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Before It Was Cool, 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding's' Lainie Kazan Probably Did It


People who've only been watching movies for the last couple of decades know Lainie Kazan as a certain type of actress. In the movie "My Favorite Year," she played a pushy, Jewish mother.


LAINIE KAZAN: (As Belle Carroca) Something to drink before dinner.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Some soda water.

KAZAN: (As Belle Carroca) Rocky, a glass of seltzer.

SIEGEL: In "Beaches," she played a pushy New Jersey mother.


KAZAN: (As Belle Carroca) How many times do I have to tell you don't wear that costume on the beach?

SIEGEL: In "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," she played a pushy, Greek mother.


KAZAN: (As Maria Portokalos) Don't play with your food. When I was your age, we didn't have food.

SIEGEL: This week, she returns to that role in the sequel "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2." Our co-host Ari Shapiro recently met Lainie Kazan in Los Angeles, and he learned it was a long road before she became the pushy mother.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Lainie, I'm Ari. It's so nice to meet you.

KAZAN: Pleasure to meet you.

SHAPIRO: A sushi lunch is not exactly ahead of the curve these days. But Lainie Kazan has been coming here since the 1970s. Back then, most people considered raw fish to be baked, not a meal. Kazan remembers the opening night party for this restaurant. The Superman from that decade, Christopher Reeve, was one of the investors.

KAZAN: It was jam-packed with all kinds of Hollywood celebrities, and it was very, very exciting. I had been eating sushi for a couple of years. A friend of mine introduced me to sushi.

SHAPIRO: It was very avant-garde in the '70s.

KAZAN: Very avant-garde.

SHAPIRO: You ate sushi before it was cool.

KAZAN: Yeah, I did. I ate sushi when people would go eww (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Lainie Kazan did a lot of things before they were cool. In 1964, she understudied Barbra Streisand on Broadway. The show was "Funny Girl." Kazan waited in the wings for a year and a half. Streisand never got sick until one day.

KAZAN: The producers called me, and they said you get down here right now. You're going on this afternoon. Barbara is really, really sick.

SHAPIRO: Her life changed overnight.

KAZAN: All of a sudden I got offers. I got a record deal for one performance. Going on, I got a million jobs. It was unbelievable.

SHAPIRO: People told her you're going to have to pick - a girl can be pretty or funny not both. Lainie Kazan refused to choose. And in 1970, she decided to pose for Playboy magazine.

Is it true that the reason you decided to do Playboy was that everybody was always comparing you to Barbara Streisand?


SHAPIRO: And you thought what can I do that Barbara would never do?

KAZAN: Right. And I was right.


SHAPIRO: Lainie Kazan pulls out a folder she has brought along for our lunch conversation. It's full of photos, including one from that famous shoot. How old are you in this photo?

KAZAN: About 24.

SHAPIRO: She's wearing a wet T-shirt tied above her naval. Another provocative photo from that shoot was plastered on the side of a hotel in Vegas, and Kazan kept touring as a singer.


LAINIE KAZAN: (Singing) Goodbye, my love. I know we're through...

KAZAN: People would come to look at me. They didn't really listen to my voice. They'd say we're still playing the cover; we haven't gotten to the record yet.

SHAPIRO: Playing the cover of the record album.

KAZAN: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: She got pregnant. She started to show and said, why should that keep me from singing?

KAZAN: I was on stage in a muumuu, you know like a caftan.

SHAPIRO: With a baby bump.

KAZAN: And I was unmarried, unwed, and I didn't care.

SHAPIRO: She says she had a 15-year on-and-off relationship with Bob Dylan. Another boyfriend was much younger than her.

KAZAN: This was way before anybody, you know, whatever they call those women - what do they call them?

SHAPIRO: Oh, cougars.

KAZAN: Cougars - I was a cougar.

SHAPIRO: You were a cougar before being a cougar was cool.

KAZAN: Before a cougar was cool.


SHAPIRO: Eventually she was playing these grungy, dirty little clubs touring the country with a kid in tow, and she got another offer from Playboy, this time to run her very own cabaret here in Los Angeles.

KAZAN: Here is the menu. I did everything.


KAZAN: I did the reservations. I did the advertising. I did the menus.

SHAPIRO: I'm going to read some of the items on this menu.

KAZAN: OK. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Lainie's specialty roast prime ribs of beef, the most bountiful cut in Los Angeles - $8.95.

Lainie Kazan fell in with the celebrity crowd - Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin. She made a pile of movies. In 1982, she appeared in "My Favorite Year."


KAZAN: Who is this Benjy Stone?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Ma, don't start in.

KAZAN: (As Belle Carroca) Do you think I'll ever see the name Benjamin Steinberg - a real name - go by King Kaiser's face one day?

I mean, I got rave reviews. It was so unique for me because I had gone from this sexy bombshell to a Jewish mother, a housewife.

SHAPIRO: It was her greatest performance to date. She got a Golden Globe nomination and discovered she was trapped.

KAZAN: I wanted to be more of a leading lady. I never got a chance to do that really.

SHAPIRO: From then on, she was only ever cast as the ethnic mother. I asked Lainie Kazan, given the conversations today about women in Hollywood, especially women of a certain age, how did she navigate these rapids for so many years?

KAZAN: I was on the cusp of women's lib, like I just was on the cusp. When women were really protesting everything, I was already liberated. I didn't feel I had to liberate myself.


KAZAN: I never felt those feelings. I just had to - you know what it was? I had a talent. And I just expressed myself, and I did what I had to do. I never felt I had to be fit into a slot, until finally the slot was put there for me.

SHAPIRO: Now at 75, she's embraced the matriarch role and says she loves that she has the opportunity to be seen again.

SIEGEL: That's our colleague, Ari Shapiro. Lainie Kazan's latest movie is "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2," and it's opening this week.


KAZAN: (Singing) And I've got to live for today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.