You Don't Mess With the Kazan: Singer, Actress and Humanitarian, Lainie Kazan Talks About Her Amazing Career and Life With RSR
Exclusive Interview by “Bad” Brad Berkwitt
“I’ve worked with Lainie, known her as talented and respected actress in both dramatic and comedic roles; an actress clearly with enviable staying power.”– Shelley Berman (Grammy Award winning Comedian and co-starred with Lainie in “You Don’t Mess With The Zohan”).
“Lainie Kazan is a treasure for those of us hailing from New York City. Admittedly I’m biased.
Lainie has an immense set of pipes, a well articulated voice, and the ability to not just sing a song, but BECOME the protagonist in her songs and express all those subtle feelings.
As an actress, Lainie is a classic example of how being true to one’s self, one’s roots, ones culture; one can resonate with the larger world community. For a Jewish girl from New York; to command roles as an Italian, a Greek, as well as a Spaniard is a more than significant accomplishment. And, she didn’t just play these roles, she owned them convincingly. I LIKE LAINIE.” — Award winning Singer and Songwriter Gregory Abbott
Lainie Kazan not only defines the word “talent,” but embodies it. She can sing, act, and on top of an amazing career that has spanned almost 50 years, she is a true Humanitarian which in the world today, we need more of them.
Kazan graduated from Hofstra University with a B.A. in Speech and Drama with a minor in Education. She is also an Adjunct Professor at Hofstra University teaching at the School of Communications, where she is on the advisory board.
Lainie’s first introduction to show business was in the off Broadway play called “Leave It To Jane.” A few years later, she would come into her own as the Understudy to Barbra Streisand in the Broadway Hit Funny Girl. From there, she would appear an amazing “26” times on the highly rated Dean Martin Variety Show (1965-1974) and from the clips on You Tube, you can see the chemistry they have that cannot be faked. Over the years she would appear in many different TV shows and movies finding major success in 1982’s “My Favorite Year” with Peter O’Toole which would garner her a Golden Globe Nomination.
In 1993, she received a Tony nomination as Best Actress (Featured Role – Musical) for “My Favorite Year,” reprising her original role from the film My Favorite Year.
In the early 2000’s after a successful run in movies, theater and on stage, Kazan co-starred in the movie “My Fat Greek Wedding” which went on to garner Lainie critical acclaim for her role in the blockbuster comedy that has grossed over $600 million worldwide. She would go on to reprise her role in the short lived CBS TV series: “My Big Fat Greek Life.”
Recently she appeared in Adam Sandler’s 2008 movie “You Don’t Mess With The Zohan” and for you comedy lovers out there, pay close attention to Lainie’s performance as Gail. Simply put, I was on the floor laughing because her scenes with Sandler are like little comedic skits within an already very funny movie. Adam if you are reading this interview, I would love to see the outtakes/bloopers of your scenes with Lainie and you because I can only imagine how funny those are as well.
On top of all of her work in the singing and acting realm, she finds time to be a Humanitarian a job that is not required of anyone, but it’s always lauded and appreciated when it’s done. She serves on the Board for the Young Musicians Foundation, and is involved in AIDS Project LA.
For a lady that started out life as Lainie Levine from NYC, she has climbed the mountain of success, with all its ups and downs, but as I found in this exclusive interview, has stayed true to who she is throughout all of it.
Ladies and Gentlemen, RSR proudly brings you Ms. Lainie Kazan….
BB: Let’s catch up the RSR readers on what you are doing as of today?
I open up at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood, CA on Thursday, November 19th -November 21st with my little Jazz band. As you know, I have been singing for many – many years… This past week, I finished a TV series called Till Death with Brad Garrett and Joely Fisher where I play Joely’s mother.
I will also be appearing at the Annenberg Center at the Eisenhower in Rancho Mirage, California, on November 22nd.
There are several others I am doing which is keeping me busy…
BB: Growing up in Brooklyn, New York how did that get you interested in the entertainment field you would go on to work in for most of your adult life?
I don’t think it really had anything to do with coming from Brooklyn, but I think it was my mother. My mother was a very quiet demure type like Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother Mama Rose. She saw that I had talent because I danced and then, she took me for dance lessons from the time I was three years old. My first live performance was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music when I was four. I always sang from a young age and mom knew I was good so she encouraged me to learn my craft. I would go on to acting classes and as I said, dancing classes, which made me very well trained early on.
Then from there, I started going to a camp in the Adirondacks in New York called “Camp Chenawah” and they noted that I was talented. So during my time there, I was in all the shows that they called “Big Shows.” It really set a precedence for me because I understood the rehearsal process and it made me understand what it took to be good at something. I just loved it.
Funny thing. I went on to High School and didn’t want to do any of this. My thought was I wanted to be just an average girl so I stopped for about three years.
Then it came time to go to College and I didn’t know what else I could be good at or what I wanted to do. I didn’t know anything else. So when I got several Drama Scholarships, I chose to go to Hofstra University and that is where I really started to study.
BB: You were the understudy to Barbara Streisand in the play Funny Girl. But you actually went to Erasmus Hall High School together. Do you have any stories that involved you and her during those times?
Barbara and I did go to the same High School, but I was ahead of her by a couple of years and didn’t really know her.
BB: Your first appearance on Broadway was in the 1961 play “The Happiest Girl In the World.” What was that experience like?
Yes, it was my first time on Broadway and it was a wonderful experience. It wasn’t my first experience in a show because I had been in one during my college years that was off-Broadway called “Leave It To Jane.” I was very involved with that show and all the wonderful college/theater programs that were offered. I did Leave It To Jane for about 3 years while I was in College and during the Summer, I would do the Music Fairs such as Westbury Music Fair which at that time, they had five of them. Wherever they had one, I played it. That is when I first got my Equity Card. George Segal was one of the leads in the play and I was in the chorus.
BB: You appeared an amazing 26 times on the Dean Martin Variety Show and the chemistry between the two of you was magic. Do you have any funny never heard before story about any of those appearances with Dean behind the scenes?
We had amazing chemistry. I loved him so much. He was the most delicious, generous and so funny – funnier than Jerry Lewis to me. Yes, I have a good one for you…
In the 60’s you had to cover your breasts so that no cleavage would show. They would put gauze over my breasts. Dean came on the air and looked down at my chest and said, “Your net, doesn’t cover your gross.” (We both broke out laughing at that line from Dean.)
He really was the greatest to me ever.
BB: In 1968, you appeared in the Frank Sinatra detective movie Lady In Cement. What was that shoot like?
Well, first it was how I met him that was amazing…. I was working with Don Rickles at the Eden Roc on Miami Beach. Frank was at the Fountainbleu Hotel performing. He sent a note over that he would like to meet with me for this part in his movie which was in the series where he played the Detective Tony Rome. I called the number he left for me and the gentlemen answered and said, “Mr. Sinatra would like you to come to his show and meet you after.” I explained that I had a show to do at the same time and he said, “Mr. Sinatra will hold the show for you and we will pick you up.” So I finished my show and I was a nervous wreck. Two guys who looked like strong arm types came to pick me up at the stage door and one of them was Jilly Rizzo and the other one, I have no clue who he was. They took me to the Fountainbleu and the lights were all up.
We walked down the aisle with all of the people and they sat me right in front of the stage at ringside. During Frank’s show, he introduced me and that I was this new singer who was on her way up. Then he was going to meet me after the show. OH MY GOD…I went to his dressing room and he gave me this script telling me he really wanted me to be in his movie. We then started shooting like that following week. I was very nervous still, but it wound up that everything was great and Frank took care of me like a father. We would socialize and it was just an amazing experience for me.
BB: Who were singers that you looked up to and influenced you in your singing career?
Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Edith Piaf were my idols.
BB: Edith Piaf is my favorite female singer of all-time.
Ella is mine because she was the cleanest and most musical to me. The pain of Judy Garland and her ability to entertain was so extraordinary that I identified with her. The same way I did with Billie Holiday as I got older.
BB: One of my personal favorite songs that you covered was on the “Love is Lainie” Album and it was “When I Look In Your Eyes” written by Leslie Bricusse. What do you remember about recording this song?
I love that song! I can remember that my husband was in the Control Room and he was much older than I. His eyes were just this unbelievable blue color and I can remember singing it to him- singing it to Peter Daniels. This song was for him. I even cried during that recording.
That album did very well for me.
BB: In October of 1970, you posed in Playboy Magazine and from all the comments I can find, people thought you were extremely sensual and I must agree. How did this help your career and if you had to do it over again, would you have done the shoot?
If I had to do it all over again, I would demand payment. I am the only person who ever did Playboy and didn’t get paid. I did it for Art. I was a 70’s hippie and for me, it was about the body beautiful and I was not ashamed about my body. I thought the pictures were very Rubenesque. How they got me to do it was I was in Yugoslavia shooting a movie called “Romance of a Horse Thief” with Yul Brynner. Larry Schuler who has written a book on OJ Simpson and was one of the first people to ever interview Susan Atkins from the Manson Family. He also wrote with Norman Mailer a great book on Gary Gilmore the murderer.
Larry was the photographer who approached me and said, “You can do for the Jewish Woman what Sophia Loren has done for the Italian Woman. We will take out the Chicken Soup and Matzoh Ball image and have you riding on a horse in the desert. You will be on a beach and be Jewesque.” He really sold me and he asked, do you always live like this? At that time, I lived in a very hippie fashion with a place at the Plaza Hotel and like a crazy person.
Honestly, I also did it because I had been so compared to Barbara Streisand in every way. I was so frustrated and I thought what can she do, that I cannot do? OK…I will take my clothes off. I have a sensual image and I will use it… Would you believe there was a “Mother’s March” in Las Vegas? They marched in Vegas against my picture that was up on a building which was just this wet shirt shot of me that covered the entire side of the building.
That shirt shot became a real bone of contention for those people who lived in Vegas and had to see it every day. It’s amazing to me because Vegas is the most debauched society, yet, they were very vocal how they felt about my photographs. Then folks would say lines like, they haven’t gotten around to playing my record because they were still playing the cover. Then they would write about what I looked like instead of what I sounded like. So it kind of took the other side because I was just wanting to be recognized for my talent and not my breasts. I kind of got caught up in my own web.
BB: I remember you did a memorable Aqua Velvet commercial in the 70’s. Do you still get people who come up to you and say, “Hey you’re the lady from the Aqua Velvet commercial?”
You do? (Big laugh) No not anymore. It looks like we are both getting old. (We both laugh)
BB: In 1982, a film classic hit the movie theaters called “My Favorite Year” where you co-starred with Peter O’Toole and Mark Linn Baker. Your performance received rave reviews from critics and fans alike. What was that movie like to work on?
I had just come off a movie that was Directed by Francis Ford Coppola called “One From The Heart” and it was just a disaster. But it was such a great experience as an actor to be in that film and work for so many months on a project that was so heartfelt.
Once I got done with this movie, I got the script for this comedy. I can remember my friend Norman Steinberg who wrote the script told me I am writing this wonderful script and I would like you to look at it. I had played Maria Ouspenskaya (Played Lon Chaney’s mother in the 1941 film The Wolfman) in a Mel Brooks TV show from 1975 called “When Things Were Rotten.” Well, Norman said they remembered me in it and that Mel Brooks who was an Executive Producer on this movie wanted to see me for one of the roles in the movies.
They wanted me to play the writer, but when I read the script, I just fell on the floor and wanted to play the Jewish mother. I told them you have to let me come in so I can show that I can do it. I had been known for playing all these sexy kind of roles and they weren’t interested. So I got dressed as the character and went in. Mel Brooks fell on the floor and gave me the part. That was like God was looking at me and I have never gotten a role like this one again in my entire life. It was the defining role.
Though it was such a great role, it really typecast me for a very long time so badly, but I have had a great career so far and I am not complaining. What I am saying is there were so many roles I would have liked to do.
BB: I always heard that Peter O’Toole’s role was based on the actor Errol Flynn. Is this true?
Yes, he was based on Errol. Peter was exquisite is all I can tell you. He just delighted in me and gave so much of himself to me that all I wanted to do was be that character and to fawn over him.
BB: In 1985, you appeared in the Cult Classic “Lust in The Dust.” You have a scene where you sing “South of My Border” that had me in stitches. What was that shoot like?
Most of that cast are still my very close friends. I received a call one night when I was at home and my daughter said “Mom, there is a guy on the phone named Tab Hunter. Is that a person?” “Tab Hunter,” I said, “Give me the phone.” Tab told me he had been thinking of me and he had written a script and wanted to meet me for lunch. He then went on to say, I have this part in mind for you and I don’t think anyone else could play it. I met him at this beautiful restaurant called Butterfields in California.
I took the part and we went to Sante Fe and lived for months. I fell in love with Tab, the Costume Designer who still is a very close friend of mine and Paul Bartel the Director. It was such a joy to work on that film. I have had such great experiences and even talking with you right now, makes me realize how fortunate I have been because I have had some great theatrical experiences. Yes, I have had some dogs to, but we all do.
BB: I want to throw some names out that you have worked with over the years, and get your thoughts about them.
Hilarious and not mean at all like you see in his comedy when he performs.
Larger than life character who was very – very charismatic.
The most giving and generous actor who is a wonderful human being.
He was very interesting because when he was Glen Devine in his male persona, he was a very gentle intellectual. When he became Divine and got into drag, he became an outrageous Queen.
I had no idea who he was when I was going to Israel to shoot the movie “Delta Force” with actors like Shelley Winters, Martin Balsam, Susan Strasberg, Joey Bishop and some guy named Chuck Norris. Back then, I had no idea he was going to be the star of the movie and once we started shooting, he was very kind and was lots of fun.
A very nice man.
Brilliant…he is very kind and generous to work with and really is very bright.
BB: If you had to pick one night in your career where you thought, “Lainie, you nailed it,” which one would you pick for both the acting and singing side?
There have been times I have really nailed it because I have been signing for many – many years now. When you nail it all has to come together at the same time it is very Kismet. The musicians have to be communicating with each other and then as a unit, they communicate with me which is a very personable and vulnerable experience. When that happens, I don’t have to really work, I am like lifted from my body into another space like I don’t even have a body. It’s almost spiritual. It has not happened many times, but several times. One night when I had my club at the Playboy Club it happened as I mentioned to me. It mostly happened at a small club setting where I don’t have to reach out to thousands of people and you have that intimate group in front of me.
On the acting side, it would be the movie “One From The Heart” because I was allowed to just go there and for an actor, that is a great thing. Francis (Coppola) allowed that because he is a visionary and is very much into improvisation.
BB: On your 1995 CD “Body & Soul” you covered a song that is synonymous with Frank Sinatra called “I’m A Fool To Want You.” Well, you really brought your own interpretation to it and I enjoyed it very much. What was is like recording this track?
Thank you. I love that song. It was very intimate and very heartfelt. I draw on my own experiences and emotional thoughts because I live the song when I am signing it.
BB: On your 1998 CD “In The Groove,” you recorded one of my all-time favorite songs “Yesterday When I Was Young” written by Charles Aznavour and Georges Garvarentz. Your cover was a little different. You opened with Yesterday by the Beatles and then, went into Yesterday When I Was Young. At first, I thought the CD had a misprint on the title, but you did something different with the intro and then going into the actual song. Whose idea was that?
That was actually my idea to do that and I am glad you enjoyed it. I actually do that a lot and it’s fun for me.
BB: You also covered Donnie Hathaway’s “A Song For You.” I have always felt this song is a classic. What was it like recording it?
I love that song and for this CD, I worked with David Benoit who I absolutely love. He was my Conductor for ten years when I ran the Playboy Club. We have a very special relationship and special communication. He played that song so magnificently and it created such a lovely moment in time for me.
BB: One other thing you did on “In The Groove,” you recorded with your daughter Jennifer. What was that experience like?
It was so special and we actually cried during one of the tunes we recorded. We were doing I Would If I Could and it broke us up.
BB: I want to switch gears for a moment and discuss your charity work with The Young Musicians Foundation and AIDS Project LA. What would you like our readers to know and how can they get involved if they are interested?
I am on the board for the Young Musicians Foundation which is an incredible group of women who donate their time and money to promote, encourage and support young musicals artists.
Mostly it’s Classical because there is a Youth Symphony that is supported by this group and they have started to play with all the great Symphonic Orchestras across the country. We have supported the Conductors and the Maestros who are now going on to be the in charge of those Symphony Orchestras across the country.
For the AIDS Project LA, I have produced shows, and sung to raise money. I have done everything I can to make this horrible condition go away.
BB: If you were stranded on a desert island and you could only have one movie and one CD, what would they be?
(Big Laugh) The movie is really hard, but I am going to say Young Frankenstein because I would want to laugh. I would take the CD <b>Ella</b> (Fitzgerald) and <b>Louis </b>(Armstrong).
BB: What “words of wisdom” can you impart on the young man or woman wanting to break into the singing and acting business today?
Studying your craft is a lost art. Nowadays people just want to be Movie Stars. You know that line in My Favorite Year where Peter O’Toole says, “You mean this show is live? Live? I am not an actor, but a Movie Star.” (We both crack up) I don’t believe in that. I feel one must learn their craft and expose their self to all kinds of music and theater/film. You must learn from those that have come before us so we can interpret with knowledge like a Doctor or an Architect does to learn their craft.
You must be a Historian in either the singing or acting field. Today, I mention Marlon Brando to some young people and they do not know what I am talking about. It’s horrendous and there must be a sense of history in what you do.
BB: Finally, what is the saying you live your life by if you have one?
“Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”
Lainie wanted to add to our interview:
I have a gorgeous and fabulously talented daughter and granddaughter. I am very proud of my daughter because it was hard for her being a child of a single parent because she grew up like that.