Saturday, October 1, 2011

Super ‘70s and ‘80s: “The Plastic Man Comedy Adventure Show”—Mark Taylor (Plastic Man—live action)

Introduction to subseries “The Plastic Man Comedy Adventure Show” (including list of interviewees).

Getting to know Mark Taylor was one of the most moving aspects of this experience for me. I will not elaborate because you will soon see why, but I will say that during our actual conversation, there was a lot of “Wow,” “My gosh,” “You are an inspiration,” and the like from me. In transcribing, I have cut that out so you can mentally insert your own reactions as you read.

NOTE: Some of Mark’s turns-of-a-phrase in e-mail showed that he was able to snap right back into Plastic Man mode. My favorite was a time when he had to reschedule a talk:

“You have to be flexible if you’re going to deal with Plastic Man.”

How did you get the job on Plastic Man?

It’s coincidental. I was doing comedy in San Francisco and doing a little acting, modeling, commercial work. 

One of my agents [told me that there was] an audition for this cartoon character. My interest was not at all in doing in a children’s show. This was about an hour out of San Francisco. I declined to do it. Most auditions aren’t fruitful. And then I realized that on the weekday afternoon of that audition I just happened to have a lunchtime college gig in that area. I thought, well, I’m in the area anyway so it was convenient. I called her back and said let’s do it. They liked it and I got the job.

Do you remember what you had to do the for the audition?

I think I had to read script and see if I could get in the ballpark of that voice. They had a couple of different cartoon voices. I was looking for a voice similar to Don Adams’s Get Smart. I was a fairly trim fit guy and if they just added a little shoulder muscle they could make a superhero out of me. It didn’t take a lot of padding to make it happen.

How familiar were you with the character beforehand?

Not a whit. I knew Superman. I was a Superman fan. I didn’t know anything about Plastic Man. Since then I’ve done a little bit of research and other people have told me. It was a kind of cult following. An alternative to the hyper-serious Superman and Batman. A whimsical [character], a comic screw-up.

How long did you have the job?

In terms of the work, only about six weeks because that’s all we had to do it. Very short vignettes.

What challenges were involved in recording the show? (Related: do you remember any elements you or someone else wanted to include but which the network vetoed?)

There were a lot of challenges. First of all, you had to get it right on whatever time it was—22 or 44 seconds or whatever it was. I would have a clock right in front of me, and of course I had goggles. A lot of it was unscripted. I would have the idea that I wanted to do and I would try to get it in right. I thought [some of the scripts] spoke down to the kids.

Were you allowed to improvise/ad-lib?

[Producer/director] Steve Whiting was very collaborative. He was open to bringing some adult wackiness to it. So I wouldn’t ad-lib as camera rolled. I would go with an idea pretty well formulated.

Mark as Plastic Man:

What segment is your favorite?

What I really liked about the gig was that it was a blank slate. I could do almost anything within taste. Plastic Man—you can make him whatever. Sometimes we’d do things with the camera that would be different—moving the camera so it would seem like the Plasti-Jet was going up or down, turbulence, breaking, crashing. None of that was in the original scripts. Those were just Plastic Man speaking straight to the camera as traditional as you can make it.

One thing I remember is indicative of what tickles me, the silliness, the stuff that goes for both kids and adults—I said something about my family and I can’t quote you the exact dialogue. Something about “I’d like to intro you to my relatives, Plastic Cup, Plastic Fork, Plastic Wrap, and my funny uncle Aluminum Foil.”

How did the Democratic National Convention gig come about?

My friend Jeff Wachtel went with me to the DNC. Now he’s a Senior VP of Original Programming on USA. I don’t watch much TV but apparently he’s got several shows on USA that are pretty successful over the last 5-8 years.

There’s something called the Living Newspaper that was done in the 1930s. I think it was a WPA project. Actors would get together and give the news of the day in radio form. Around 1980, Jeff got this idea with another lady, I guess. He was living in New York and they wanted to do another form of Living Newspaper, revive it. They mass-mailed a lot of contacts and one of the people that responded enthusiastically was Walter Cronkite. He wrote back his fond memories of that effort.

Jeff sent that letter along with his application for media credentials and got a couple of media passes for the 1980 DNC. He wanted to do it again in 1984 (when he didn’t need Walter Cronkite anymore), with me, doing a little bit more zany and weird. He applied for the credentials again and got them. I had the character and outfit and he had the camera so [we said] let’s just do this ambush on the DNC and see if we can make something fun.

I think Steve Whiting got the equipment. We had only two media credentials at a time so we had to swap off. Jeff lugged around 70 pounds of equipment and he’s not a big guy. Created this guerrilla piece mostly for the fun of it.

So that wasn’t with Steve?

As I remember it, Steve was there and Steve allowed it and made sure nothing blemished the character or image, but Steve wasn’t the instigating force.

Do you remember if you were there all day?

Maybe a couple days. I remember Jesse Jackson, Walter Mondale.

Did you get any hassle?

I don’t remember that. The trick was to get people to talk. I guess it’s become more and more common with the advent of cable—what I call ambush videography. Like the guy from Kazakhstan [Borat]—he did it brilliantly. I did a more lame version of what he did so well.

Because we had legitimate press credentials, and there was a cameraman and Steve and I think another person, it added a bit of legitimacy. Nowadays with the abundance of college kids and everyone else crashing events with videocamera, it would raise more suspicion.

What other public appearances did you do as Plastic Man?

I did an appearance on P.M. Magazine. Off the top of my head those were the only two. A couple years we did the NATPE (National Association of Television Programming Executives) Convention. Everybody who sells syndication and buys syndication get together and make their deals. I was in costume and always in costume and I posed myself as doing security. Of course [that means] I’m the most suspicious-looking in the place! I basically patrolled.

A woman had just moved to San Francisco and was doing temp jobs and one of them was filling positions for this convention. She got a gig hosting the booth of [movie reviewers] Siskel and Ebert, hosting the clients. Now she’s my wife of 25 years. She never saw me out of character [there]. I had a sidekick in a comedy troupe called Polyesterman and he broke character and said we’re a comedy team and she could see us at such and such venue and she ended up doing that.

So first time you met her was in costume?

Yeah, and for two days, I never left character.

Did you want to continue in TV or film?

I actually preferred stand-up because of the autonomy.
As a writer, maybe you like it, too—[you] set your own time and subject. I liked working on Plastic Man because it was just Steve and me. Later, as a father with two small children, I had a stroke. So between the responsibilities of my family and the residual deficits of my stroke (poor speech articulation, decreased processing speed, poor fine-motor in right hand), I quit entertainment. I really don’t have any lingering regrets.

In fact, about the only nightmare that I have is getting on stage in a comedy situation like I used to do all the time. My nightmare is getting ready to go on stage and remembering I had a stroke and can’t talk the way I used to.

What are you doing these days?

Doing physical therapy. Several people in my family had AVMs (arteriovenous malformations). These are malformed blood vessels due to a genetic condition called hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia (HHT). Because we had that in the family, I tested and I had it. My neurosurgeon said I can fix this but apparently he opened me up and found it more intricate and in more important brain matter and didn’t want to remove it because would jeopardize too many of my abilities. But before he put my skull back he noticed I was hemorrhaging. So the surgery that was supposed to prevent all this kind of caused all this.

I woke up unable to speak and my right arm was totally flaccid. I couldn’t read, write, or spell “cat.” I did a lot of rehab.

Once I could speak, read, and write again, I went back to school for physical therapy. I was doing comedy up until this surgery. I just wanted the challenge. I wanted the challenge to get back and do comedy again. With a lot of help from my speech therapist, and for about a year and a half on a lesser schedule, I performed stand-up around the country. Maybe the late ‘90s.

But at the same time, I knew my performance career was totally over and I was very inspired by the therapists who helped me. I went back and eventually worked at the rehab hospital I was a patient at.

Still working at a hospital?

Still in PT realm. Now I’m at a retirement community where I help them walk, etc.

Can you drive?

I can drive. My walking is 100%. My arm, you can tell. My fine motor is affected.

What are your children up to?

I have a daughter who’s almost 22, junior at Chapel Hill. My son is 18, going to NC State.

What do they think of your time as a superhero?

Like a lot of parents [discover], my children couldn’t give a whit about what they’ve done. I never wanted to push my stuff on them. My wife more than me introduced them to that at an appropriate age. It was very unimpressive to them. (laughs) I try not to take that personally.

This 1994 birthday party for Mark’s daughter was likely
his last public appearance as Plastic Man.

Did you ever get letters from fans, and if so, do you still have any?

A little bit. It was hard to siphon through, get letters—a circuitous route: stations, etc. One guy in particular—I think he was maybe 14 and perhaps mentally or emotionally strange—and he was kind of stalking me with letters. He was very insistent with letters and photos. At first I would respond politely once or twice. But he was relentless so I had to stop.

Do you have any Plastic Man stuff?

I have the costume, which is deteriorating. I’ve got the pompadour wig, the glasses, the wristband communicator device. It was high-tech at the time.

Was there only one costume?


What about collectibles?

Friends over the years have given me miniature Plastic Man things, like part of a chess board game. And other kinds of kids’ six- or eight-inch tall figures.

Had you seen any of your episodes since they went off the air?

I hadn’t but I had a second brain surgery summer of 2008 (first one was 1995) so I had time off and I wanted to get my tape work onto DVD. So I was able to watch some of them. I didn’t care to watch all of them. Some of them crack me up still in part because I know the difficulty of the time pressure. We didn’t have weeks to write this stuff. I was pretty much jamming. I was so stoked. I couldn’t sleep. I’d get up in the middle of the night “How about this bit, how about that bit?” It was a fertile time.

Has anyone else ever interviewed you about Plastic Man?

I got a lot of features as a comic written in newspapers. I have several things [that are somewhat] of note in my past, Plastic Man being one of them. Maybe he’d get a paragraph but never the focus.

Memory can be deceiving!

Examples of other things of note?

From New Haven (Yale ‘70-74), I rode a bicycle across the country for half a year, didn’t know what I wanted to do. I departed from New Haven July 4 and I arrived in San Jose about December 23. It was old school: cut-off jeans, suede sneakers, no helmet, no sunglasses, and in my backpack I hauled the I Ching to help with my decision-making. Worked my way to California: bike mechanic, sold flowers on street corners, pumped gas, sold my blood, sold souvenirs, etc. 

Frankly I hated Yale and wanted to get as far from reading and writing and that kind of lifestyle as I could. I think I borrowed $20 from my girlfriend and took off. They had kind of a media event when I returned home to San Jose.

How did they find out about what you were doing?

I think my mom talked to them. San Jose was kind of a smaller town then.

Other examples of note?

Once I was named one of the ten most eligible bachelors of San Francisco, around 1982, just before Plastic Man. I was a Playgirl centerfold once (11/80). I was married on the island of Bali. On a cliff at sunset with the full moon rising in 1986.

What does your wife do?

She’s recently unemployed [as of mid-2010]. She was managing graphic artists for a financial institution—signage, PowerPoint.

How do you look back on your time on Plastic Man?

It was a small little thing. Just a little blip.

But I really liked it. It was very much a challenge. Most people wouldn’t have seen it was a creative challenge as well as physically and verbally. It was an intense period that used my creativity to the max. You see it and say, “That’s not Einstein, not genius,” but when you consider the time constraints…I came to this in my mind almost without a script, scripts were just a backup.

Where do you live now?

Charlotte, NC.

Did you move from San Francisco straight to Charlotte?

[After college], I went to Santa Cruz and got involved in a comedy troupe, the Screaming Memes. Went to San Francisco with that troupe. I split off into a comedy team at about the time I did Plastic Man. Shortly thereafter, we split the team up to do solo stand-up and I went to Los Angeles to try for the Big Time. I don’t like Los Angeles and never did. I said to my wife, “I’ll make you suffer only for five years, make or break it.” After five years, I didn’t make it and we had two very small kids and we wanted to be as close to family as possible. My wife had family in Charlotte and it had affordable housing. My family was in California but I couldn’t afford to raise a family anywhere there where I wanted to be.

Have you ever participated (i.e. signed autographs) at a comic convention? If not, would you be willing to (if the convention paid your way)?

I haven’t and would be open if anyone figures I would be of interest.

Anything else about the experience I didn't cover that you'd like to add?

Not about superheroes per se, but about a life change of a man who played a superhero. It was interesting and humbling and traumatic that I went I went from a Yale grad, superhero, centerfold comic to a speechless bald man with countless staples in his skull. Half my face was drooping, mouth constantly drooling, right arm totally flaccid. I sat mute in a hospital bed as my social worker told my wife and me that I could be retrained for low-challenging jobs (Walmart greeter, etc.). My daughter was trying to teach me words again. Going from having it all to not having it all was…well, the words escape me, but it was transformative. Ironically, despite the losses, I feel like I have it all again.

Christopher Reeve had his accident the same year.

As I recall there was a lot [about him] in the media when I was in the hospital.

His accident was end of May [1995].

I was June 15. I was down-to-Earth enough to know I wasn’t all that, but when you have certain qualities that are pretty good and then you lose those qualities that are pretty good…I don’t think I’m better for it. (laughs) A wiser person than me would say, “I learned a lot.”

How long did it take you to learn to speak again?

It’s a long process. Day by day. I was I think functional within a few months and then it got better. Even to this day if I get tired, stressed, nervous, it deteriorates momentarily and then fluctuates back. The frustration is felt daily, hourly, almost by the minute. But what I don’t think I clearly articulated was the wonderful work “fate” has led me to. I’m now blessed to be able to help people who are afflicted like my mother and I were. Many people have told me that this is the work I was meant to do. With complete peace of mind, I agree. It’s not Hollywood, but it is Super-work.

Next: Superman (1988 cartoon).


Delmo said...

What a great story. Another guy who played a superhero becoming one in real life.

Andy Mangels said...

Nice job on this one Marc - I actually provided the photo to Back Issue your referenced, and knew full well who Mark was (and told them at the time, but I think it got lost in the wash). I had always intended to interview Mark myself, but had not done so, though I did contact him 15 years or so ago.

When I was producing the DVD sets with BCI Eclipse, we were going to release the Plastic Man series at one point, until a rights issue shagged it all. But I would have pushed to have both Steve and Mark as involved as possible in the extras had I done the set. Sadly, twas not to be, and likely never will be...

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Thanks so much, Andy. Means a great deal coming from you. And you can see how rewarding it was to talk with Mark; I'm transparent about how much I admire what he's handled so gracefully.

Unknown said...

Hi I am an old friend of Marks's from San Francisco I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to read this and catch up. I would love to try to find an email for him I think if you follow the google link you will have mine. We were really great friends having moved from Santa Cruz . Joan Brown. I know this is an old post but I thought I would try. I still live here in the Bay Area. Hope you can help two friends re-connect.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Joan, I hope you see this - I would love to try to reconnect you and Mark but I did not find your email. Please email me at mtnobleman at gmail. Thank you!

Max West said...

Thanks for sharing. I grew up watching the Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show on channel 5 in New York City, back when it was still part of Metromedia and not Fox. I vividly remember Taylor as Plastic Man in those live action segments. Sorry to hear about his stroke and suffering; I hope he's doing okay now.

cchansard said...

Plastic Man was trending on Twitter last night and it made me think about the Comedy Hour with Mr. Taylor. As a kid I used to get a kick on how he would turn into a tire or a kite etc. I know this article is old now but I hope he is still doing well, and if he ever saw this thanks for the memories and entertainment.

It would be cool if he did do conventions I bet a lot of fans would enjoy meeting him. He's who I picture when I think about Plastic Man and he was the first rubbery hero I knew of.

Jim Abell said...

Wow... I remember the show fondly but I had always thought that it was Michael Bell (the cartoon's voice actor for Plastic Man) in the costume. Nice to have the record set straight!