Actor Meshach (pronounced ME -shack) Taylor pauses during a fast lunch on the Columbia Studios lot in Burbank. He's just read the news of "Designing Women's" cancellation in the morning paper. "It hurt--seven years of my life."
But the sting lessens as Taylor reflects on the deliveryman character, Anthony Bouvier, whom he invested with dignity, wisdom and humor on the Linda Bloodworth-Thomason sitcom. Anthony and the Sugarbaker design team bow out with the show's final airing on CBS Monday.
"Anthony was a one-shot deal, but was on every show since that guest appearance," he recalls with justifiable pride.
"I like comedy with an edge, humor that teaches and entertains, as opposed to just a lot of yuk, yuk, yuk. Punchline, one-liner, one-liner," the actor explains. "Satire is a sensory experience. You don't stumble on it, you develop it, look for ways to bring it out." Which is how he approached Anthony.
True, Anthony had his limits. But Taylor could turn a double-take into an indictment, flash a wide grin and draw the line--"I do not choose to ... "--and turn what might have been a stereotype into a role that commanded respect.
"As a teen-ager," Taylor says, "I was always in the company of some very smart, funny friends, with off-center senses of humor." He honed his own one-liners and mimicry with them.
The son of college professors, he earned a bachelor's degree in theatre arts earlier this month at Florida A&M; University in Tallahassee. He's played in feature films ("Mannequin"), done guest spots on TV ("In the Heat of the Night") and extensive stage work in the Midwest until Anthony came along to test his skill as a comedic actor.
Taylor likes Anthony, the only male character inhabiting the Sugarbakers' Southern design den, and he liked the smart tone of the scripts from day one. "They were funny, with little twists."
His erupts in laughter as he recalls one of his favorite episodes, "Stranded," which ran early in the series and focused on a telling interplay with Suzanne, played by Delta Burke, who later left the show in a public tiff with the producers.
That episode, like many others, was edgy comedy, he recalls. Anthony was snowbound with the self-centered Suzanne, who takes the last room at the last inn. She sends Anthony out into the cold, cheerily admonishing him not to "let the bedbugs bite." Anthony pauses at the door.
"Excuse me, Suzanne. I would just like to remind you that it is 3 degrees below outside. Therefore, I do not think it's appropriate for you to say . . ." He mimics her voice, "Good night, Anthony, don't let the bedbugs bite." Without taking a breath, he drops a gruff two octaves:
"I think it might be more to the point, if you said, 'Good night, Anthony. May God have mercy on your soul!' "
Episodes like "Stranded" drew fire from social critics, who protested that Anthony was being relegated to a subservient and demeaning role.
"You always walk a tightrope, between humor and humiliation," says Taylor, who was named for the biblical Meshach, who walked out of a blazing furnace miraculously unharmed. "There's always that possibility that someone will be offended."
In fact, Taylor once "thought making people laugh was demeaning." He pauses, then flashes a contagious smile. "I didn't realize how important laughter is. I realized that when I began doing the show."
Even before his 1989 Emmy nomination, Taylor charmed viewers as the down-to-earth Anthony. "Everywhere, people liked Anthony," he recalls. "They were nice to him; it was fun." Where the designing women themselves might be acerbic, "Anthony was accessible and honest."
With "Designing Women" over and already in syndication, Taylor looks forward to finding new roles, both comedy and drama, in film as well as TV. Married to former soap star Bianca Fergusson and the father of four, Taylor notes that doing "Designing Women" "allowed me to be with my family, but I like film; in film I have to stretch." Ideally, he'd like to work half the year in film, the other half in TV.
He's got a new management team--Suzanne de Passe and Shelly Browning ("Lonesome Dove," "The Jacksons")--finding new avenues for him to explore: "I'm excited. They're developing a sitcom for me."
In the meantime, he's become famous enough for Robin Leach of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" to go on a romantic vacation with the Taylors to the Virgin Islands.
And with a final look back to his TV home for seven years, Meshach Taylor says with a laugh, "All that Anthony would say is: 'I wasn't there for a long time, but for a good time.' "
The final episode of "Designing Women" airs Monday at 9 p.m. on CBS. Reruns of "Designing Women" air weekdays at noon and 4 p.m. on WGN, 7:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. on KUSI and 11:30 p.m. on KTLA.