Louie DePalma (played by Danny DeVito): “Hey, Tony, you get creamed in your fight last night? What's it like having a cauliflower back?”
Tony Banta (played by Tony Danza): “I didn't get creamed. I lost on the decision.”
Louie: “I'm impressed.”
Tony: “The referee decided I was bleeding too much.”—Taxi, Season 1, Episode 1, “Like Father, Like Daughter,” written by James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, David Davis, and Ed Weinberger, directed by James Burrows, air date September 12, 1978
The other night, while channel surfing, I came across, as I have done more and more recently, Memorable Entertainment Television, or the MeTV cable channel. I came in on the last few few minutes of an episode of Taxi. The scene, showing Alex Rieger’s airport departure from the daughter he left behind (with his marriage) 15 years before, acknowledged the pathos of the situation without ever going overly sticky-sentimental, a firm rebuke to the later (in)famous injunction by Seinfeld co-creator Larry David: “no hugging, no learning.” The scene felt two years or so into the show’s run, when actors, writers and directors generally learn each other’s strengths but before becoming stale.
What I didn’t know, because I missed the opening credits (and most of the show), was that this was the first episode of the sitcom, which aired on this date 35 years ago. The show’s run, 1978 to 1983, covered my entire college existence and first year full-time in the workforce, which might account for why I never had enough time to watch all (or even most) the episodes I would have liked in their first run on the air. (All this, kiddies, was before entire seasons on DVD, when you can catch up on past episodes to your heart’s content.)
I have written, glancingly, about the show before, in posts on the death of Jeff Conaway (“Bobby Wheeler”) and my bookstore encounter with Marilu Henner (“Elaine Nardo”). And they were only two members of a fine ensemble cast.
Tony Danza and Danny DeVito, of course, are two of the other members of that group. But first among equals among the actors who gave such realism to this location-based (New York), workplace comedy was Judd Hirsch, a two–time Emmy winner for his role as Alex. I wonder how the show would have worked out with different, equally intriguing casting as Alex.
One of Hirsch’s main competitors at the audition was Mandy Patinkin. I’m not sure why Hirsch beat out the latter, though, if forced to speculate, I’d say that his 17-plus years on Patinkin would have given him a more natural advantage in the role of perhaps the only cabbie on the show who was close to a lifer with the company. ("Me? I'm a cab driver. I'm the only cab driver in this place.")
The role was as crucial to Taxi as the Mary Richards character to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Unlike that earlier show (part of the TV farm system—MTM—that gave rise to most of the Taxi creators went they went off on their own), Alex was not created as a star vehicle, but like Mary, he was a relatively calm, unillusioned center that held the show in place while the sitcom’s zanies and dreamers had their moments to fly.
The show's producers thought well enough of Patinkin's talents that they had him back as a guest star. But what if he had been cast as Alex? Hirsch went on to bond well with the show’s other actors, notably DeVito (with whom he’s reuniting to play in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys) and Henner (whom he dated in the show’s run).
Matters might have been less happy with Patinkin as a regular rather than a guest star. He might have been Mandy the Magnificent for his New York stage appearances in Evita, Sunday in the Park With George and Follies in Concert, but he has probably been thought of more than once by TV showrunners as Mandy the Pill for his restlessness. As highlighted in a recent story in The New York Times Magazine, the actor who has now won such acclaim on Homeland had equally illustrious turns on Chicago Hope and Criminal Minds that ended far more abruptly, with the actor quitting after only one or two seasons. By his own admission, Patinkin acted “abominably,” with the executive producer of Criminal Minds likening him to “the father who goes out for a carton of milk and then just never comes home.”
That would have been the one aspect of Alex Rieger—at least in this first episode—that Patinkin would have understood in his bones.