You Can’t Pin Her Down
Red-hot mama or Jewish mama, sultry chanteuse or haimische yenta? That’s the riddle when it comes to the enigmatic singer-actress Lainie Kazan. The answer, as her fans know well, is she is both.
“I’m able to become, hopefully, this seductive nightclub singer who sings all these tragic tunes and then [I] make people laugh as Aunt Frida on [the TV series] ‘The Nanny,’ ” says the magnetic Kazan, seated on a couch in her Bel-Air home with a teensy white poof of a dog named Ella glued to her side.
“One minute I’m singing these intimate blues tunes and the next I’m some universal Jewess,” she continues. “The joy of my career and my life is that it’s so eclectic.”
It’s an understatement from a performer who’s not usually given to them. Kazan’s career, after all, has been as Broadway as it has been Borscht Belt.
She’s gone from singing in clubs around the world to running them, and from posing in Playboy to playing the super-Jewish mother in numerous outings on both stage and screen.
With more than three decades of stage, club and screen credits, Kazan continues to work in several forms at once. In fact, she seems to thrive on a multiple focus.
In addition to her recurring role on “The Nanny,” Kazan is also working on a follow-up album to her well-received 1995 recording “Body and Soul” (MusicMasters) and preparing for a spring tour of concert dates across the country.
This month, she also returns to the boards, starring as Golde in the Theater League production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which opens at the Alex Theatre on Feb. 11 and at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza the following week, with Lenny Wolpe as Tevye.
Golde is a part that Kazan, despite her extensive credits, had avoided until Theodore Bikel persuaded her to appear with him in a Theater League production that was seen in Pasadena two years ago. “I’d turned this part down for 25 years,” says Kazan, citing her “fear of playing a lot of old Jews.”
But once she started performing the role, she was surprised by her affinity for the material.
“I got on the stage and it was as though the history of every Jew was in my body,” Kazan says. “It was as though all the Jews who have been run out of Russia--my grandparents and everybody--were embodied in me.”
Certainly, she has the genes. Her father was a New York-born Russian Jew from the Lower East Side and her Brooklyn-born mother came from a family of Sephardic Jews from Jerusalem.
Kazan’s parents set up a home in Brooklyn, where they raised Kazan and her younger sister in what sounds, from Kazan’s telling, like a colorful household. “My father was a bookie,” she says with a hearty laugh. “Wherever the track was open, we lived.”
Her mother was also a highly theatrical character. The actress who has performed the role of Mama Rose in the musical “Gypsy” was, it seems, raised by a real-life Mama Rose.
“She wanted to be a dancer, but it wasn’t a thing for a nice Jewish girl to do at the time,” Kazan says. “You know the role I played in ‘Beaches,’ the mother who knew all the parts and every song? That was my mother.”
Kazan’s father died when she was a freshman at Hofstra University, where she studied theater on scholarship and performed in musical comedies. It was a traumatic event that led the young artist to “put all my feelings and emotions into this thing called acting.”
That same year, 1960, Kazan won a part in a small off-Broadway production called “Leave It to Jane” at the Sheridan Square Playhouse in New York. She took the role, but continued her studies at the same time.
After college, Kazan worked in whatever kind of acting gig she could get, from legitimate theater to industrials. One time, she even sold cars to make ends meet.
“They put me on a spin table with an Oldsmobile and I would stand there, in a sombrero and a very skimpy leather outfit,” she recalls. “I sold a lot of Oldsmobiles.”
She then took her earnings and put together a club act at a Manhattan nightspot called the Living Room. It was there, in 1965, that the “Funny Girl” producers caught Kazan’s act and tapped her to be Barbra Streisand’s understudy.
Kazan went on for Streisand only twice, but that was enough to launch her reputation. After a year and a half with the show, she left to pursue her singing.
“In that time, in the late ‘60s, the way a person made a success out of their career was the nightclub-cabaret-hotel scene,” she says.
But it wasn’t an easy transition. “All of a sudden I was in Vegas and I didn’t know how to handle it,” Kazan says. “I was a nice little girl from Brooklyn and I didn’t know what had hit me.”
Kazan became a popular guest on the TV variety and talk shows, making 26 appearances on “The Dean Martin Show,” as well as numerous visits to the “Ed Sullivan” and “Tonight” shows. This also led to a number of small television roles, primarily as hookers and madams.
Yet Kazan longed to break into film, which she did in 1968, with the forgettable “Dayton’s Devils” and the more respectable “Lady in Cement.”
Still, things weren’t going as strongly as they had been. So, when Kazan was approached with an offer to pose for what turned out to be an eight-page layout in Playboy, she accepted without qualms.
Career-wise, it turned out to be a shrewd move. “That turned everything around again for me,” Kazan says. “I got a lot of jobs from that.”
In 1971, she became pregnant by her companion of five years, Peter Daniels, whom she’d met when he was the associate musical conductor on “Funny Girl.” Kazan’s daughter, Jennifer Bena, who now lives in L.A., was born at the end of 1971.
After Jennifer’s birth, Kazan and Daniels were married, although the match was only to last a few more years.
In 1976, newly single and a mother, Kazan entered into an agreement with Playboy to run Lainie’s Room West at the L.A. Playboy Club. The following year she also opened Lainie’s Room East in New York, running both establishments with notable success until 1980.
She left the clubs behind to focus once again on her acting--another well-timed move that ended up paying off handsomely.
After seeing her perform her nightclub act in San Francisco, Kazan’s old Hofstra classmate Francis Ford Coppola cast her in his 1982 film “One From the Heart.” “That was really what started my film career,” she says. “It was as though he put the Midas touch on me.”
That same year, Kazan won favorable notices for her Golden Globe-nominated turn as the mother in “My Favorite Year.” And these two films led to a number of screen roles in the ‘80s, including the 1985 Divine vehicle “Lust in the Dust,” “Harry and the Hendersons” in 1987 and “Beaches” in 1988.
Kazan, who is now in her mid-50s, continued working in film during the early ‘90s, although her most lauded work during this period was her 1993 return to Broadway, re-creating her film role in the stage version of “My Favorite Year,” for which she won a Tony nomination.
Through all this, Kazan has also kept singing. Writing about her November 1995 performance at the Cinegrill in Hollywood, The Times’ Don Heckman said that Kazan “knows how to squeeze a phrase until it screams for mercy.”
Perhaps it’s that combination of sexiness and shtick that continues to enable Kazan to sell out club dates both here and in New York. Certainly keeping her followers guessing is a strategy that has worked well for the versatile performer.
“I’m happy with my career, but to tell you the truth, I think people are a bit confused by me,” Kazan says. “They don’t know who it is that’s going to walk into their office.”
“FIDDLER ON THE ROOF,” Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Dates: Opens Feb. 11. Tuesday to Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 16. Prices: $32.50-$37.50. Phone: (800) 233-3123. Also at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, Charles E. Probst Center, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, Feb. 18-23. Performance days, times and prices same as above. (213) 480-3232, (805) 583-8700.