Dynamic actress, Lainie Kazan to take Garner House by storm

Actress and singer Lainie Kazan will be in Claremont tomorrow at “Jazz and Art in the Park,” as a guest of honor.

The event, a benefit for Claremont Heritage, runs from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday at Garner House in Memorial Park, 840 N. Indian Hill Blvd. The evening will include an opportunity to socialize with Ms. Kazan, live jazz from the band Castaways, appetizers and desserts by Adoro Catering and craft beer from Last Name Brewery.

Over her 55-year career, Ms. Kazan has been a literal overnight sensation on Broadway, posed nude for Playboy, been linked romantically to Bob Dylan and has been a hit on stage, television and film and made numerous popular albums as a singer.

The 77-year-old entertainer has had a diverse and interesting career by any measure, and although she’s seen some great success, she has, by her own account,  ruffled her share of feathers along the way. “Yes, I have,” she admitted. “But that’s okay.”

She’s been nominated for an Emmy, a Tony and a Golden Globe. Her career began in earnest in 1959 with the Off-Broadway production, Leave it to Jane. She’s made periodic stage appearances since, in New York, Los Angeles and in touring shows. She’s worked in television, going back as far as 1962 when she played “Girl at Bar” in the situation comedy, Car 54, Where Are You? all the way up to Grey’s Anatomy in 2013.

Film work began in 1968 and has included such varied and familiar fare as My Favorite Year, The Delta Force, Beaches, a film from 2009 called Oy Vey! My Son Is Gay! and the 2015 animated hit, Pixels. She recently wrapped a new movie, a role in the latest installment of The Amityville Horror film franchise.

But perhaps her most well-known role is Maria Portokalos, the comedic, over-sharing mother to lead actress and screenwriter Nia Vardalos’ Fotoula “Toula” Portokalos-Miller in the My Big Fat Greek Wedding films. The original, a 2002 surprise hit, eventually became the highest grossing romantic comedy in film history. She reprised the role in the 2016 sequel.

Her own mother, Carole Levine, was quite a character as well, Ms. Kazan said.

“My mother was kind of a Mama Rose [the ‘ultimate stage mom’ from the 1959 musical Gypsy], a gentle one but, she really helped me and she believed in me to the point where I always had confidence in myself.”

In fact, Ms. Kazan’s mother was the direct catalyst for her early success. In 1964, the then 23-year-old was the understudy for Barbra Streisand, who was starring in the original Broadway production of Funny Girl. When Ms. Streisand fell ill, Ms. Kazan was asked to step in for the day’s matinee and evening performances. She was prepared for such an eventuality.

“When I went in they said to me, ‘You can’t call anybody today,’” Ms. Kazan shared. “And I said, ‘Can I just make one phone call?’”

That one call was to her mother, who knew what to do. “[Mother] had a list of everyone she knew I wanted to invite. And she called everybody and then came herself to the show.” Ms. Kazan’s Broadway star turn lasted all of two shows. She quit the next day amidst rave reviews, suddenly a commodity.

“She was something,” Ms. Kazan said of her mother. “She was beautiful and she loved the theater, and she made sure I had my opportunity.” While her early career included some ups-and-downs, she had a self-assuredness that many young actors sometimes lack. “I always felt that there was somebody to catch me if I fell. She also taught me to believe in myself. She just had a great spirit.”

Ms. Kazan was born in Brooklyn, New York, and attended PS 92, Walt Whitman Junior High School and Erasmus Hall High. Her father, Ben Levine, was a bookie.

“He ran his business from our house, which had two bedrooms and seven telephones,” Ms. Levine joked. “He was a character, with a very funny, dynamic personality. He was hilarious. He was always open to trying things. We had an adventurous life. He’d come home and put tickets on the kitchen counter and say, ‘Alright, in the morning we’re leaving for Florida.’”

She got serious about acting while on scholarship at Hofstra University in New York, where her classmate and mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, regarded her one of his favorite actors.

She’s worked consistently ever since in music and on stage, screen and in television. “I find that if I don’t work I get crazy,” she said. “I get restless.”

She’s had some health setbacks over the past couple of years, but is looking forward to getting back to work.

“It’s gotten a little hard for me as I’ve got older. I don’t travel as well. But when I get there I do love it. Getting there is a pain in the ass. It’s really difficult, but it’s so much fun. And it’s such a great gift that I’ve been given, and I’ve never ever been ungrateful of that gift.”

While she enjoys acting, singing is really where her heart is. “To sing is extraordinary,” she said. “I love to sing.” She’s hoping to book some music gigs in the near future. “I feel as if I’ll be doing that soon.”

She was typically direct when talking about her romance with another singer, Bob Dylan. “We dated for a while. We don’t talk as much as we used to, but I see him once in a while. We’ve had a nice friendship…a friendship with benefits.”

She spent her entire life in New York but for the past year she’s lived in Los Angeles, near her daughter Jennifer and her two grandchildren. Her husband Peter Daniels died from lung cancer in 1989.

The transplanted New Yorker said her time in Los Angeles has been good, but home still beckons.

“I miss New York, I do,” she said. “I miss the excitement and the energy. I miss the food. It’s just so incredible. You have so much opportunity to see plays, and shows and museums. And I have a lot of childhood friends that I still have great relationships with. But my life here is slower, and much more with family. I like that.”

Over her long career she has but a handful of regrets. “Maybe a few, but nothing that devastated me or stopped me from working. And I’m still going.”

—Mick Rhodes




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