The actor and poet Taylor Mead was an instinctive and natural performer who became associated with the New American Cinema movement and was the first “superstar” of Andy Warhol’s Factory. His acting break came in 1959, when the experimental filmmaker Ron Rice cast him in The Flower Thief.
A hymn to the beatnik lifestyle of San Francisco’s bohemian communities, it was to become one of the most successful underground films, breaking attendance records at the famous Charles Theater on 12th Street, New York, where Jonas Mekas was a programmer.
Reviewers from The New Yorker and The Village Voice fell for Mead’s persona, which was variously described as “elfin glee” and “a cross between a zombie and a kewpie”. Mead privately published two volumes of his diaries, Excerpts from the Anonymous Diaries of a New York Youth, in 1961 and 1962. Completely candid about his homosexuality, his love of Hollywood and his exaltation of Beat writers, these books caused a minor sensation in New York and captured the attention of the artist Andy Warhol, who was then beginning to experiment with film.
Warhol admired Mead’s writing and his film appearances, and Mead recalled that at their first encounter he got the “royal treatment, including cucumber sandwiches and meeting his mother”. Their first collaboration in film, 1963’s Tarzan and Jane Regained… Sort Of, drew heavily on images from Mead’s poetry. The film bore striking similarities to The Flower Thief, and there are a number of long sequences in which Mead is seen larking around in his swimming trunks, which are usually falling off. After a hostile reviewer complained that the film had little interest and was mostly a tribute to Mead’s behind, Warhol and Mead made a sardonic two-hour feature entitled Taylor Mead’s Ass.
Most of Mead’s parts were improvised, directors relying on his natural buoyancy and charisma, which in many cases was captured in just one take. In 1964, Robert Downey Sr cast Mead as the president of the United States in his send-up of a presidential biopic, Babo 73. Without any permits or passes, Downey instructed Mead to walk inside the White House grounds, including interacting and irritating a couple of unamused generals, who eventually asked him to leave.
Mead became a firm fixture at The Factory and starred in Warhol classics such as Lonesome Cowboys, The Nude Restaurant, Couch and Imitation of Christ. However, unlike some other Warhol favourites, Mead continually collaborated with many other directors too, both in film and on stage. He appeared in plays by avant garde writers such as Frank O’Hara and Charles Ludlum and wrote the screenplay for Rudolph Burckhardt’s 1969 film Tarzan.
Mead’s cult status as an actor remained constant and he continued to inspire film-makers right up until his death. In the 1990s, Mead starred in a number of films for the director and photographer Robert Frank, including C’est Vrai and Last Supper and more recently he appeared in transgressive filmmaker Nick Zedd’s Ecstasy in Entropy.
In 2005, a collection of Mead’s poetry, A Simple Country Girl, was published and in the same year he was the subject of the documentary Excavating Taylor Mead, a picture that introduced the myriad sides of his eccentric personality to younger audiences. The title of the movie was in part a pun on the hoards and collections of paraphernalia that Mead lived with and which virtually consumed his apartment.
Although still making films, in recent years he was more commonly seen as a legend of New York’s poetry scene and a familiar downtown character. Jim Jarmusch recollected how Mead would feed stray cats every evening in an East Village ceremony, a responsibility he took very seriously. When he had to go to Europe for the Jarmusch-directed Coffee and Cigarettes, Mead enlisted the director’s brother to feed the cats in his absence. After a long-running dispute with his landlord, Mead had to leave his downtown apartment in the spring and suffered a stroke shortly after.
Taylor Mead, actor and poet: born Grosse Point, Michigan 31 December 1924; died Denver, Colorado, 8 May 2013.
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