Lainie Kazan — Four Decades In the Spotlight

Circa 2008

In show business, you don’t say “good luck,” you say “break a leg.” But one day, when Lainie Kazan was running along the beach with her dog, while taping a TV show, she literally fell and broke her leg. It still turned out to be pretty good luck: The injury brought attention to another critical medical condition: She had deep vein thrombosis.

Still, over the years, the fates have been kind. She made her Broadway debut in 1961, and later served as an understudy to Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. She once posed for a Playboy spread, and gained fame for her appearance in a highly memorable Aqua Velvet after shave commercial. She’s traded wits with the funniest guys in the business, from Dean Martin to Adam Sandler, and remains a sought-after quantity in TV and film. Kazan recently chatted with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Thomas Chappell MD.

Lainie Kazan with Zohan co-star Adam Sandler
Lainie Kazan with Zohan co-star Adam Sandler

Chet Cooper: What’s going on with your career these days?

Lainie Kazan: I’m in the Adam Sandler movie, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. I play his love interest. Other than that, I’m just having fun.

CC: I guess I’m the last person who hasn’t seen Zohan; I’ve got to correct that.

LK: It’s about this guy who’s in the Mossad (army) in Israel. He’s like a CIA operative and a superman; he also has sex with every woman on the beach. He’s just, like, out there. And his parents are so proud of him because he’s the best soldier and the best CIA agent. But what he really wants to be is a hairdresser. So he leaves the army and Israel to live incognito in New York, while everybody from home is looking for him. He doesn’t have a place to live or anything to eat, and he meets some guy who brings him home for dinner. I play the guy’s mother, and the next thing you know, I’m Zohan’s muse. He uses me as his model, cutting my hair and coming over every once in a while, so I’m sprinkled throughout. It’s a wonderful part.

Thomas Chappell: Sounds like it.

LK: I’m also singing all over the country.

CC: I love your voice. I actually was reminded of that recently when I was playing around on YouTube. Have you seen that Dean Martin video where you two are singing together—

LK: Yeah, the one where I play on his lap.

CC: Was that rehearsed?

LK: Only the music was rehearsed; the rest was ad-libbed.

CC: It seemed so real.

LK: It was, it was.

TC: He had such a quick wit.

LK: And he had great affection for me.

Dean Martin, one of the infamous Rat Pack, had his own TV series from the mid ‘60s to the mid ‘70s. As a YouTube video shows, he and guest-star Lainie Kazan were funny together and had loads of chemistry.
Dean Martin, one of the infamous Rat Pack, had his own TV series from the mid ‘60s to the mid ‘70s. As a YouTube video shows, he and guest-star Lainie Kazan were funny together and had loads of chemistry.

CC: It seemed so. (laughs)

LK: As a friend. He was very kind to me, and he had the best sense of humor.

CC: A lot of younger people don’t even know who Dean Martin is these days.

LK: That’s pathetic. A lot of these children like things for maybe five minutes, and then they move on. When I was coming up, if we liked someone, we were fans and we followed them from song to song, and from project to project.

CC: That’s the new generation, for you. I was at an event a while back, and Paris Hilton was there. I can’t tell you how many times she got out her make-up kit and checked what she looked like.

LK: Listen, I used to be like that. That hasn’t changed. A woman is a woman is a woman. (laughs) Is and always will be.

CC: For some reason I didn’t see the rest of the crowd doing that.

TC: The rest of the crowd doesn’t look that good.

LK: And the rest of the crowd doesn’t need to look that good. That’s her job.

CC: Well, it was a pretty stellar crowd. I just felt bad for her, thinking that she has to be on all the time.

LK: I was just like that.

CC: Yeah?

LK: Oh, sure. I wouldn’t go out of the house until I looked like my photographs, and I never looked like my photographs, so it was hard getting out of the house.

After I was downed by deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is when a blood clot develops in the large veins of the legs or the pelvic area, I was on so much medication that performing became a real hazard. But I had to get out there and make a living. It was not a good time for me.

CC: Let’s talk about the DVT. How did you first become aware of it?

LK: It was 73’ or ‘74 and I was running on the beach with my dog. A cameraman was taping it for a television special. But then the dog cut in front of me, and when I tried to avoid him, I tripped on my caftan, breaking my foot.

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CC: How was the dog, by the way?

LK: (laughs) So they put a cast on me, and I went back to work. A few days later, I was scheduled to go on a concert tour across Australia. But after I got home, I noticed a pain in my leg, and my foot started to swell and turn blue and green. I ended up missing the plane, and my band members traveled over without me. We called a doctor, and he came over. I remember he looked like a handyman.

CC: Like Tom? (laughs)

LK: Yeah. He came with pliers and he said, “Oh, let’s just loosen this [cast].” He gave me sleeping pills. He said, “Get on the plane, and you’ll never know you arrived.” And that would have been true, because the blood clot probably would have traveled up from my leg to my lungs and I would have died.

TC: Just for the record: Symptoms of DVT include leg pain and tenderness in the calf muscles, swelling or a change in color of one leg to purple or blue. If the clot breaks loose and travels to the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism (PE), symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, rapid pulse or a cough. There may also be a feeling of apprehension, sweating, or fainting. PE can be fatal if not treated immediately.

Lainie Kazan, with Nia Vardalos, from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, had an unforgetable line in the film: “The men may be the head of the house, but the women are the neck, and they can turn the head anyway they want.”
Lainie Kazan, with Nia Vardalos, from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, had an unforgetable line in the film: “The men may be the head of the house, but the women are the neck, and they can turn the head anyway they want.”

LK: All true. So during the night I started to feel like I had the flu. That’s when I called my primary doctor and told him, “I have a broken foot. I’ve missed my plane and now I’m supposed to travel in the morning. Could you meet me at the airport and give me a flu shot?” He said, “You know, I’m not going to be responsible for your life unless you come over here before you get on the plane.” He recognized my symptoms, which were really quite advanced, because at that time I don’t think anybody spoke of pulmonary embolisms. After he examined me and x-rayed me, he sent me straight to Cedars-Sinai. I was in the hospital for over a month, and I was on blood thinners. I had to have my cast removed because it reduced my circulation. I couldn’t walk. I missed a lot of work. It was a bloody nightmare. I was in and out of a wheelchair for about two years.

CC: But after that you were free and clear?

LK: Not exactly. Years later, they put me back in the hospital when I had a recurrence of pulmonary embolism about six months into my pregnancy. They told me, “Don’t have your baby, you can’t have your baby.” But I was determined.

CC: And the baby’s fine?

LK: The baby’s 34.

CC: Yeah, but does he know who Dean Martin is? (laughs)

LK: What I want to say is that I had a hip replacement a few years ago, and I had to take medication before the surgery, since they couldn’t give me a pain blocker during the operation, because of the DVT. As a result, I was in severe pain. DVT is a very, very serious condition. At that time, it was called phlebitis, if you remember.

TC: That means “inflammation in the vein.”

LK: Right. I recently particpated in a national campaign to raise awareness and to help educate people about DVT. It’s important to know if you have it or if you’re prone to blood clots. So many people in the U.S. have had this condition, and too many have died from complications related to it.

CC: If people know the risks, what more can they do?

The star-studded cast of You Don’t Mess With the Zohan
The star-studded cast of You Don’t Mess With the Zohan

LK: If they’re going to have a certain kind of surgery, as I said, or if they have a respiratory ailment, or if they have cancer and they’re gonna have chemotherapy, they should consult their doctor and find out what to do. There is also a website that offers a kit, which will tell them whether or not they are susceptible to this condition.

CC: Did the drugs you had to take cause depression do you think?

LK: I don’t know, but I did take a lot of them. I was on blood thinners, pain medication, sleeping pills…

CC: For how long?

LK: A couple of years.

TC: Have you met or heard of anybody with a similar story who’s had DVT or a pulmonary embolism?

LK: People have come up to me who’ve had PEs or who have DVT. Some of them don’t do anything about it, or they don’t want to admit they have it.

TC: NBC’s David Bloom had one; he was in a tank in Iraq with restricted mobility—one of the major risk factors—and he had a pulmonary embolism and died. Now his wife is campaigning to raise awareness as well.

CC: I guess this is the same thing that former Vice President Dan Quayle had?

TC: And current Vice President Dick Cheney had a blood clot recently, too.

LK: He did?

CC: I didn’t know Dan Quayle’s DVT story. But I think of the potential for blood clots a lot when I fly now, so I move my legs a good deal to keep up the circulation.

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LK: You’ve got to stand up and walk around… There are so many people who don’t know about this. It’s amazing that two million people had this last year. I think that’s stunning!

CC: Two million last year?

LK: Yeah.

TC: It’s a relatively common phenomenon in hospitalized patients, something we’re constantly attuned to and think about all the time.

LK: Don’t they give blood thinners to people as they check in for surgery?

TC: Some of them.

CC: You need some clotting, though, right?

TC: Yeah, you can’t do it too much before the surgery. That’s a little tricky.

LK: Oh, right.

TC: It’s a question of how soon after the surgery. Now we need Larry; he’s the other medical editor who’s a vascular surgeon.

LK: So when do they give you the blood thinners?

TC: It depends on what the surgery is, what the person’s risk factors are, all those things figure into the mix. But just as an example, Elizabeth Taylor, I think she had a benign brain tumor a few years ago.

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CC: How’d you know that?

TC: I just know. A brain tumor causes people to have an increased risk of clotting to the blood. So that’s a particular example where a brain surgeon would be real concerned when operating on a patient, because the person’s going to be in bed for a while, so they often thin the blood for a day or two after surgery.

LK: Now, that’s interesting, because I had a hip replacement and they couldn’t give me a blood thinner or a (spinal pain) block, because of my history with DVT and PE. As a result, I had more pain.

TC: Oh, oh, oh! You were going to have an invasive procedure. They didn’t want your blood thinned when they stuck the needle into your back, because that could have caused blood clotting of your spinal column.

CC: A spinal block?

TC: Women usually have it to deliver babies.

CC: Right, to stop the pain.

TC: A spinal block requires a lumbar puncture—a needle put into the spine.

LK: So because he gave me blood thinners before the surgery, he couldn’t do the block.

TC: Right. LK: Because having a PE I am more at risk of having another one.

TC: That’s right. You know now that you’re a person who is—

LK:—prone to that.

TC: You’re not taking aspirin or anything?

LK: I take baby aspirin.

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TC: That’s a very common recommendation for people with heart conditions or other reasons to be concerned about blood clots.

CC: So no matter what she does, she’s not gonna be able to get that pain block if she has another hip replacement?

TC: It’s up to the anesthesiologist, but I wouldn’t not do it just because she’s been taking baby aspirin, for example. Or they could ask her to stop taking the baby aspirin two weeks before it, do it and then thin her blood after the surgery. I think most surgeons would do it if she really wanted the spinal block. It’s not out of the question.

CC: Yeah, I noticed you were walking a little bit slowly, Lainie.

LK: The other hip is going a bit. I’m also a little bit tired. (laughs) But I’m great. I work out. I do yoga, I do Pilates.

CC: Keep going, you do karate…

LK: No karate, but I ride a bike and take care of myself.

CC: Where do you live?

LK: In New York and L.A., but mostly in New York.

CC: Yeah, you have that…(laughs)

LK: We call it tam. Did you ever hear that before? It’s a Yiddish word that means “spice.” (laughs)

TC: All those years mountain biking with my friend, who is also Jewish, and he never mentioned that.

CC: Are you Jewish and Italian?

LK: No, I’m a Spanish Russian Jew. I’ve been so many different things in film, but I’m Sephardim and Russian.

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CC: We have a woman on the board of directors of our non-profit foundation, and she’s from Israel, and she’s Jewish and Italian.

LK: My daughter’s Italian.

CC: The woman I’m talking about speaks with a British accent. We can’t quite figure her out.

LK: You should meet someone who is Chinese and Jewish.

CC: Doubling back: Even if people don’t remember Dean Martin, they should remember Barbra Streisand. Tell us about that story of when you went on for her?

LK: I was her understudy on Broadway, and I—

CC: I heard you put something in her soup.

LK: I did not! (laughs) I would invite her over for dinner, but she never accepted. I played a Ziegfield show girl in the same production she was in, and before I came to rehearsal I was signed to a seven-year movie contract by Ray Stark, who was the president of Seven Arts motion pictures. So I came to rehearsal thinking I was [as big as] Lana Turner. I worked for a year and three months in the show.

It wasn’t a success at first. We got very bad reviews in Boston. They got rid of our director, and brought in Jerome Robbins, who was famous and infamous at the same time. He was a real difficult choreographer, but highly respected. He choreographed West Side Story. When they brought him in, he said, “Oh, get rid of that girl”—meaning me—“she’s too attractive to play Fanny Brice.” So they fired me a few times, and they never could find anybody else, so they just kind of kept me there, never gave me a script or anything.

CC: You kept showing up?

LK: Finally we opened and it was a huge success, and there I was: Barbra Streisand’s understudy. I was in the show, had a fabulous time, you know, stage-door Johnnys and all that.

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 CC: Wait a minute, what’s a “stage-door Johnny”?

LK: Guys who used to come by and take all us chorus girls out. So anyway, about a year and three months into the show, I got a call that I was going on. Well I called everyone who ever said to me, “If you ever go on, call me.” They all showed up, and so did Barbra. It was a Tuesday night. I had come to the theater, got all dressed, ready to go on, and 10 minutes before the curtain, Barbra walked in and did the show. I was devastated. I climbed the five flights of stairs to my chorus dressing room and went on again as one of the Ziegfield show girls. That night I went home to my apartment, and got a call and they said, “You’d better come to the theater in the morning.”

CC: You called Barbra. You shouldn’t have called her.

LK: That’s right, and the next morning they warned me, “You cannot tell anyone you’re going on because we’re going to lose business.” And I said, “But I have to call my mother.” I made sure that my mother had a duplicate list of phone numbers. So she called everybody on the list. I got rave reviews, and I went on to have my own career.

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