TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The actor Meshach Taylor died on June 28 at the age of 67. We're going to remember him by listening back to our 1990 interview. Taylor was best known for his role on the TV sitcom "Designing Women" playing Anthony Bouvier, an ex-convict who's a deliveryman for a company of women interior designers in Atlanta. He eventually became their partner in the company.
Meshach Taylor was on the show from 1986 to 1993. As his New York Times obit described - Taylor, the only main cast member who was African-American, often addressed the issue of race in the modern South. Taylor's other TV series included "Buffalo Bill" and "Dave's World." Earlier in his career, he performed with the Goodman Theater and the Organic Theater Company in Chicago. And he was in a national touring production of "Hair." Let's start with a scene from "Designing Women." Anthony has returned from a trip to the mall where he was detained by mall police.
(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW, "DESIGNING WOMEN")
DIXIE CARTER: (As Julia) Anthony, what triggered this?
MESHACH TAYLOR: (As Anthony) Well, she's all keyed-up because we had this little altercation at the mall. I promised her that I would take her down so she could buy her some new dainties. I felt a little uncomfortable being there with all of those private wear-things, you know, so I chose to go out and wait outside and window shop next door.
ALICE GHOSTLEY: (As Bernice) You see, when I was coming out with my new tummy control panty girdle, I saw these two hunky looking guys standing over Anthony's prostate on the ground.
TAYLOR: (As Anthony) Bernice, I was prostrate. Well now, she thought that it was the new "Candid Camera" and wanted to meet Dom DeLuise but the mall cops assured her that they were very serious and that they were detaining a possible jewelry thief - me.
CARTER: (As Julia) Jewelry thief?
GHOSTLEY: (As Bernice) And that's when I hit him.
ANNIE POTTS: (As Mary Jo) You hit a mall cop?
GHOSTLEY: (As Bernice) Just a couple of times in the face with my purse.
CARTER: (As Julia) Anthony, now let's just back up a little bit here. Why did they suspect that you were a jewelry thief?
TAYLOR: (As Anthony) Well, as I said, Julia, I was window shopping next door, and the owner of the store saw me standing there thought I was casing the joint, so he called security.
CARTER: (As Julia) Well, why did he jump to that conclusion?
TAYLOR: (As Anthony) Well, I think maybe it was because I was tall, handsome and dark.
JULIA DUFFY: (As Allison) Now, Anthony, are you sure you're telling the whole story? I mean, there must be extenuating circumstances.
TAYLOR: (As Anthony) Oh, yes, Allison, and in this case extenuating is spelled B-L-A-C-K.
CARTER: (As Julia) I think this whole incident is spelled S-T-U-P-I-D.
GHOSTLEY: (As Bernice) You people can stop spelling, I know every dirty word there is.
GROSS: In 1990, I asked Meshach Taylor how he got the part in "Designing Women."
TAYLOR: Well, I went through the ordinary audition process, I guess you could say. I was called in to read for it. I got there and there was no script. Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and her husband Harry Thomason were there and the producer and the head writer show. And they asked me what I would do in a certain situation as a specific character - the character that they had in mind. And I did an improv, I guess. I was in good form that day. I went on for about five minutes, I had to be stopped. So they hired me on the spot.
GROSS: (Laughing) Did they drag you off?
TAYLOR: Yeah, they did. They said, well, this is great, we like what you're doing, we'll hire you on the spot. And they told me then that I would do like five episodes. They said, you know, you'll be a recurring character this season and you'll come back five times. Well, after I did the first show I never left, I was there from then on.
GROSS: Do you know if the character is written specifically for a black actor?
TAYLOR: It wasn't. I was the only black guy who audition for it. As a matter of fact, I was called in because the lady who cast the show is a friend of mine and told them that she thought I could do the job, but it definitely was not written for a black guy.
GROSS: What reactions do you usually get when you go in for a role that doesn't specify black character?
TAYLOR: Well, ordinarily you don't get the opportunity to do that. That's one of the problems with Hollywood. It'll say policeman, and an unless it says black policeman, a lot of times you won't even get the opportunity to read for it, which is kind of crazy but that's the way it is. It's something that we deal with in Hollywood all the time. It's something that we're fighting all the time, but it's still something that exists.
GROSS: Now, I understand that you got criticisms from some civil rights groups for taking the role because it was an ex-con delivery person.
GROSS: What was your - maybe you can elaborate on what the criticisms were, but what was your response?
TAYLOR: You know, people were sensitive because the character was an ex-convict. First of all, like I said, I was the only black guy that read for the part so, I mean, it would have been a white ex-convict if it hadn't been a black ex-convict. I certainly wanted the job. And I saw nothing wrong with being an ex-convict. I mean, somebody who had been involved in a situation where he went to jail and now he was out and he was trying to do something with his life, I think that's positive as opposed to negative. So I didn't feel intimidated by that, you know, I just felt like here's a man who's was an ordinary guy who's going to do something special with his life. He's going to try to salvage what's left of it. So I thought that was good. As far as being a deliveryman is concerned, I see nothing wrong with being a delivery man. You know, black or white or Hispanic or Chinese or whatever, you know? It's a job. It's not brain surgery, he's not the president of the United States, but he's working every day and there's nothing wrong with that.
GROSS: Is that the first time you had to defend taking a role?
TAYLOR: No, it wasn't because I did the role of Jim, this runaway slave in "Huckleberry Finn," I did at the Goodman Theatre a few years ago and I was very, very surprised because the theater was picketed because of the use of the word nigger in the script. We had no illusions about the word being offensive. We knew the word was offensive, slavery was also very offensive. So we felt like to reflect that time, to be authentic, we had to use the word. And people were upset by that. But so, you know, once again, I didn't agree with that. I felt that it was correct to do it that way. I thought it was correct to show that in this period of time that Mark Twain was writing about, black people, African-Americans, were dehumanized to the point that they were not even considered people, they referred to, even by nice white folks, as niggers. And so I thought that was poignant. I thought that was something that young African-Americans, as well as young white Americans and Hispanic Americans should know about.
GROSS: You got your start in theater.
GROSS: And you actually got your start in Chicago at the Organic Theater and the Goodman Theater.
GROSS: When you decided to settle in Chicago for a while, did you have any sense of what was happening in theater? Is that what kept you there or what got you there?
TAYLOR: Yes. That's what got me there. I was doing a national touring company of "Hair" and the last stop was a theater called the Mill Run Theater in Chicago.
GROSS: I have to ask you, since the national touring production of "Hair" pretty well launched your acting career, do you actually like "Hair?"
TAYLOR: Did I like to show?
TAYLOR: Yes, it was great fun. I had a ball, are you kidding me? Because, you know, now it's old hat because, you know, there's so many other things that came afterward that were not structured tightly like it wasn't structured tightly. There was a lot of freedom - bits that I had in the show I could change every night if I wanted to and no one minded. And so that was fun.
GROSS: What songs did you get?
TAYLOR: I played Hud. When I first started out, I start out singing the "Aquarius" solo, but about two months on the road, I went from a first tenor to a baritone because your voice can't take that kind of strain every night, you know, that's a lot of singing and my voice dropped. And so then it turned out great because I got a chance to play the male black lead in the show, Hud, and I did that for a long time. So I got to sing "Colored Spade" and a bunch of, you know, "Abie Baby" and a whole bunch of the kind of comedic tunes and it was great.
GROSS: Your parents were both professors, you know, you come from this really educated family. So many of the roles for black actors in movies and TV are for streetwise, uneducated characters - did you have to learn that kind of language in order to get the part?
TAYLOR: Well, I had to learn that kind of language to survive because, like I said, I was raised on a college campus from the time I went to high school then I wasn't there anymore. So when you come in talking like - they used to call me the professor, you know, you talking like that you're going to have some problems, it's a peer group thing. You know, you're going to have to learn how to - so now I am bilingual, you know?
TAYLOR: I learned that lesson very well and so I didn't have to learn it for Hollywood, I had to learn it for life and for survival. And I think I learned it pretty well because I could move in and out of those types of situations with a lot of facility I think. You know, so it's been very interesting to have that duality my life.
GROSS: Meshach Taylor, recorded in 1990. He died June 28 at the age of 67. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the debut album of the brass quartet The Westerlies, featuring music composed by Wayne Horvitz. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.