An Interview with Actress and Singer Lainie Kazan

Lainie Kazan in February 2007. Photo by John B. Mueller, Wikimedia Commons.

I often joke that I’ve reached a point in my journalism career when all the alter-kakers want to talk to me (and I want to talk to them!).

In the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Duberman (93), Rita Moreno (92), Clive Davis (92), Bruce Dern (88), Johnny Mathis (88), Sharon Gless (81), and Gilbert O’Sullivan (77). I can now add the inimitable Lainie Kazan (84) to that venerated list. An actress with fantastic comedic chops, on display in the movies “My Favorite Year,” “Lust In the Dust” (alongside Divine and Tab Hunter), and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” as well as on TV in “Will & Grace” and “The Nanny.” She could also turn in a serious performance, as she did for her Emmy-nominated role in “St. Elsewhere.” Additionally, Kazan is a singer who can belt with the best of them (including Barbra Streisand, for whom she was the understudy in the original Broadway production of “Funny Girl”). As proof, generations old and new now have the chance to experience Kazan at her youthful best with her first four MGM Records albums, “Right Now!” “Lainie Kazan,” “The Love Album,” and “Love Is Lainie,” released between 1966 and 1968, are now available for the first time in almost 60 years, to stream on all digital platforms via Republic Records (with the deluxe CD edition to become available in 2025). Kazan was kind enough to make time for an interview to discuss her career.

Lainie, I’d like to begin by congratulating you on the digital reissue of your four 1960s albums – “Right Now!,” “Lainie Kazan,” “The Love Album,” and “Love Is Lainie.” What does it mean to you to have these albums available to your fans in this (digital) format?

I am thrilled, I am absolutely thrilled. I haven’t heard some of these albums in years, and I am so happy that they are out there in the universe for people to listen to. I think I was singing so well at that time in my life, it was like a highlight of my career to record those four albums. And I love having them out there – it’s a joy for me, truly a joy. Some of the music was recorded in New York, and some in Los Angeles, but I felt comfortable in New York, I knew all the musicians that were in the sessions, and it was a very warm and creative atmosphere. I knew many of the players from my work on Broadway, from the two musicals I was in before “Funny Girl.” And I loved working with my husband Peter Daniels, who helped produce the albums. We had a great relationship both on and off-stage. We knew each other so well, and he knew me so well as a singer and knew what was good for me – I am so lucky I had him in my life. Not only because he was a wonderful guy, but because he was a great musician and a great pianist. He wanted me to succeed so badly, so I wanted to please him as well.

The first three albums, released in 1966 and 1967, are mainly comprised of songs from the Great American Songbook by composers including Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Lerner & Loewe, and Rodgers & Hammerstein. How much of a say did you have at the time in terms of the songs you wanted to record for the albums?

For a couple of the albums, I had absolute autonomy. Especially with the first album – “Right Now!,” with the red cover – it was so brilliantly orchestrated. I was very happy with the choice of material, I love that we did Judy Garland’s “The Trolley Song,” and show tunes like “Show Me.” I was very happy with “What Now My Love,” I was one of the first people to record that song. Cy Coleman, who was a very dear friend of mine, brought me “Sweet Talk.” That’s a great song! I love singing standards because the lyrics are so meaningful. Sometimes either the music is great, or the lyrics are great – but these songs have both music and lyrics that are extremely fulfilling for me to perform.

“The Love Album,” from 1967, opens with “Until It’s Time For You To Go,” which was written by Buffy Saint-Marie. As a female vocalist, do you recall what it meant to you to include a song by a female singer/songwriter?

It was very special. “Until It’s Time for You to Go” is actually in the concerts I do now, even though I hadn’t been singing it for decades. I never met Buffy, but I love her music. I also recorded Bobbie Gentry’s “I Saw an Angel Die.” I also love Joni Mitchell – her song “Both Sides Now” is in my act now. I am not a songwriter myself, but I am an interpreter. I act my songs.

There is a noticeable shift in the sound and style of “Love Is Lainie” from 1968, with the inclusion of songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Bobbie Gentry, Rod McKuen, and Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati of The Young Rascals. Was this an effort to reach a younger audience?

Not really. I never chose a song because it was an old song or a new song – just that it was a good song with good lyrics. I just interpret the lyrics so they suit my life. I do that as a rule. People would constantly send me songs while I was recording … from the record company, from independent writers. Claus Ogerman and Bob Florence were my favorite arrangers. Bob was very innovative, he used all kinds of electric instruments – electric saxophones, electric flutes. It was unbelievably creative.  He did so much for me, and we had a really great time putting together these songs.

I fell in love with certain songs as they became part of my repertoire, like “The Look of Love” from Bacharach and David. I knew Burt quite well. We met in Palm Springs at a very secluded hideaway. He was there with his then-wife, and I was there with my then-husband – we all had drinks at the pool. I am very grateful that I got to know him. And we recorded a lot of Rod McKuen’s poetry. I met him up in San Francisco on Gypsy Rose Lee’s show I just loved his poetry, it was very simple, but it was very heartfelt. I love his lyrics to “Ne me quitte pas.” He gave them to me – I was the first person to record them. It fit right into my repertoire and became one of those golden songs for me. It’s something I’ve been doing for 60 years.

I’d like to ask you about your acting career. You played Belle Steinberg Carroca in “My Favorite Year” in both the 1982 movie version and the 1993 Broadway musical. Not many actresses can make the claim of originating a role in one medium and then reprising it in another medium. What does such a distinction mean to you?

I loved doing both, and I learned so much from doing them. It was not very easy to make the transition from the screen to the stage because it was such an intimate performance. I felt that I couldn’t quite get there on the stage, to really go inside myself. I did love working with Peter O’Toole in the film. I enjoyed everyone in the film, a very happy experience. I got the Golden Globe nomination too, which was so incredible – I really enjoyed the process. That year, I got another Emmy nomination for “St Elsewhere,” I couldn’t believe it. Anyway, in the show, I wasn’t sure about my approach – should I play it small? Or should I do it in a larger way? I didn’t quite understand how to shape that character in the process of doing it onstage. It was a bit difficult – but I learned so much. I loved working at Lincoln Center Theater, and I thought the music was wonderful. Those are very good memories.

For an entire generation, you are best known as Maria Portokalos in the “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” series. What does having that character on your resume mean to you?

Oh my God, I am thrilled to have it on my resume! That movie came out of the blue. I got a phone call from my agent, and he said, “Tom Hanks is having a reading up at his office of this new movie called ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding.’ It was written by a Greek girl, Nia Vardalos, and it is very funny. Can you come to the office? Tom is going to host and serve you breakfast.” I said, “I’ll be there! I’ll take it.” I found Tom to be the most wonderful guy. I adored him and his lovely wife, Rita Wilson. So, we read this unbelievable story, and it was really great – a really fabulous script. I just enjoyed myself so much. He said we’ll call you when we’re ready to do it. Then I didn’t hear from them for about a year. When I finally did hear, they told me they were going to film in Toronto, and it would have a very small budget. So, we didn’t make much money, but we became a family. I loved being in Toronto, it’s such a vibrant place – we got to eat at Greek restaurants around the city. The cast and I have actually seen each other all throughout these 25 years. It’s been a real joy. I got to know Nia so well, she’s become a dear friend and it’s been a beautiful relationship.

Finally, from your work on Broadway, to films such as “Lust In the Dust” with Divine and Tab Hunter, “Beaches” with Bette Midler, and “Oy Vey! My Son Is Gay!” to playing Aunt Honey on “Will & Grace,” you are no doubt aware of your LGBTQ following. Would you please say a few words about what they mean to you?

I am so glad they enjoy me, and I am so happy they’re in my life.


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