indoors, was permitted), and barking out a gruff “where to, mack?” That was all until Henner’s character, Elaine Nardo, broke the mold in 1978.
Not only was Elaine groundbreaking in terms of being Sunshine’s only on-screen female cabbie, but she broke the glass ceiling in other ways, Henner explains. Elaine was a divorced mom with two school-age children to raise, extensively dated (and slept with) various beaus – even a one-night fling with buddy Alex in Vienna – hung out with the guys for beers at Mario’s after work, and worked part-time in an art gallery. Whereas Bobby was looking for his break in showbiz, Tony was dreaming of a title shot, and Louie was plotting his next scheme, Elaine was “many female cabbie characters” rolled into one.
Writers/producers from Mary Tyler Moore, Phyllis, and Rhoda, all sitcoms with strong female characters, worked for Taxi, and so “this time, they wanted to write about guys. But they wanted at least one major female character – that was me,” Henner says. “Until Carol Kane’s character” later in the series. She played Simka, Latka’s compatriot and love interest, and later wife.
Henner has had a long and distinguished career on both the small and big screens, and yet the one role with which she is unquestionably associated is Elaine. While some actors are annoyed at being remembered for just one part out of a lifetime of acting, Henner loves it. “Elaine was such a great character. My favorite character of all.” In fact, the cast as so tightly knit and still stay in close touch. “I talked to Tony Danza the other day,” she says. “And Jim [Taxi Director James L.] Brooks. And Chris Lloyd. We are all super-close. It was my all-time favorite job.”
Taxi’s iconic status notwithstanding, the series only lasted five years on the air. Though one of those shows that many thought got better with age and could have gone on for a dozen seasons, it never even made it to six. Why such a short shelf life for such a fantastic show? “We were so much different than any other sitcom at the time,” Henner explains. “Just listen to our theme show (subdued instrumental) compared to Three’s Company (happy-go-lucky jingle). We wore different kinds of clothes. Look at Danny DeVito’s character (Louie) – how original! Our writers were mavericks.”
Originally, the show enjoyed a great spot on Tuesday nights on ABC: Happy Days (8PM, Eastern Time), followed by Laverne & Shirley, Three’s Company, then Taxi, then an hour of Starsky & Hutch. But then, with a lot of shuffling around of broadcast times and dates, “our fans couldn’t figure out when we were on.”
WOMAN OF MANY HATS
Elaine didn’t sport the cabbie’s flatcap, but she wore many hats, figuratively, just as Marilu does. Beyond Taxi and beyond showbusiness, Henner is a prolific author, a radio talk show host, and shared her healthy cooking and eating on the Food Network.
“I look at life through the prism of health,” she told TNH, after the deaths of her parents, both in their fifties at the time: he of a heart attack, she of complications from severe rheumatoid arthritis. “I wanted to learn everything about the human body,” she says, “so I could save everyone else,” meaning herself and her family, realizing that they were genetically predisposed to such health risks.
“I became a student of health,” she said, learning at medical libraries and through anatomy courses, and consulting with doctors and nutritionists.
Working on a tenth book, Henner is the author of nine others. Her first, By All Means Keep Moving (1994), is autobiographical. The other eight are self-help books: Marilu Henner’s Total Health Makeover (1998), The 30-Day Total Health Makeover (1999), I Refuse to Raise a Brat (1999), Healthy Life Kitchen (2000), Healthy Kids: Help Them Eat Smart and Stay Active-For-Life (2001), Healthy Holidays (2002), Wear Your Life Well: Use What You Have to Get What You Want (2008), and Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future (2012).
Henner’s forthcoming book, Changing Normal: How I Helped My Husband Beat Cancer, will be published this spring.
“We were longtime friends,” Henner says about husband Michael Brown. “We hadn’t seen each other in 22 years, and then 12 years ago he called me. We fell in love, but two months later, he was diagnosed with bladder and lung cancer.” But Henner put her “student of health” knowledge to great use. He received no chemotherapy or radiation, just amino therapy and detox. “And for 12 years now, he’s been in remission. This book tells our story about what we did.”
Henner’s fans and followers can benefit from her advice not just on the printed page, but through her daily radio show, which airs three hours a day, five days a week. It can be accessed through Internet podcasts as well, at marilushow.com.
BETTER WITH AGE
For those who think their twenties are the only new decade worth looking forward to, who dread the big 3-0, 4-0, 5-0, Henner says “you’re never too old. Time is on your side because if you started healthy habits today, you can be even healthier than before. The human body is so powerful and so ready to heal you and do right by you.” Among her numerous tips are: “Learn to love the foods that love you, and set up your environment to win.” Look at the total picture.
Finally, one explained further in Total Health Makeover: “the sexiest organ in your body is your brain.”