By Penelope Karageorge
From the moment Michael Constantine, appears on screen in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, his kindly, worried face seen through a rain splattered windshield, we fall in love with him. We believe him. He’s the beating heart of that film and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. He seems so – so authentically Greek. Is he enjoying 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? I’ve never been in a sequel before. 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 till now, and we’re delighted.”
Talking to Constantine is a revelation. He’s dramatic, ebullient, vehement, humorous, emotional and candid. Like his screen character, the actor, 88, 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.”
Constantine, who has played in 32 films and 53 TV shows, says: “My Big Fat Greek Wedding was far and away my favorite film 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. As a matter of fact, Nia and I decided that we were each other’s favorite scene partners.”
Constantine almost missed playing Gus Portokalos. “I had to audition for the part. Before that I asked to read the script, because I was very leery. I didn’t know Nia then, and I was anxious about someone writing some Greek thing. 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 had to audition for the part not once but three times, before being offered the role. “Then they kindly offered me the part, and I turned it down.” The casting director had offered him a salary and said “Take it or leave it.”
Constantine told his 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. A week later I was playing the role.”
“I liked the character,” Constantine says. “Again, I was very suspicious of how this was going to be handled. At the time I was less interested in my character than, what were they going to do with this Greek thing? I was worried that they might do something that embarrasses us, that makes the Greeks look stupid or bad. Obviously they didn’t. And I was more concerned with that than how I was going to play my part. I didn’t have much concern about that. Because by this time I was a pretty experienced actor and had my technique. I knew I’d probably be okay. I had played Greeks a couple of times in my life. 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 what the accent is, then you immediately forget about it. Because you’re not playing an accent. You’re playing a person.”
Constantine says that his accent “came from my mother. 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.” Did he grow up in a Greek traditional household? “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, to hell with this. 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. “
Growing up in Reading, Pa., “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. No, I didn’t have a big fat extended family. That’s Nia’s family. I didn’t meet anyone until many years later. I was working on a film in Greece with my friend Telly Savalas, My Palikari, I decided to go to Mytilini, where my parents were from, and find a relative. That was pretty exciting and interesting for me. I met a first 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. Even though this woman had never met me and had no clue about me, before she died she had gotten to meet her brother’s son. And 15 days after I left, she died. That was my first experience having relatives. I have been back and hope to go back within the next year.”
According to the actor, his parents did not have particular career expectations for their only son. “First I should explain. There was a big difference between my father and my mother. My father, an iron worker, was nothing but love. Nothing came out of him but love. I think if when I was 8 years old I had said to him ‘Pop, I don’t want to go to school any more, he would have said, no problem, my boy. Don’t worry about it. You’ll do something else.’ My mother also loved me but in a much more disciplined way. She was the one who saw that I go to Greek school, and was an altar boy in the church, which was one of the three worst experiences in my life.
“But when I told my mother that I was going to New York to study acting, she was just so happy! She was happy that I was going to study something. She didn’t care what that was. I discovered over the years that there was a great artistic side to my mother. My mother knew more Greek poems than I suspect anybody doing a doctorate of literature in a university. She knew historical poems. She knew modern poems. She knew funny poems and she taught me. She would be ironing, and she would be reciting a poem. At three years old, I’d be sitting there – there was nothing else to do – and she’d be reciting this poem and I’d pick it up and learn it very quickly. Years later I found one of the poems that I knew in a book, and it was seven pages long. She was a woman without a tremendous amount of education, but with tremendous curiosity about things.”
Constantine’s mother had encouraged his participation in plays in Greek school. His only other early theatrical experience was as a member of the high school drama club. “Everyone had to belong to a club. The teacher who taught the drama club saw me one day, and because I was a big kid there was a part he wanted to give me in the school play. He worked hard talking me into it. He didn’t know that from his first words I was ready to say yes, because at that point I was in the athletic club, and I hated sports and I hated the athletic club badly. Whatever he suggested, I would have said yes. It wasn’t much in the way of acting. How did my acting career actually come about? I have my own belief in God, and the Good Lord arranged that for me.”
With no clue about his future, after graduating from high school he went to work in the supermarket. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.
Obviously I didn’t want to spend my life in the supermarket. A buddy of mine Aristides was working in the supermarket too. We went for coffee after work. We were talking about what we were going to do with our lives. He was also a musician, and he was thinking, should I go to New York and try to make it as a musician? But it’s so hard, so maybe I should go to school and become a schoolteacher, or something. And I said, I don’t know what I want because I hate every job I’ve ever had. Actually the supermarket was the best job. I had jobs lifting heavy furniture, working in factories, and all kinds of terrible things.
“And so we started thinking about what we should like, and what we did like. We were talking about – everyone says that flowers smell beautiful. Does that smell do something for you, or are you just saying that because everybody says that. Everybody says this thing over here is disgusting. Are you really so disgusted that when you look at it you want to throw up, or are you saying it’s disgusting because everybody says that. Then it got to be about work and jobs and things and what do you enjoy. What did we actually enjoy? And mine got around to some kind of entertaining. And my friend Aristides said, well, like what, like a nightclub comic or something? And I said, well, sort of, but not really.
“And then he mentioned a classmate 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. There she was, right in front of me. I said I thought you were living in New York. And she said ‘Yes, but I came home to see my mother.’ And I said ‘Do you go to acting school there?’ And she said ‘Yes.’ And I let her know I was interested in that. She said ‘If you want, I will introduce you to my teacher.’ And so that was arranged, and I went to New York.
“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.”
Constantine supported himself as a night watchman and shooting gallery barker while learning to act. He left the first 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. “The Good Lord has always done things for me. I don’t know if he does them for everyone.” Though a circuitous number of events, he auditioned for the play, and was playing two small parts while still in previews. The producer called and said the actor who played Clarence Darrow was sick. He wanted Constantine to play the role. “I said, the play is 4 ½ hours long. I can’t learn that in one day.’ He said, ‘You’re all we’ve got.’ I said ‘I’ll learn the first two acts and read the third from the script.’ So I got through that fine, went home and told my wife ‘Thank God that’s over.’ Then they said ‘You’re opening tonight.’ I studied the third act all day, went on that night and got excellent reviews. It was exciting but the stress was enormous.” Constantine played the role for three months.
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.”
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 non-fiction. And the love story contains real characters. Constantine and his mother Helen are part of the story.”