When you are a young Jewish girl growing up it is basically essential that you watch Funny Girl. I’m not ashamed to admit that my VHS tape was on repeat for most of my childhood, and then once again in college, on a DVD this time. So for me, to be speaking with someone who actually got to perform in the title role of Fanny Brice on Broadway, feels like I had just died and gone to heaven. Then to find out that she was the understudy to the one and only Barbara Streisand? I had to be revived and pulled up off the floor of my office. Who is this woman that could possibly take on that pressure and live up to that expectation? Lainie Kazan—that’s who! The woman has chutzpah. She took that part and the press that came with it and hasn’t stopped working since. A true entertainer in every sense of the word.
Lainie Kazan was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York City at the dead end of Beekman Street. The daughter of a Russian Ashkenazi Jewish father who worked as a bookie and a Turkish Sephardic Jewish mother, Carole, whom Kazan has described as “a gentle Mama Rose,” she would sing and dance for all the neighbors to see (and hear!). She knew from a young age exactly what she wanted to do, and was determined to do it. When she was 13 years old when she decided it was time to get the correct training and went on to study and graduate from Hofstra University, in Hempstead, New York.
Kazan made her Broadway debut in The Happiest Girl in the World in 1961 followed by Bravo Giovanni (1962). But her big break came when she served as understudy to Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, finally getting to go on 18 months into the run when the star was ill with a serious case of strep throat. When I asked her what that moment felt like when they told her she would be going on she said, “It was horrible. Exhilarating, exciting, everything—I got real sick from it (she laughs) because I took my job very seriously and I wanted to be prepared at every end. I went on and got amazing publicity and press!”
After she displayed her incredible talent in those two shows, she became the “chanteuse” of her native New York, with nightclub stints and guest appearances on virtually every top variety and talk show on network television, including an unparalleled 26 appearances on “The Dean Martin Show.” She described Dean as, “simply the best. I adored him. He was the funniest, warmest, most sincere guy there was! We had such chemistry and so much fun together.” I highly recommend checking out the YouTube clips of her and Dean Martin—you can’t help but smile and laugh at the way those two would tease each other.
She even hosted her own variety special for NBC and opened the popular “Lainie’s Room” and “Lainie’s Room East” at the Los Angeles and New York Playboy Clubs. Rave reviews, a record contract and numerous nightclub tours around the world followed. But behind the scenes, Kazan’s mother wasn’t so happy about her career. “The nightclub world is cruel, and she saw me suffer a lot of pain,” Kazan said.
The sensual magnetism she exuded in her variety shows and nightclub appearances attracted film directors and producers, leading her quickly into acting on both the gold and silver screens. After watching her coo through ballads and belt like a sassy blues vocalist at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, an astonished Francis Ford Coppola (also a classmate of hers at Hofstra University) offered her a plum role in “One From The Heart.” In 1983, Lainie received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in Richard Benjamin’s “My Favorite Year,” starring Peter O’Toole.
While Kazan’s early showbiz persona was that of a sexy chanteuse, she eventually found herself relegated to playing moms, often Jewish, in films such as “Beaches.” But perhaps the role she is best known for is in My Big Fat Greek Wedding where she plays the lovable, traditional Greek mother Maria Portokalos, spouting genius lines like my personal favorite, “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.”
Vardalos said she based the characters on her large, “loud, always-eating Greek family that loves me to the point of suffocation.” And Kazan, who plays her Greek mama, hails from a similarly boisterous ethnic clan. “It was everyone talking at the same time, ‘eat and you’ll feel better’ and [female] relatives who nourished, literally and figuratively.”
I asked her if she drew upon her own mother for inspiration and she said, “No. My mama was a diva.” Although, she told me that she did grow up around women like that—she knew instinctively how to play the character with honesty and heart. It’s astounding to me how mothers from all ethnic backgrounds—whether it be Italian, Jewish, or Greek are all very similar. Food to soothe, overbearing, smothering, loud and perfect in every way.
Speaking of mothers, when I asked her what her favorite role was, her answer was “Mama Rose” from what may be the greatest of all American musicals, Gypsy. Rose is a woman boiling over with her own frustrated ambition. She channels all her energies into turning her daughters into stars—to hell with you if you try to get in her way. “I understood her—she wanted to be that little girl. As a mother she had such duplicity—the love and also the resentment. She built her up but then was so jealous,” said Kazan. We both agreed that when a really complex and grand role like that comes along there’s nothing quite like it!
In addition to Ms. Kazan’s extensive resume, she also is involved and a supporter of many charities. She received the “Woman of the Year” award from B’Nai Brith and has graced the stage for many AIDS benefits, telethons and non-profit organizations throughout the United States. Her most recent credit in this area includes “Doin’ What Comes Natrur’lly,” an all-star Broadway tribute to Ethel Merman to benefit Gay Men’s Health Crisis that Lainie both produced and starred in. It also featured Patti LuPone, Elaine Stritch, Andrea Martin, Madeline Kahn and Bette Midler. Lainie was also named the reigning 1997 “Queen of Brooklyn” at a ceremony by Brooklyn Borough President, Howard Golden. She also serves on the Board for the Young Musicians Foundation, AIDS Project LA and B’nai Brith to name just a few. In 1990 she was presented “The Israeli Peace Award.”
As part of the OC Jewish Arts Festival you can see her perform in, “An Evening with Lainie Kazan” on Saturday, Nov. 14th at 7 p.m. at the Merage Jewish Community Center of Orange County. What can we expect from this evening? Kazan told me, “All the great standards, a few originals, and even a few from Funny Girl.” (I tried to hold in my squeals of excitement) Her voice has never sounded better either. She admits that her voice has changed over the years, but critics and jazz lovers praise the maturity and depth of feeling that grew from years of experience.
What’s next for Ms. Kazan you might be wondering? “We just wrapped My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, we had so much fun making it and I’m excited for everyone to go see it.” She also told me that we can expect all of our favorite characters from the original hit movie and even some new familiar faces (John Stamos—hello!) I, for one, will be first in line.
After speaking to this incredibly inspirational woman and wondering how she is still able to push the envelope and sustain such a diverse and fruitful career, I had to ask her, what she thought the best piece of advice for our readers is. “Never give up—as Winston Churchill said. Study and learn. Always keep growing, open your mind and soul. When life kicks you down, bust yourself up and get going. There are a lot of hills and valleys, but it’s all worth it.” Ain’t that the truth!
For tickets to “An Evening with Lainie Kazan” visit www.jccoc.org, and for more information about Ms. Kazan visit