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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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."


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

11 Surprising Facts About George R.R. Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Game of Thrones fans know the epic HBO series is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, but beyond the TV show, how much do they really know about the author? Sure, they know it’s taking him a really long time to finish The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the series, but what about him as a person? Here are a few things you might not know about the man who brought us the world of Westeros.

1. As a kid, he made money selling monster stories.

The famed author grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, where his father was a longshoreman. "When I was living in Bayonne, I desperately wanted to get away," Martin told The Independent. "Not because Bayonne was a bad place, mind you. Bayonne was a very nice place in some ways. But we were poor. We had no money. We never went anywhere."

Though his family didn't have the means to travel outside of Bayonne, Martin began to develop a love of reading and writing at a very young age, which allowed him to imagine fantastical worlds beyond his New Jersey hometown. He also learned that writing could be a profitable endeavor: he began selling his stories to other kids in the neighborhood for a penny apiece. (He later raised his prices to a nickel.) Martin's entrepreneurial efforts came to an end when his stories began giving one of his kid customers nightmares, which eventually got back to Martin's mom.

2. He is obsessed with comic books.

In 2014, Martin sat down for a Q&A about his career at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Though, given his love of fantasy worlds, it might not be surprising to learn that Martin is a comic book fan, he also credits the genre with inspiring him to begin writing in the first place.

"I’m so grateful for comic books because they were really the thing that made me a reader, which in return made me a writer," Martin said. "In the 1950s in America, we had these books that taught you to read, and they were all about Dick and Jane, who were the most boring family you ever wanted to meet ... I didn’t know anyone who lived like that, and it just seemed like a horrible thing. But Batman and Superman, they had a much more interesting life. Gotham City was much more interesting than wherever it was where Dick and Jane lived.”

3. He built a library tower in Santa Fe.

In 2009, Martin bought the home across the street from his house in Santa Fe, New Mexico and turned it into an office space with a library tower built inside. The tower is only two stories tall, because of city building restrictions, but it seems only fitting that the author/history buff would want to be surrounded with books while he writes.

4. A fan letter got his professional writing career started.

Martin's love of comic books is what got his professional career rolling, too. "I had a letter published in Fantastic Four, and because my address was in there I started getting these fanzines and I started writing stories for them," Martin said during the same Santa Fe Q&A. "Funny enough, people writing stories in these fanzines at the time were just awful. They were just really bad, which was good because I looked at these awful stories and knew I could do better than that. I may not have been Shakespeare or J.R.R. Tolkien, but I was certain I could write better than the crap in the fanzines, and indeed I could."

5. A failed novel led to a television writing career.

More than 10 years before A Song of Ice and Fire debuted in 1996, Martin wrote a book called The Armageddon Rag in 1983. Though it was a critical disappointment, producer Phil DeGuere was interested in adapting the project with Martin's help. While that never came to fruition, DeGuere thought of Martin when they were rebooting The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s and brought him on board to write a handful of episodes. He later did some writing for the live-action Beauty and the Beast series, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.

6. Network television standards were not a fit for Martin's style of writing.

Though Martin found success as a television writer, the constant back-and-forth about what they were or were not allowed to show proved to be too much for the writer. "[T]here were constant limitations. It wore me down," Martin told Rolling Stone. "There were battles over censorship, how sexual things could be, whether a scene was too 'politically charged,' how violent things could be. Don’t want to disturb anyone. We got into that fight on Beauty and the Beast. The Beast killed people. That was the point of the character. He was a beast. But CBS didn’t want blood, or for the beast to kill people ... The character had to remain likable."

7. He owns an independent movie theater.

In 2006, The Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe closed its doors, which saddened many locals who were regular patrons, Martin among them. Several years later, Martin decided to give the theater a second life and, after a slight makeover, reopened its doors in 2013. Today, in addition to independent films, the theater holds regular special events—including screenings of Game of Thrones episodes. There's also an onsite bar that serves Game of Thrones-themed cocktails, like the signature White Walker.

8. Martin credits HBO with changing the rules of television.

Network television standards may have been too tame and regimented for Martin's tastes, but all that changed with HBO and The Sopranos, which he credits as paving the way for a series like Game of Thrones to exist in its current form at all.

"I credit HBO with smashing the damn trope that everybody had to be likable on television," Martin told Rolling Stone. "The Sopranos turned it around. When you meet Tony Soprano, he’s in the psychiatrist office, he’s talking about the ducks, his depression and that stuff, and you like this guy. Then he gets in his car and he’s driving away and he sees someone who owes him money, and he jumps out and he starts stomping him. Now how likable was he? Well you didn’t care, because they already had you. A character like Walter White on Breaking Bad could never have existed before HBO."

9. Martin thinks it's important for writers to break the rules.

While he's an admitted fan of William Goldman, Martin has a very different opinion of noted screenplay expert Syd Field. "There is a book out there by Syd and it’s his guide to writing screenplays and it’s probably one of the most harmful things that has ever been done for the movie industry,” Martin said. “For some perverse reason, it has become the bible not for writers but for what we call 'the suits,' the guys at the studios whose job it is to develop properties and give notes to supervise screenplays. They take Syd Field’s course and they buy the book and they start criticizing screenplays like, ‘Well you know, the first turn is supposed to be on page 12 and yours is not until page 17, so obviously this won’t do!'"

"Syd just writes downs these ridiculous rules," Martin continued. "If there really was a formula as he says, then every movie would be a blockbuster. We would just connect A, B, and C and we would have a great movie and everyone would pack the theater to see it. But every movie is not a blockbuster. Many movies that follow his rules precisely actually go down the toilet."

10. He’s a skilled chess player.

"I started playing chess when I was quite young, in grade school," Martin told The Independent. "I played it through high school. In college, I founded the chess club. I was captain of the chess team." Eventually, Martin discovered that he could actually make some money off this skill.

"For two or three years, I had a pretty good situation. Most writers who have to have a day job work five days a week and then they have the weekend off to write. These chess tournaments were all on the weekend so I had to work on Saturday and Sunday, but then I had five days off to write. The chess generated enough money for me to pay my bills."

11. He has a very specific way of writing, which is why he hasn't finished the winds of winter.

Fans have been waiting for a while for the next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and Martin has been honest about why it's taking him so long. "Writer’s block isn’t to blame here, it’s distraction," he said. "In recent years, all of the work I’ve been doing creates problems because it creates distraction. Because the books and the show are so popular I have interviews to do constantly. I have travel plans constantly. It’s like suddenly I get invited to travel to South Africa or Dubai, and who’s passing up a free trip to Dubai? I don’t write when I travel. I don’t write in hotel rooms. I don’t write on airplanes. I really have to be in my own house undisturbed to write. Through most of my life no body did bother me, but now everyone bothers me every day."

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?