From the moment Michael Constantine, 88, appears on screen in My Big Fat Greek Wedding we believe in him. He seems eminently authentically Greek as wry, sentimental Gus, head of the Portokalos clan, in the original as well as the sequel.
Is he basking in the new film’s success? “Well, yes,” Constantine says. “It’s so much nicer to be in a successful film than a failure, isn’t it? None of us knew what to expect. Some of us naively thought, it’s going to be as successful as the first one. Well, that’s not likely. But it’s been successful enough to now, and we’re delighted!”
In a delightfully candid interview about going from a Greek-American boyhood in Reading, Pennsylvani (he was born Constantine Joanides to Greek immigrants) to a successful Hollywood career, Constantine displays his dramatic, down-to-earth, ebullient, vehement, humorous, original, and emotional persona.
Like his screen character, the actor has definite ideas about life and Windex. He confesses: “I’m actually sick of Windex. There must have been hundreds of bottles sent to me, and then there were all those people who asked me to autograph their Windex bottles.”
THE ROLE THAT ALMOST WASN’T
Constantine almost did not play Gus Portokalos. “I was leery. I didn’t know Nia Vardalos then, and I was anxious. Was it going to be baloney or is it going to be something by somebody who really knows Greeks? So I read the script and I said, ‘yes, this person obviously knows Greeks.’” He auditioned for the part not once but three times.
“Then, they kindly offered me the part, and I turned it down. The casting director had offered me a salary and said ‘Take it or leave it.’ I told my agent ‘she doesn’t realize you can’t say that to a Greek. Take it or leave it? Leave it!’” He laughs. “The producer stepped in and then we did a true negotiation. In the business, that’s standard operating procedure.
“I wasn’t worried about playing the part. I was more worried that they not do anything to insult the Greeks. To embarrass us. To make us look stupid or bad. Obviously, they didn’t. I had played Greeks a couple of times. I had also played Russians and Frenchmen and Italians and Germans and everyone imaginable. I even played an Okinawan. One thing you learn as an actor, once you decide on an accent, then you immediately forget about it. Because you’re not playing an accent. You’re playing a person.”
He admits that his mother inspired the Greek accent he used on screen. “That’s exactly the way she talked, and I’m sure that in the back of my mind both my mother and my father contributed to Gus Portokalos.”
Constantine grew up in a traditional Greek home with two sisters. “Too traditional,” he exclaims. ”I had to go to Greek school after ‘American’ school, as we called it, every night for nine years. All the other Greek kids I knew would go to Greek school for a year or two, and then they’d say to their mother, ‘I’m not going back there.’ And their mother would say ‘okay,’ and that would be the end of it. With me, I knew that if I ever told my mother I wasn’t going to do something, she would have no compunction about cutting off my head and throwing it down the church steps.”
Constantine’s family in no way resembled the extended clan of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. “It was a small family. My mother and father came over from Greece, so I didn’t have cousins and uncles. They were in the old country. I did have an uncle who lived with us. I didn’t meet any other relatives until many years later. I was working on a film in Greece, My Palikari, with my friend Telly Savalas. I decided to go to Mytilene, where my parents were from, and find a relative. That was pretty exciting and interesting for me.
“I met a cousin, Katina, the most wonderful lady. She brought me in and sat me down, and then said that my father’s sister was still alive but she had been very ill and had not gotten out of bed in a month. She took me into the bedroom and there was this woman curled up in bed. She got up out of bed, came into the living room, sat down next to me and said over and over again ‘At least I saw my brother’s son before I died.’ It was heartbreaking and so moving. It really taught me something about love of family.”
Constantine explained that his parents did not have particular career aspirations for him. And growing up, he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do.
“How did my acting career actually come about? I have my own belief in God, and the Good Lord arranged that for me,” he told TNH.
While contemplating his future with his friend Aristides, the latter mentioned another friend, Joy, who was studying acting in New York. “I thought, well, I’m not going to go to New York and look for Joy. Where am I going to find her? But you see the Good Lord works much faster than people think. The next day I was walking down the street and ran into Joy.”
She happened to be in town visiting her mother, and Constantine told her about his interest in acting. “If you want, I’ll introduce you to my teacher,” Joy told him.
“I had no idea what I would discover. I was concerned that in an acting class in New York, I would be like this hick from Pennsylvania. God knows if they would make fun or me or what they would do. But it didn’t turn out that way. The first day of class I walked into this little room. It was dark, but there was light on the stage that spilled over into the room, and there were about a dozen students sitting around. And I looked at the light and I looked up at the stage and I said, I belong here. I thought, even if they make fun of me and they think I’m a hick from the sticks, and all of that, I belong here. That was it.”
HONING HIS CRAFT
He left that first acting school to study with Howard da Silva, a successful actor whose mentoring included the Stanislavsky method.
“That was the beginning of my developing an acting technique. It bore itself in on me at the new school that what you’re doing has a life to it. You’re playing a person. You have to figure out who that person is, and how you want to interpret that person. A basic thing was the creation of emotion, how do you cry and how do you laugh, the use of emotional memory and sense memory. That was really the beginning of my understanding what acting is. And after playing many parts off Broadway and on Broadway, slowly I was developing my technique.”
In his first Broadway role, he understudied Paul Muni – “one of the greatest actors I have ever worked with” – in the role of Clarence Darrow in Inherit the Wind. Later, when he was making the rounds the same character appeared in the Broadway play “Compulsion.”
One of his best stage experiences was playing the lead in A Walk in the Woods at a San Diego playhouse, and winning the San Diego Critics award for best actor. “This wasn’t something I was expecting. I figured they’d give it to a young guy playing Hamlet, and they picked yours truly.”
Constantine has appeared in 32 films, playing everyone from a mob boss to Santa Claus, and more than 54 TV shows, winning wide acclaim for his TV performances, including as the long-suffering high school principal, Seymour Kaufman, on ABC’s sitcom, Room 222.
He won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series in 1970 , and was again recognized by the Emmys and Golden Globe Awards the following year.
After the conclusion of Room 222, Constantine portrayed night court magistrate Matthew J. Sirota on the 1976 sitcom, Sirota’s Court, receiving his second Golden Globe nomination. “I loved doing Room 222,” Constantine says. “We were the first fully integrated TV series. I played it for close to five years.”
BIG FAT FAVORITE ROLE
Gus Portokalos is by far Constantine’s favorite role. “We never expected the first film to be that successful. I used to say to people when we were shooting the first one, I hope at least that this breaks even so that we can do a sequel and all work together again. I loved working with all the actors – Andrea Martin and Louis Mandylor and Nia Vardalos.”
Twice married and divorced, the father of two, the versatile actor appears to be at a creative peak. He’s currently completing a novel concerned with a romance and the origins of the Christian religion and the Council of Nicaea.
“I did tons of research and read dozens of books. It’s a novel that’s partly fiction and partly nonfiction. And the love story contains real characters. (Saints) Constantine and his mother, Helen, are part of the story.”