The legacy Vic Tayback leaves is unforgettable. Despite an acting career that spanned more than three decades, this is an actor who will forever be known to millions as that often ill-tempered fry cook, Mel Sharples, in the television series Alice. Along with the famous line "kiss my grits" uttered by co-star Polly Holliday, Mel's equally notorious "stow it" came to be a household phrase in the late 1970's and early 80's. However, few people know about Vic or his introduction into acting. Vic and his character, Mel, were in many ways quite similar, both in character traits and personal background.
Vic was born Victor Tabback on January 6, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York, his parents being recent immigrants from Syria. He, along with his brother, Joe, and sister, Emily, was raised in the American culture, yet all the while also learning a lot of the Syrian customs with pride. He once said in an interview, "I learned to speak the Syrian language, but I left home when I was 16. I'll never deny my heritage. I'm proud of it."
As a teenager, Vic moved with his family to Los Angeles, where he attended Burbank High School. He was an ardent sports enthusiast and found himself playing on the many teams his new school had to offer, his most avid interest being varsity football. Later, he attended Glendale Community College and, like his character Mel, he served briefly in the Navy. It wasn't until he decided to pursue a career as a sportscaster that his life began to take on major changes.
In the 1950's, Vic decided that his love of sports would be the perfect backdrop to a career as a sports announcer. He enrolled in the Frederick A. Speare School of Radio and TV Broadcasting. Not being particularly keen on acting at the time, he was forced to perform in a school version of the play "Stalag 17" as part of his curriculum requirement. It was then that he discovered he enjoyed making audiences laugh and decided on acting as his new career. As with so many entertainers though, life in the industry was no easy success for Vic. His professional acting debut occurred in the 1959 movie T-Bird Gang, where he played the small part of "a cop at the gas station," but with a lack of acting opportunities coming his way, he was forced to take on additional employment as a bank teller and cab driver.
Heinz 57 Sauce commercial from 1986.
In time, his persistence paid off and he started obtaining more and more roles throughout the 60's and into the 70's. His parts were many and varied and he established himself as a reliable guest star on many TV shows, including Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, The Partridge Family, Love Boat, and Fantasy Island, just to name a few. He also appeared in many films and, like many of his Alice co-stars, was a featured performer in numerous stage productions, some of them including "Angry Men," "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "Death of a Salesman."
His award winning character, Mel, was first introduced to audiences in the 1974 movie Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. He again found himself in that role two years later when CBS introduced the comedy television series Alice, starring Linda Lavin, and the show became an instant hit with audiences worldwide. The popular TV series ran from 1976 to 1985 and made Vic, who played the part of crusty Mel's Diner owner, as well as his zany waitresses, household names. He won Golden Globe awards in 1979 and 1980 for Mel's loudmouth, overbearing antics.
On Alice, one of the things for which Mel was always condemned, both by waitresses and customers alike, was his cooking and Vic took a lot of kidding about it. As he joked in a 1985 interview, "If I walked into a restaurant, the other diners would look around and say, "I hope you're not cooking." This prompted the famous Heinz USA company to pick him up as their official spokesman. They were looking for a man to help promote their Heinz 57 sauce and Vic was the right man for the job. The theme used in the promotion: "I used to be a lousy cook."
After Alice ended in 1985, Vic again went on to perform in several films and stage productions. With other performers, he founded the Los Angeles-based theater group "Company of Angels." On a personal level, Vic was married in 1962 to Sheila McKay Barnard and they had a son, Christopher. Like his character, Mel, and in keeping with his passion for sports, he was also an avid horse-racing enthusiast and owned a number of thoroughbreds. Confesses Vic, "my character at Mel's diner was involved in betting on the horses and all that. Sometimes the writers would say, 'All right, we've got several horses we've got to check on to get clearance, as far as names go.' "I said, 'Use some of my horses.' So a couple of times they used my horses' names and they were involved in the scripts. [But] they didn't win in the scripts either!"
Vic was also a heavy smoker with a history of heart trouble, and in 1983 during his time on Alice, he underwent triple-heart bypass surgery, causing him to be absent from two episodes during the eighth season. Throughout the years, he made several attempts to quit smoking, only to start again. Unfortunately, on May 25, 1990, Vic suffered a heart attack which proved to be fatal. He was pronounced dead at Glendale Adventist Medical Center, where he was rushed in the early morning hours after his wife called paramedics. She said he had climbed out of bed, taken a few steps and collapsed. Those closest to him say he had quit smoking, again, just the previous day. Today, he can be found buried alongside other notable individuals and celebrities in the Forest Lawn Burial Park in Glendale, California. But for millions, he will forever live on as the likeable and unforgettable owner of Mel's Diner.