Lainie Kazan went from understudy to star — and it wasn't by accident.
Kazan was the understudy five decades ago for Barbra Streisand in her well-known Broadway role as Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl." Though she had a part in the musical as a Ziegfeld showgirl, Kazan waited 18 months to play the lead.
"Barbra didn't want me to go on," Kazan recalled. "I can't blame her. It was her part, her everything."
While she was waiting for her opportunity, Kazan collected names and phone numbers of press and other people of "import." So when Streisand was felled by strep throat, Kazan's mother called everyone on the list to come see the show.
"Most of them came," said Kazan, 75, in Studio City. A free-spirited Earth-mother type, Kazan possesses a delicious laugh and infectious sense of humor. She's a show business survivor and speaks of it all with wonderful candor.
Kazan ended up getting a record deal after her two performances as Fanny. "I got two weeks at Basin Street East, two weeks at the Plaza Hotel. I went to the hungry i in San Francisco. I opened for the Smothers Brothers. It just hit me all at once."
These days, the grandmother of two is best known for her ultimate mother roles in 1982's "My Favorite Year" — she also appeared in the Broadway musical version — and 1988's "Beaches" and most notably as the larger-than-life Greek mother Maria Portokalos in the 2002 blockbuster indie comedy "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
Kazan and the entire cast, including star Nia Vardalos, who plays daughter Toula, reunite for "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2," which opens March 25.
Vardalos, who earned an Oscar nomination for her original screenplay, has also written the sequel, which finds the Portokalos clan discovering a family secret.
Kazan believes the first film became an international hit because "it spoke to everyone. It had a universal theme." And Maria, she noted, "was loved by everyone who has a mother like that — 'Eat, honey. Educate yourself.' There are basic things that every mother — most mothers — try to impart. I did that. My mother did that."
In an email interview, Vardalos noted Kazan excels in playing "warm and wonderful" characters such as Maria because "she's exactly that in real life. Lainie is a lot of fun on the set."
The cast members, said Vardalos, have remained friends. "We have all seen each other for many long lunches and dinners over these years between the films. We are genuinely a family."
That's why, said Kazan, the entire cast and even the extras "ran back" to do the sequel. "I would have gone back for nothing," said Kazan. "It was like we just worked yesterday."
Kazan's film career took off when was chosen by Frank Sinatra to appear in his 1968 detective film "Lady in Cement," which also starred Raquel Welch.
"I was opening for Don Rickles at the Eden Roc in Miami Beach," she said. Sinatra was appearing at the nearby Fontainebleau Hotel. "He called my manager and said I want to meet Lainie for a part in this movie," Kazan recalls with a big smile. "I went up to his hotel room with my manager. He was flirtatious and delightful."
Equally delightful was Dean Martin, who invited Kazan to be on his NBC musical variety series "The Dean Martin Show" more than two dozen times.
"Dean Martin heard me sing and invited me on the show," she recalled. "He adored me, and I adored him. He was full of life. He had the best sense of humor — much funnier than Jerry Lewis, if you know what I mean. He had a real sense of humor about himself."
There's a clip on YouTube of one of her appearances where she and Martin were joined by Ethel Merman, who drowned them out in a musical medley. "Oh, my god," said Kazan, laughing. "She did not know that anybody else was on stage with her."
Kazan posed for Playboy in 1970. "I wasn't the centerfold. I had an eight-page spread. I swear to God I didn't realize what it was. I was a hippy, so taking off my clothes was nothing. I was very avant-garde. We all ran around naked. When it appeared, it had such a lascivious quality to it."
She soon discovered other women who posed for Playboy "got cars. Some of them got major jewelry. Some of them got $250,000. I got nothing. I did it for art."
Kazan has also added college professor to her résumé. She's taught acting for singers at UCLA for the last five years.