“We are learning the sad news this morning that Warhol star, writer, and poet Taylor Mead died yesterday at the age of 88,” announces Bowery Boogie. Word comes via Aaron Cutler, who writes: “Mead was a charming, unpredictable, beanpole of a comedian with a ceaselessly contorting face. Watching him onscreen is a pleasure. In addition to the films Mead made with Andy Warhol, I recommend his starring roles in Ron Rice’s pair of films The Flower Thief and The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, as well as his appearance in the last segment of Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, as starting points.”
Mead’s biography at Warholstars notes that he was born “to a wealthy family in Grosse Point Michigan,” studied drama, and took “a job working for Merrill Lynch as a broker in training. Taylor worked for Merrill Lynch for nine months before leaving on his first hitchhiking trip with just fifty dollars in his pocket—inspired by the Beat authors, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Mead became known on the underground poetry scene both in San Francisco and New York but his first movie role was in a b-movie titled Too Young, Too Immoral (1962) directed by Raymond Phelan whose previous film was Diary of a Nudist. Taylor then went on to appear in the underground classic, The Flower Thief (1962) directed by Ron Rice.” Indeed, the Lo-Down notes that “J. Hoberman called Mead ‘the first underground movie star.'”
His first film for Warhol, notes Warholstars, was Tarzan and Jane Regained… Sort of (1963), which also featured Naomi Levine, Dennis Hopper, Pat and Claes Oldenburg and the artist Wally Berman.
Update: Mike Everleth reminds us that Mead also appeared in Adolfas Mekas’s comedy Hallelujah the Hills (1963) and, after Tarzan, “would go on to appear in numerous Warhol productions, including Nude Restaurant (1968), Imitation of Christ (1968) and the infamous Lonesome Cowboys (1967). He also starred as the President of the United States in Robert Downey, Sr.’s early feature Babo 73 (1964) and appeared in the mainstream classic Midnight Cowboy (1969). He then continued to act in several less well-known underground films throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, such as Eric Mitchell’s Underground U.S.A. (1980) and appear in small parts in NYC-based low budget indie films. Plus, thanks to the association with Warhol, Mead became a regular interviewee in the ubiquitous documentaries about the late pop artist and his cohorts, such as Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol (1990), Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story (2000), Beautiful Darling (2010) and even Excavating Taylor Mead (2005). Mead also appeared in several productions by notorious Cinema of Transgression filmmaker Nick Zedd, including Ecstasy in Entropy (2000) and the Electra Elf TV show.”
Updates, 5/10: Writing for Artinfo, J. Hoberman recalls that “the last conversation I had with Taylor, who died yesterday of a stroke at 88, was at MoMA, where he brought down the house with his introduction to the newly restored Andy Warhol-Paul Morrissey film San Diego Surf. Taylor Mead was the original underground movie star and in advance of the (sadly) posthumous retrospective he so richly deserves, I’d like to propose the essentials, a few of which are missing from his Wikipedia filmography.” And they are: The Flower Thief, Tarzan, The Queen of Sheba, and Babo 73.
“Mr. Mead was the quintessential Downtown figure,” writes Douglas Martin in the New York Times. “He read his poems in a Bowery bar, walked as many as 80 blocks a day and fed stray cats in a cemetery, usually after midnight. His last years were consumed by a classic Gotham battle against a landlord, which ended in his agreeing to leave his tenement apartment in return for money. At his death, he had been intending to return to New York after visiting a niece in Colorado.” Martin also gives us a quote from Susan Sontag: “The source of his art is the deepest and purest of all: he just gives himself, wholly and without reserve, to some bizarre autistic fantasy. Nothing is more attractive in a person, but it is extremely rare after the age of 4.”