When Lainie Kazan first read the screenplay of Nia Vardalos' "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," now a frothy CBS sitcom, she could relate.
Vardalos said she based the characters on her large, "loud, always-eating Greek family that loves me to the point of suffocation." And Kazan, who plays her Greek mama, hails from a similarly boisterous ethnic clan.
"It was everyone talking at the same time, 'eat and you'll feel better' and [female] relatives who nourished, literally and figuratively," said the 60-year-old actress, whose Jewish heritage is both Turkish and Russian.
Kazan brings those qualities to her character of Maria Portokalos, who urges her daughter to marry Greek in "Wedding" and adjusts to her WASPy son-in-law in CBS' "My Big Fat Greek Life." A quintessential Maria moment occurs in the sitcom when she admonishes the newlyweds for a perceived slight, then nonchalantly adds, "Bake the casserole at 350."
Kazan, who says she's portrayed "everyone's mother except Whoopi Goldberg's," plays one of the most recognizable characters in a franchise that began when "Wedding" grossed more than $240 million and became the most successful independent film ever. While the sitcom spinoff has received lukewarm reviews, observers have noted that Vardalos' ethnically specific characters, along with those on other pop culture hits such as HBO's "The Sopranos," could spearhead more diverse images on screen.
Singer-actress Kazan grew up eating shishlik and knaidlach instead of moussaka, but her performance rings true.
"Lainie even looks Greek," Vardalos said at a press conference. Vardalos' father, who like Papa Portokalos claims Greek origins for everything, has a theory about Kazan: "Because Lainie is Sephardic Jewish ... he went, 'Well, Lainie, Alexander the Great went through Spain, so technically, you are Greek," Vardalos said.
Kazan's big fat Jewish life began in Brooklyn, where she grew up with a bookie dad and a mother who was as theatrical as the fictional Maria Portokalos.
"She was like a Jewish Blanche DuBois, very neurotic, fragile and artistic, yet she had no talent whatsoever," the actress said of her mother. "So when I was a child she took me to all kinds of music and dance lessons and she lived through me in a way."
Kazan's career took off when she stepped in for an ill Barbra Streisand during the 1964 Broadway production of "Funny Girl"; rave reviews and numerous cabaret engagements followed.
During a rare weekend home, her doorbell began ringing and a swarm of relatives descended like a scene out of "Greek Life." "They started asking a million questions, so I said, why don't you come with me on 'The Mike Douglas Show' and ask all the questions you want?'"
Soon thereafter, three generations of relatives boarded a bus, affixed with a sign, "Kazan's Clan," and drove to the "Douglas" taping. On the air, her mom demonstrated cooking chicken soup and her uncle, the Stage Deli waiter, served it to the studio audience.
But behind the scenes, Kazan's mother wasn't so happy about her career.
"The nightclub world is cruel, and she saw me suffer a lot of pain," Kazan said.
While Kazan's early showbiz persona was that of a sexy chanteuse (she even posed for Playboy), she eventually found herself relegated to playing moms, often Jewish, in films such as "Beaches."
"It was better than not working," said Kazan, who has a daughter and a granddaughter.
She assumed Maria Portokalos was just another mother when producer Tom Hanks invited her to participate in a "Wedding" table reading several years ago. "Afterward, he said he'd contact me if they ever did the movie, and I thought, 'Yeah, sure,'" she said. "But a year and a half later, I got the call."
Like everyone else, the actress was stunned when "Wedding" became the box office phenomenon of 2002; while it propelled Vardalos from struggling comedienne to magazine cover girl, Kazan experienced her own kind of Cinderella story. Having been ignored by Las Vegas nightclubs for a decade, Kazan -- whose first love remains music -- suddenly found herself booked again on the Strip.
If she has one disappointment, it's that her own Jewish mama, who died a year and a half ago, didn't live to see "Wedding" or its TV spin-off.
"She never got to kvell over the success I'm having this time around," Kazan said. "But I'm sure on some level, she knows."
"My Big Fat Greek Life" airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on CBS. Â