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Joseph Bologna, Onscreen Tough Guy With a Sense of Humor, Dies at 82

“It’s a deep, loving character study and manages to make us laugh while demonstrating how much the truth can hurt,” Roger Ebert wrote of “Made for Each Other” in The Chicago Sun-Times.


Mr. Bologna, left, in “My Favorite Year” (1982) with John Welsh, center, and Peter O’Toole.

MGM, via Everett Collection

As soon as Hollywood casting directors met Mr. Bologna, they saw him as a gangster. He was cast as the mobster Joe Bonanno in the TV movie “Honor Thy Father” and as a police officer turned thief in “Cops and Robbers” (1973).

He combined comedy and the tough-guy personality, and received the best reviews of his career, in “My Favorite Year” (1982), as King Kaiser, a tyrannical 1950s TV variety-show host modeled on Sid Caesar. Kaiser may have been a law-abiding citizen, but his ego was criminal.

The typecasting took only partial hold, as Mr. Bologna made a film career in varied comedy roles. In “Blame It on Rio” (1984), he starred as a middle-aged adulterer whose teenage daughter had an affair with his best friend, played by Michael Caine. He was a mad scientist in “Transylvania 6-5000” (1985) and Adam Sandler’s father in “Big Daddy” (1999). He and Ms. Taylor continued to make films together, including “Love Is All There Is” (1996), a Romeo and Juliet story about dueling catering families on City Island.

In 2001, Mr. Bologna and Ms. Taylor — in their 60s — wrote and starred in “If You Ever Leave Me … I’m Going With You!,” a Broadway show that consisted largely of anecdotes about their marriage. It closed after eight weeks, but they publicized it beforehand by interviewing each other for The Times. Asked how he felt about working with his wife so often, Mr. Bologna declared the arrangement “very practical.”

“I can have an affair with my director, writer and co-star at the same time,” he said. “That saves a lot of wear and tear at my age.”

Joseph T. Bologna was born on Dec. 30, 1934, in Brooklyn, the son of Peter and Antonett Bologna.

Joe Bologna was the son, grandson and nephew of bootblacks. The family’s claim to fame was his uncle Pat Bologna, the author of “At the Feet of the Mighty,” about giving investment advice to Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. that helped him avoid the financial devastation of the 1929 crash. Kennedy remembered it with a slightly different point of view. “When the shoeshine boys have tips,” he said, “the stock market is too popular for its own good.”


Mr. Bologna in Los Angeles in 2006.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Joe graduated from Brown University with a degree in art history. When he was cast in a student stage production of “Stalag 17” there, he was surprised to discover that he had dramatic abilities. “I found out that I could do things that other people couldn’t do,” he told the actor Robert Wuhl in a 2016 podcast.

But he did not immediately consider an acting career. Instead he joined the Marine Corps. He later found an entry-level job at a New York advertising agency and worked his way up to directing television commercials. He had also considered a career as an architect, he said, but believed his freehand sketching wasn’t good enough.

He met Ms. Taylor while moonlighting as a joke writer for comedians. “We spent most of our courting in Sardi’s,” the theater-district restaurant, he told The Daily News in 1996. They married in 1965, and the reception was broadcast on “The Merv Griffin Show,” on which Ms. Taylor had been a frequent guest. They had a son, Gabriel Bologna, an actor and director. Survivors of the elder Mr. Bologna include his wife and son.

Gabriel Bologna directed his father’s final film performance, as a priest in “Tango Shalom,” an indie comedy. The elder Mr. Bologna was also a screenwriter. His last television appearance was as a serial killer’s father, a gruff but gracious Italian-American restaurateur, in a 2010 episode of “C.S.I.”

Mr. Bologna, who always thought of himself more as a writer than an actor, liked to talk about comedy. “You have to have surprise and inevitability at the same time,” he said in a 2003 interview with The San Francisco Chronicle. “That’s what makes you laugh. Subliminally, you know where the scene is going and that even the most outrageous insults are somehow going to end well.”

But over the decades, the subject that journalists tended to ask Mr. Bologna and Ms. Taylor about most frequently was the secret of their enduring marriage and professional collaboration. Mr. Bologna often pointed out the ways in which they were opposites, far beyond their religious upbringings. (She was Jewish. He was Roman Catholic.)

“I was a hedonist, and she was a sufferer,” he told The Boston Globe good-naturedly in 1984. “I taught her pleasure, and she taught me to suffer.”

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