Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Her status as a multi-generation fixture in television and movies makes it easy to forget that singing is how Lainie Kazan became a star. In 1965, Kazan stepped in for her old high school classmate Barbra Streisand in Broadway’s Funny Girl and never looked back. She moved on to a series of variety shows in the 1960s, finally establishing herself in iconic movie roles in films like Lust In The Dust, most famously in the super-hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and a series of Adam Sandler movies. She also had roles in TV series for decades, from The Nanny and Paper Chase to St. Elsewhere and Desperate Housewives.
Kazan returns to her true love this fall, performing in Las Vegas, Palm Beach, and New York, where she wraps up a four-night gig at The Iridium this month. She was eager to talk to The A.V. Club about her many years of singing and acting.
The A.V. Club: You’ve been doing these cabaret shows for a while. What’s different about this one?
Lainie Kazan: I have a lot of new material, and I’m going to do some Latin material, some of my standards from different records that I’ve done. What else have I got? I can’t even think. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is it still a joy to go onstage and sing for a crowd?
LK: It is, except as I get older it gets more difficult, and I just had a terrible automobile accident. I broke six ribs, so it’s very hard for me to take my full, deep wonderful breath. I’m singing a little lighter. I’m trying to just adjust to the problems I’m having. But I do get great pleasure out of singing. It’s probably one of the greatest pleasures in life.
AVC: Is being on stage another form of playing a role?
LK: No. It’s me—all of me. [Laughs.] It’s just me when I’m singing, and I feel like it’s a part of me exaggerated or magnified when I’m acting. It’s like I take a part of me that I understand [about the character] and I magnify it and I work on it and I dress her and give her all kinds of things to do—and then I step into her.
AVC: Is that what makes acting fun or is it more work?
LK: In a way, it’s more work.
AVC: But singing is unadulterated joy?
LK: It is.
AVC: With a few exceptions, you don’t sing onscreen—
LK: I think I sang in two movies, but as a comedian. Like Lust In The Dust is hysterical, just hilarious. I had the best time in the world. I made some of my dearest friends. I sang, “Let me take you south of my border, north of my garter, where everything is on order for you.” [Laughs.]
AVC: What made that such a pleasure to work on?
LK: Oh, first and foremost, I just loved my part. I was like the head of the group. I just had so much fun. We were in New Mexico. I loved the city [Santa Fe]. In fact, I bought some land when I was there, and like a fool, I sold it later. It’s worth so much money now.
I loved the director [Paul Bartel]. I loved Tab Hunter. He was the one who introduced me to this. He said, “There’s no one else in the world who can play this part. You’ve got to come do this role.” So I met him for lunch at a beautiful restaurant in Hollywood. I met the producers; I met everybody. We just clicked, you know? That was what happened.
I didn’t know who Divine was. [Laughs.] I got the script around some Jewish holiday, and I got a scratch-and-sniff board to watch the films. I had my Jewish family there, and I said, “Oh, let’s put this on. This is the person I’m going to be working with.” And it was so inappropriate, they all got up and left.
AVC: Wait, so, Pink Flamingos, the movie where Divine ate the dog shit?
LK; Yes! [Laughs.] Oh my God. It was just unbelievable.
AVC: What was it like working with Divine?
LK: What a doll. I loved him. He was a gentleman, and then when he was in drag, he would get very feisty. He once said to me—we had a fight scene, and we were rolling around on the floor—“Don’t let these skirts fool you, because underneath this skirt, beats a rod of steel.” [Laughs.] He was great.
AVC: That’s a long way from your first onscreen role, which looks to be an episode of Car 54, Where Are You?
LK: I don’t remember much about that. I think I was out of college or in college.
AVC: Then you were on a ton of variety shows in the 1960s, but how did you become a regular presence on The Dean Martin Show?
LK: He liked me. And he really enjoyed my work and he loved my talent. And he was very gracious, just terrific to me. My husband [the late Peter Daniels] said to me, “I have a friend who is auditioning The Dean Martin Show. Would you like to meet him and maybe sing a song for him?” I was so nervous I sang with my back to him, but I sang and they flipped out for me. They had me on the show and then they had me on another show. He also had the best sense of humor, and I appreciated his humor. He realized I had a sense of humor. We just got on famously. I adored him. I made him feel good, and he made me feel great.
AVC: What was it about Dean Martin that was so appealing? On Maria Menounos’ radio show, you admitted that there was an attraction between the two of you.
LK: Well, he was very handsome. As I said before, he was very funny. And he was very charismatic. He just emanated this sexual appeal mixed with great humor, and I think the audience appreciated him for who he was. He was real and honest and straightforward and said what was on his mind. He liked people. He liked his celebrities; he liked the people who were on his show. If you go back and see other people, he liked them. He had favorites, but he liked them. The day I left the show, he gave me the ’56 MG that he had been using on the set. He gave it to me as a present.
AVC: Was the treatment the same on the other variety shows?
LK: No, no. You came and you went on the other shows. This was a whole experience. He would take me to lunch. I had lunch with John Wayne and Dean Martin. I almost fainted when I walked into his room: There was John Wayne. [Laughs.] They said, “You want to go to lunch?” and we went to some place in Burbank. Oh my God.
AVC: Do you remember anything about that lunch?
LK: Not really, just that I couldn’t eat. I was so overwhelmed by who I was sitting with. And he was so nice, John Wayne.
One From The Heart (1982)—“Maggie”
LK: I went to school with Francis Coppola, and I was his leading lady all through college. I was performing at The Fairmont in San Francisco in the early ’80s. He came in to hear me sing; he lives up in Napa. I was shocked that he was there. I was so happy; I hadn’t seen him in, like, 10 years. He said, “You are funny.”
I said, “I’m funny?” because I was taking myself very seriously. I was this chanteuse, you know?
He said, “You’re funny as all get out.”
I said, “Oh my goodness. I really never realized that.” Because I was very loose with the audience with great repartee.
He said, “I’m sending you a script and I want you to come up to Napa tomorrow. I’m sending a car for you and your daughter. Come on up.” When I got there, I said, “There were all these people from Hofstra.” And he said, “Yeah, they all work with me. This is known as the Hofstra Nostra.” [Laughs.] So I read the script and I met with [producer] Fred Roos the next week and I got the part.
But I didn’t know he was going to un-glamorize me. I played this kind of very sad creature, kind of a real messed-up woman. I think I did a really great job. I loved it. [Coppola] was such a great teacher. He had us in the editing room. We would pick which takes we liked. He was not afraid to share his art and his knowledge. He taught me a lot, so much—and I adored him.
AVC: What did you learn from that experience that you carried with you?
LK: Just a lot about film, just that it took more than my performance to put it on the screen. And that I wasn’t in control of it. In that it was a giving up, a resolve that I had to be pure. Every take was important. I couldn’t slough off, because you never knew what was going to be on the screen when you finished. If I was starting out in a scene that was at the end of the movie, I had to know everything about the character up until that moment. I couldn’t just [do] that scene.
AVC: Also, you said that being in a Coppola movie was a seal of approval.
LK: Right. After that, I could work for anybody.
LK: Norman Steinberg, who wrote the script, he was a friend of mine through another friend. We would go to dinner all the time. I always did this Jewish woman. I’d do things at dinner. I would say things in this accent. He thought it was hysterical. So he sent me the script. They wanted me to play the journalist. When I read the script, there was that woman that I was doing. To me, she was the woman on the park bench in Brooklyn. I knew her so well. My mother lived in this building with all these Jewish women, and they all sat on the park bench waiting for me to go in and out. Like [affects Yiddish accent], “Oy, she’s coming with that taxi. She’s bringing a limousine.” So, all of a sudden, I had this script in my hand, so I said to them, “I have to play the Jewish woman.”
I got into costume. I put a wig on [for the audition] and when Mel Brooks saw me, he didn’t recognize me. I took a little screen test, and they gave me the part. They thought I was too young and too attractive to play that part. But I proved to them that I could do it. It landed me a lot of very wonderful things. I got nominated [for a Golden Globe]. It really was an amazing time.
AVC: You said that movie opened up a lot of things for you, but you also became the go-to Jewish mom, grandma.
LK: Exactly. The ethnic mother. I’ve been fighting it for 40 years, but I’ve finally given up to it.
AVC: What made you say, “Screw this, it is what it is”?
LK: Just because there’s very little work out there, and I had a niche. I started taking advantage of it because I needed to make money. [Laughs.] I didn’t take every role, I took the best of the best of that kind of part. And I did a couple of things that were off that beam. She was a Jewish woman, but she was a lawyer and she handled her own divorce, which was in The Paper Chase.
AVC: What makes you speak fondly of that role now?
LK: First, my girlfriend wrote the script. She was the director and the writer, Lynn Roth. I was sitting at a dinner with her and I said, “Oh my God, I’ve got to get some other part other than this Jewish mother business because I’m losing my mind.” She said, “Let me write you a part.” So she wrote me this great, great role. I was a woman who went back to college after she was married. I was very smart and decided to handle my own divorce case. I got nominated for an ACE Award [for “The Big D”].
LK: That was really like my first film, because I had done two films before that, but I didn’t consider myself an actor. This was just after I had worked with Lee Strasberg and had started studying, so I was really very serious about it. I was in a movie with Shelley Winters and Susan Strasberg and Marty Balsam. Oh my God, there was such a cast. And I was so honored to be in that cast. I didn’t know who Chuck Norris was at the time. So I didn’t know he was the star of the movie. I had no clue.
AVC: What did you learn working with that cast?
LK: Just everything. I remember Shelley telling me, “It’s all in the eyes. If you think it, we’ll see it.” It was a great lesson.
AVC: What was it like acting with Joey Bishop?
LK: It was difficult. Let’s say he wasn’t a Method actor. [Laughs.] But I had a good time, no matter what. I used it; I used it. I was always angry with him, so it worked. He wasn’t interested in what I was doing.
Eight Crazy Nights (2002)—“Old Woman”
You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (2008)—“Gail”
Pixels (2015)—“Mickey Lamonsoff”
AVC: Adam Sandler tends to work with a close-knit group. How did you get in with him?
LK: They asked me to do Eight Crazy Nights. I did it. He started to like me. He’s easy to work with, and I was quick. He liked that aspect. I was funny. He kept following me to do different things. I did I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, but they cut the entire family out of the movie.
I love working with Adam Sandler. I feel like he’s my brother. He’s just got such great camaraderie with that group that he works with all the time, and I feel honored to be part of that.
AVC: What does he do to encourage that camaraderie?
LK: He’s just very warm, very open. He allows a lot of improvisation. You can add to your character. You can make suggestions. He’s just a very, very open, kind of giving actor and person. And he’s the nicest man, the nicest person. I really love him.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), My Big Fat Greek Life (2003),
My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016)—“Maria Portokalos”
LK: My agent called. He said, “They’re doing a reading at Tom Hanks’ office. A young girl wrote the script, and they’re going to serve breakfast.” I said, “Tom Hanks. Breakfast. I’m in!” So I went up there and we read the script. It was me and Andrea Martin and Nia Vardalos and Rita Wilson. Oh my God, I had a great time. It was a wonderful script. I had a little understanding of a Greek accent. I didn’t do a lot of it. I hadn’t worked on it, but I did put forth a little bit of a character. When I left, Tom Hanks just thanked me profusely and [said] he loved me and he couldn’t wait to work with me.
I didn’t hear from them for a year. Then I got this call: “We’re doing a little movie in Toronto. You won’t get paid very much money, but it’s a wonderful role. It’s the reading you did in Tom Hanks’ office and it’s for Canadian television.” So I went up to Canada, never thinking that anything would happen with this role. And we had a blast. We all got to know each other. We ate Greek food every night in this fabulous restaurant. Nia treated us beautifully. We made a really funny, delicious, delightful movie. And nothing happened. All of a sudden Nia called me: “The movie is coming out and we have to have a good first weekend. Can you email all the temples and I’m going to email all the Orthodox Greek churches?” So that’s what we did. We spent the whole weekend trying to get the numbers up. We turned around one day and had this huge hit. Huge. I was in a state of numbness. I couldn’t really enjoy it, because every minute there was something else we had to do to keep it there, to make sure it was being watched, to make sure it was going to stay in that position. We all had a part in that.
AVC: When were you finally able to enjoy the success of the movie?
LK: It was trickle down, trickle down, trickle down. I went to Greece that summer, and everyone in Greece knew me and they spoke Greek to me and they thought I was Greek. [Laughs.] That was very much a plus and very joyous. I got a lot of pleasure out of that.
LK: Oh my God! Well, I say to people I was in the best movie of the year and the worst movie of the year. Gigli. I thought that it was wonderful. Ben Affleck was a dream to work with. I had so much fun. I had no idea that he had a thing for Jennifer [Lopez]. I mean, I didn’t see anything. I didn’t see anything. I didn’t know they were together. It’s so weird. Poor [Martin Brest, the writer-director]: He had written the script and decided to change the movie halfway through because he was asked to not have any really sad scenes in the movie. So he changed the script. He reshot the last part of the film, and it was very, very, very difficult to handle it once it came out. It was shocking that they thought it was so terrible. I don’t think it was so terrible. I really don’t.
AVC: I have to ask. In your scene with Ben Affleck, is that your butt or did you use a butt double?
LK: It was mine. I had a butt double in Lust In The Dust.
AVC: Did you choose your own butt double?
LK: I did. [Laughs.] I did.
AVC: When choosing your own posterior what do you look for?
LK: One that’s beautiful and juicy and round like a peach! [Laughs.]