Taylor Mead; artist made movies with Warhol

Taylor Mead was kissed by Kadia Sy on the day he moved out of his NewYork apartment after a dispute with his landlord.
Taylor Mead was kissed by Kadia Sy on the day he moved out of his NewYork apartment after a dispute with his landlord.

NEW YORK — Taylor Mead, a poet, actor, and exuberant Bohemian who colluded with Andy Warhol in the 1960s to nurture a new approach to making movies — sometimes spontaneously, always inexpensively (hand-held 16-millimeter cameras sufficed) and brashly experimental (one film consisted of an hourlong shot of Mead’s bare posterior) — died Wednesday in Colorado. He was 88.

Rachel Churner, an owner of Churner and Churner, a Manhattan gallery that has exhibited Mr. Mead’s paintings, confirmed the death. Several websites said he died in Denver of a stroke.

Mr. Mead was the quintessential downtown New York figure. 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 leaving his apartment in return for money. At his death, he had been intending to return to New York after visiting a niece in Colorado.


It was as an actor in what was called the New American Cinema in the 1960s that he made his biggest mark. Warhol recruited him as one of his first ‘‘superstars,’’ and from 1963 to 1968 he made 11 films with Mr. Mead. In all, Mr. Mead figured that he made about 130 movies, many so spontaneous that they involved only one take.

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Film critic J. Hoberman called Mr. Mead ‘‘the first underground movie star.’’ Historian P. Adams Sitney called one of Mr. Mead’s earliest films, ‘‘The Flower Thief’’ (1960), ‘‘the purest expression of the Beat sensibility in cinema.’’

Directed by Ron Rice, the film stars Mr. Mead as a bedraggled mystic wandering the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco with open-mouthed wonder. He carries his three prized possessions: a stolen gardenia, an American flag, and a teddy bear.

Mr. Mead was playing himself, as Susan Sontag observed in Partisan Review. ‘‘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,’’ she wrote. ‘‘Nothing is more attractive in a person, but it is extremely rare after the age of 4.’’

Warhol explained how ‘‘The Flower Thief,’’ which he had nothing to do with, had happened. ‘‘Taylor was in San Francisco in ‘56 when the Beat poetry scene got going,’’ he said. ‘‘One day he stood up on a bar and, over the noise all the drunks were making, started screaming some poems he’d written. Ron Rice saw that scene and began following him around, filming him with black-and-white war surplus film.”


Warhol became aware of Mr. Mead from his poetry readings and they met in the early 1960s. In September 1963, Mr. Mead accompanied Warhol on a cross-country trip to Los Angeles. The entourage filmed scenes for what ­became, in 1964, Mr. Mead’s first film for Warhol, ‘‘Tarzan and Jane Regained . . . Sort Of.’’

Mr. Mead played Tarzan, edited the film, and handled the sound. On screen, his sarong kept falling off while climbing trees, prompting a critic to say that he really did not want to see any more two-hour films of Mr. Mead’s derriere.

Warhol wrote a letter to The Village Voice saying that after searching ‘‘the vast Warhol archives,’’ he could find no two-hour film of Mr. Mead’s behind. ‘‘We are rectifying this undersight,’’ he said, and soon made what would become a cult classic, the title describing in three words precisely what the critic did not want to see (though a coarser Anglo-Saxon term was used instead of the French).

Taylor Mead was born in Grosse Pointe, Mich., to wealthy parents. After attending a private high school, Grosse Point Academy — ‘‘brainwashing for the bourgeoisie,’’ he termed the experience — he wandered around the country and held a variety of jobs, including broker at Merrill Lynch. He studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse in California and the Herbert Berghof Studio.

He won an Obie Award in 1963 for his performance in ‘‘The General Returns From One Place to Another,’’ by the poet Frank O’Hara. In 2003 he appeared in the Jim Jarmusch film ‘‘Coffee and Cigarettes,’’ a series of vignettes.