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Enduring Invincibility

Lainie Kazan’s wildly varied long career is a master class in survival

Lainie Kazan performs at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below through March 29.
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YouTube is rife with delicious clips of Teflon songstress Lainie Kazan from the heyday of that now-lost TV genre, variety shows. I mentioned that to her as we sat down ahead of her appearances this week at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below, and asked whether the loosey-goosey ribald comments she got from the likes of Dean Martin would fly today.

“Aw,” she said, “we had so much fun flirting. He was a good friend, a great guy, and funny as all get out.”

Martin happened to be the first celebrity Kazan mentioned in the course of our delightful, nostalgia-drenched conversation, and, although she demurred from saying that she knew everybody, she really did. Who alive today has worked with everyone from the Andrews Sisters to Jason Momoa?

One evening, Ethel Merman sort of shared the spotlight with her and Martin: “Oh. My. God. She never let on that she knew anybody was singing with her: ‘Smile! When your heart is bah-reaking!’ Dean and I had so much fun, we fell on the floor. She was so hysterical! Every word was exactly where she put it, every belt. That’s why writers today consider modern singers a joke, who constantly improvise, singing all over the place.”

Kazan was next-door neighbors with Merman at the Madison Hotel on Park and 50th Street: “She always covered herself up, wore an old coat, and everyone who worked in the building didn’t like her because she was a very poor tipper. Once, we were working some big charity benefit in Forest Hills and I forgot some lyrics in rehearsal. She just reamed me out: ‘How could you forget those words?’ I was so nervous, working with all these amazing stars, and I got upset and cried in the dressing room, but when the show started we had a good time.”

Judy Garland loomed large in her life: “I talk about her in my show. I met her and went out with her to a couple of events. I was so shy, but she would call me on the phone and say, ‘I want you to come with me to this benefit,’ and I’d sit on the dais with her. Ohmigod… She was my idol. She and Sinatra taught me how to sing — not physically — but very influential in the way I look at life through music. I never wrote songs, so I would choose songs that were what I wanted to say throughout my career.”

Pressed on everyone she knew, Kazan responded, “If I tell you everyone I worked with, you’re gonna know how old I am, but there was Eartha Kitt, Della Reese, and don’t forget, I had two nightclubs in partnership with Hugh Hefner. There were Lainie’s Rooms on both coasts and I hired all the great jazz artists: Sarah Vaughan, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Bill Evans. I did a movie with Sinatra, ‘Lady in Cement,’ playing that lady, with Raquel Welch. I only had a couple of scenes and then I dated him for a while, between [his wives] Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow. Just a few times, we went out, and he was magnificent. There were a lot of people who thought he was not the nicest person in the world but he was great to me. He loved my singing, which he never heard until later. He would write me notes, always commenting on what I was doing, just a beautiful man.”

Long before any name celebrities — apart from Marilyn Monroe — posed for Playboy, Kazan did, and she commented, “I thought of it as art, I swear to God! This guy, Larry Schiller, who had photographed Monroe… coaxed me into Playboy, saying, ‘It will be like a Rubens painting,’ although some of the shots I didn’t like at all. He said, ‘I want to take this Jewish woman and make her a Jewess, riding in the desert, and I thought it was such a romantic idea! So he took all these pictures, but he was not a nice man and later did an NBC special with me.”

As far as her family’s reaction to her Playboy photos: “My mother was pretty outrageous, she was much more worried about her neighbors’ opinion but she made me feel okay about it. She was crazy but fine with it, a beautiful woman, and when she died, I found a color photo of her without any clothes on, in a grass skirt and lei. I have it on my dresser.”

Kazan’s Jason Momoa connection happened when she filmed “Tempted” in 2003, with Virginia Madsen in a Hawaii that was really Australia: “Ohmigod, I knew it was gonna happen for him! He was so gorgeous, he took my breath away, but he was so young, just a baby then.”

Although only five years old than Bette Midler, she played that diva’s mother in “Beaches” in 1988. I remember the first New York screening of it, and I told her I never witnessed such an enthusiastically loving audience reception as when she entered, beaming on the boardwalk and zaftig: “Aww! I had such a good time. That was great, wasn’t it? I went in and auditioned for it, despite our small age difference, and Bette read with me. They hired me on the spot, she and her co-producer Bonnie Bruckheimer, who produced everything she did and is now one of my dearest friends. Bette, too, became really close with me.

“That was so easy, the role was not a stretch. So then I was getting Jewish mothers, Italian, and, of course, ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding.’ I think I did a wonderful job in that, although I was the only non-Greek in the cast, apart from Andrea Martin.”

The thing that Kazan is most proud of, however, is her work in “My Favorite Year.”

“When I met Peter O’Toole it was like I died and went to Heaven. He was so fabulous and such an actor! Ohmigod, there was not a beat he missed, and he took such pleasure in what I was doing. He made me very happy, beyond happy. I was impressed with myself and with what we were doing. Richard Benjamin directed, such a great guy, there were amazing people in the cast and it was always fun.”

I asked her if she ever met a man who made her truly happy: “I think I was intimidating to men. I never chose a man — they always chose me. I was never a person to say, ‘Oh, I want him and am going to get him!’ I didn’t know how to do that. I grew up very polite, shy — I’d lift my eyes and flirt but could never follow through. I wasn’t that kind of girl. I grew up with a mother who was like a Jewish Blanche DuBois.

“I wanted someone to take me away on a stallion, but I did do a lot of things that were quietly rebellious. I was one of the first persons who was pregnant and not married. Me, Vanessa Redgrave, and Grace Slick, who shared that distinction. I sang at the Plaza like that — barefoot and pregnant. I think I was crazy.”

LAINIE KAZAN | Feintstein’s/ 54 Below, 254 W. 54th St. | Mar. 27-29 at 7 p.m. | $65-$150 at 54below.com; plus $6 at the door; food & drink minimum of $25

Updated 8:03 pm, March 26, 2019
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