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Happy Birthday to Lainie Kazan!

Lainie Kazan, who turns 69 years old today, may be best known for her role as Nia Vardalas’ mother in the smash hit comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but she really is one of the great showbiz stories.

Before she was in such films as My Favorite Year, One From the Heart, Beaches and last summer’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, she was a major singer in the 60s before illness derailed her career and forced her to start from scratch in the mid-70s.

I had lunch with this great star last year and asked her why the gays (like me!) love her so much. Here’s what she had to say: “They love me and I love them. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I am a little larger than life and I say what I feel and I sing what I feel. I have an big emotional range and I think a lot of gay men and gay women – at least more in the past and I think it’s still holds true – have been caught in that inability or the fear of self expression, of really being who they are. And that’s what try and do. I’m me and I’m full blown. I think a lot of gay people identify with that part of me, not afraid to express my feelings – my joy, my pain. All of it.”

When you get the chance to talk with a star like Lainie, you want the dirt and I really wanted to know about was her time as understudy for Barbra Streisand in the original Broadway production of Funny Girl in the mid-60s.

She was happy to dish.

“It was very stressful,” she remembered. “I had waited a year and about three or four months to go on for Barbra. I was in the show as well, I was a Zeigfeld show girl. I was there every night and I would just watch from above. Then one Tuesday afternoon I got a call and the stage manager said, ‘You better run down here quick, Barbra’s got strep throat. She’s really, really sick,’ So I came down and I rehearsed.”

There was curiosity about Lanie in the media because everyone wanted to know how anyone could possibly understudy Barbra Streisand. So she had done many television, radio and newspaper interviews and
was told, “If you ever go on, call me.”

So, she did.

“I had a list of everybody and I called everybody. At about 10 minutes before curtain, Barbra walked in and everyone [on the list] had showed up. She showed up to do the show because she felt better, all because she didn’t want me to go on. So she got really, really sick and the next day, I went on twice. And that’s all I ever did. But it has resounded for 40 years.”

Things went very well during those two performances: “I was reviewed in Time Magazine and Newsweek, headlines all over the place. It launched me.”

Lainie She became a major singing star and sang all over the world at such places as The Empire Room, The Persian Room and the Waldorf Astoria, worked with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Ethel Merman and guested many times on all the popular television variety shows of the day including those hosted by Ed Sullivan, Carol Burnett and Dean Martin with whom she appeared 26 times (see video below).

But at the height of her first go-round at stardom, Lainie hit a few unexpected roadblocks. She was shooting a Playboy layout and I broke my foot running on the beach.

“The blood collagulated in my calf because the cast was put on too tight and it broke off and went into my lung and I was sick for about two or three years at the height of my success,” Lainie said. “It took me out and down and I never really recuperated to tell you the truth. I was really not a very healthy girl after that.”

But after spending a few years recuperating and then giving birth to her daughter, she tried to resume her career. She landed the lead in a Broadway production of Seesaw but was amiong the 26 people fired during intermission during previews. Another show fell through, Lainie’s marriage broke up, she lost her house and had to hit the road to and started to work in, what she calls, “the toilets of America” in little nightclubs on the south side of Chicago and in Milwakee. She just had one gown that she was constantly recycling.

Fate intervened and led to a meeting with Hugh Hefner who asked Lainie to run his struggling jazz club in LA.

“I put them in the black within six months and it became a very, very successful operation. I booked it and I sang there for 26 weeks out of the year. Two years after that, I opened one in New York on 5th Avenue and 59th Street. So it was a great time and I started slowly repairing myself, looking better, feeling better.”

Francis Ford Coppolla came to hear her sing one night and invited her to his home in Napa Valley. Once there, he gave her the script for One From the Heart.

“That was the beginning of my film career,” Lainie said. “I owe him so much because he put the Midas touch on me. He gave permission for other directors to hire me because he was saying, ‘she can act.’”

FILE UNDER: Birthdays, Icons

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