We have already established that “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is the story of basically every Jewish family everywhere. But did you know that the movie’s heart and soul is actually Jewish?
Lainie Kazan brings a familiar nudgey, yet loving, maternal character to life in Maria Portokalos that can only be played by a real Jewish mama. But Kazan’s career and talents go beyond a killer Greek accent.
Born Lainie Levine to a Sephardi mother from Jerusalem and a Russian Ashkenazi father, this Brooklyn native’s singing talents were discovered early on. Kazan was Barbra Streisand’s understudy in “Funny Girl” on Broadway, and finally had her chance to shine 18-months into the show’s run when Streisand fell ill with a throat problem.
Kazan soon left the show to make her own name, posing nude for the October 1970 issue of Playboy. How about that for chutzpah? The spread not only allowed her to headline and run two Playboy jazz clubs in New York and Los Angeles but it also inspired artist Jack Kirby’s Big Barda character for DC Comics.
Kazan’s singing career took off in the early 1970s, with 26 appearances on Dean Martin’s variety show. Not bad for a girl from Brooklyn.
Television and movies soon beckoned Kazan, she famously played Aunt Freida on “The Nanny,” had more than a few love scenes with Adam Sandler in “Don’t Mess With the Zohan” and played an actual Jewish mother in “Oy Vey! My Son is Gay!”
But it was as the matriarch of the Portokalos clan where Kazan stole our hearts. Written by Nia Vardalos and produced by Rita Wilson, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was the little movie that could, growing from a sleeper hit in 2002 and making it all the way to the Oscars with a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Maria Portokalos took pride in feeding and taking care of her family. And she gave a pretty good birds and the bees talk.
If you miss seeing Kazan on screen, you can get your fill when she reprises her role in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.” Opening this Friday, the film picks about 10 years after the end of the first, where we found out that, GASP, it looks like Maria and Gus were never officially married. And so, Mama Portokalos becomes the blushing bride.