Taylor Mead has been at the furiously beating heart of the American avant-garde and counterculture for over sixty years. A vital bridge between the Beat movement and the New York art world of the 1960s, he has remained an important creative force ever since, as a writer, a performer and a muse – with this latter role lovingly exemplified by his performance in Jim Jarmusch's recent Coffee and Cigarettes (2003). Although it was as a poet that Mead first made a name for himself, he soon became a leading onscreen figure in American experimental and independent cinema, as well as an important collaborator off-screen, often contributing to the editing and soundtracks of the films in which he appears.
Born in 1924 to a prominent Michigan family, Mead left his job at a Detroit brokerage firm to flee to the freedom of New York's bohemian circles in the 1940s where he quickly became a fixture on the poetry scene. Upon relocating to San Francisco like so many of his fellow Beats, Mead struck up a collaboration with aspiring filmmaker Ron Rice, commencing with a starring role in the seminal The Flower Thief (1960), whose tremendous success brought Mead to the attention of artists working in New York experimental film and theater scenes. Soon after Mead began to appear onstage with major roles in plays by LeRoi Jones and Frank O'Hara and eventually a "contract" as one of Andy Warhol's first superstars.
By turns raunchy, childlike and satirical, Mead's performances, like his poetry, are completely guileless and sincere. On screen he radiates an insouciance that is both innocent and knowing – demonstrated most palpably in his interplay with children, one of the highlights of both The Flower Thief and Tarzan and Jane. A vital inspiration to the filmmakers who cast him, Mead effortlessly improvises in character and reacts with a lightning-quick wit. An uninhibited use of his gangly body and underappreciated skill at physical comedy complete a thoroughly engaging onscreen presence. He has well-earned the status of a "living legend," and we are pleased to host him in person, along with a selection of films featuring some of his most remarkable performances.
Special thanks: Sam Chamberlain; Jared Rapfogel—Anthology Film Archives.
Directed by Ron Rice. With Taylor Mead, Barry Clark, Heinz Ellsworth
US 1960, 16mm, b/w, 75min
In the old Hollywood days movie studios would keep a man on the set who, when all other sources of ideas failed (writers, directors) was called upon to 'cook up' something for filming. He was called The Wild Man. The Flower Thief has been put together in memory of all dead wild men who died unnoticed in the field of stunt.—Ron Rice
Inspired by the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and especially by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie's Pull My Daisy (1959), Ron Rice cast Mead as the protagonist of his own improvised, Beat-inspired vehicle: a picaresque ramble through San Francisco coffee houses, playgrounds and ramshackle seafront structures.
Directed by Wynn Chamberlain. With Taylor Mead, Sally Kirkland, Tally Brown, Frank Cavestani
US 1970, 16mm, color, 87 min
After a snowbound weekend in 1969 spent watching television, painter Wynn Chamberlain was inspired to make his first film, a series of skits spoofing the politics and mass media of the day and presented as a string of faux TV shows, complete with commercials. (His previous attempt at filmmaking was preempted when houseguest Andy Warhol commandeered Chamberlain's cache of 16mm film to make Sleep.) The result is sketch comedy of, by and for the counterculture, starring a wondrous and eclectic array of famous personalities, including Ultra Violet, Abbie Hoffman, Sally Kirkland and Sam Shepard. Taylor Mead pops up frequently as a string of delightfully bizarre characters, including a fitness guru, a televangelist and the President of the United States. Aptly described by Jonas Mekas as "propaganda for the politics of joy and disorder," this remarkably prescient satire was unavailable for years after its initial success, until the sole surviving print surfaced quite recently and was recovered by Chamberlain.
Directed by Ron Rice. With Taylor Mead, Winifred Bryan, Julian Beck
US 1963/82, 16mm, b/w, 109 min
As the title characters, Winifred Bryan and Taylor Mead are a comic-strip Adam and Eve in a distinctly non-Edenic industrial wasteland. Made shortly before his death in 1964 at age 29, Ron Rice's magnum opus also features an all-star supporting cast: Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas, Judith Malina, Julian Beck and many others, including Rice himself. Mead's performance exhibits the charm and impish physicality of the great silent comedians. His Atom Man is no superhero but rather a Cold War-era everyman at play. Unfinished at the time of Rice's death, Mead created the present version from available footage and added a soundtrack in the 1980s with the assistance of Anthology Film Archives.
Directed by Andy Warhol. With Taylor Mead, Naomi Levine,
US 1970, 16mm, color, 87 min
Andy Warhol's first partially scripted film grew out of a visit to Los Angeles with Taylor Mead, Wynn Chamberlain and Gerard Malanga in 1963. Mead takes credit for the idea – inspired by a highway sign indicating an exit for the town of Tarzana – and the editing. Accordingly, he was cast as the lead, with the swimming pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel serving as a jungle lagoon. Mead's slender torso and less-than-macho demeanor make for an immediate contrast from the usual Hollywood Tarzans, instantly announcing the project's ironic attitude towards the archetypal duo of the title and the culture industry that produced them. Tarzan and Jane proceeds as a series of episodic encounters shot at several locations around southern California, with the other members of the entourage as supporting players, while providing fascinating glimpses of the Los Angeles art world at the time, including appearances by Wallace Berman and Dennis Hopper, who shows up as Mead's stunt double. After the Village Voice published a letter by a viewer complaining that Tarzan and Jane "focus[ed] on Taylor Mead's ass for two hours," Warhol made a film that was just that.
Directed by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey. With Joe Dallesandro, Viva, Taylor Mead
US 1968, 16mm, color, 109 min
By the late 1960s, Warhol was using not just sync sound but also color and an increasing emphasis on narrative in an attempt to expand the audience for his movies. One of the more successful of these ventures, Lonesome Cowboys re-imagines Romeo and Juliet as a Western, shot at an Arizona dude ranch often used as a Hollywood location. As the Nurse to Viva's Juliet, Mead spends much of the film in idle gossip with his charge, as they wonder whether the film's reluctant Romeo might prefer the other cowboys. Not content to be a bystander, Mead undertakes a flirtation with Joe Dallesandro that culminates in a spectacularly salacious dance scene.