As an actress, Lainie Kazan has played Italians, Greeks and Spaniards. No surprise, given her dark Mediterranean beauty. But off-screen, Kazan remains the once and future Jewish girl from Brooklyn and, at 65, a seemingly ageless jewel of the screen and stage.
Kazan began her career as a singer, and she still puts music first. She will return to San Francisco for a pair of cabaret dates Saturday, April 8 and Sunday, April 9 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.
Her set will include plenty of standards, from “Stormy Weather” to “The Man That Got Away.” She also likes to weave in a few more contemporary songs, but there’s one tune she promises will not be in the show.
“I can’t do ‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,'” she laughs, referring to the most recent best-song Oscar winner.
Kazan has been coming to the Bay Area since the mid-1960s, often headlining the Plush Room and the Venetian Room. And despite her image as a neophyte Rat-Packer (she appeared on the old “Dean Martin Show” more than 20 times), Lainie remembers those days a little differently.
“I was very young and very overwhelmed by being thrown into this mix with Sinatra, Sammy and the others,” she says. “I was their little girl. But I was also a hippie-dippie flower child. I would do a show at the Venetian Room, then do love-ins in the park and in Sausalito.”
Kazan didn’t spend too much time with flowers in her hair. She went on to record several albums, tour the world, star in her own TV specials (back when artists did that sort of thing) and break into the movies big time.
She appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s “One From the Heart,” and a year later snagged a Golden Globe nomination as best supporting actress for her work in “My Favorite Year” with Peter O’Toole. Her other films include “Beaches” and the hit comedy “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
Though she’s enjoyed separate careers in both music and acting, Kazan sees the two as practically one and the same. “I approach songs the way I would a scene,” she says. “The whole body sings. Everything is a personal story — my own private story. I can go from happy to wrist-slitting in one show.”
Though she’s a reigning show biz diva (dividing her time between New York and L.A.), Kazan started out rather modestly, growing up in a Zionist Sephardic household in Brooklyn. She was always openly and proudly Jewish, and later went on to play more than her share of Jewish mamas, including the recurring role of Aunt Frieda on “The Nanny.”
Today, she says, her Jewish identity is stronger than ever. “It kept me whole,” notes Kazan. “My Jewishness helped through the crises of my life. I was able to handle a lot more because of the stability of my family. I’ve gotten more Jewish. I think we all come back to our roots.”
She has a daughter, Jennifer, and a 7-year-old granddaughter. Pictures of the whole mishpoche can be found on Kazan’s Web site (www.lainiekazan.com).
Next up for her: a couple of new movies and concert dates all over the country. Between the road, the movie set, her family and that weekly pilates class, Kazan stays more than busy, but she says she’s having as much fun now as when she was a raven-haired starlet back in the swinging ’60s.
“I have a very young spirit and a lot of energy,” she says. “I used to leave 19-year-olds in the dust. I just don’t stop and I love what I do.”
Lainie Kazan performs 8 p.m. Saturday, April 8 and Sunday, April 9 (10:30 a.m. cabaret, 11:30 a.m. concert) at Kanbar Hall, JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St. S.F. Tickets: $26-$52. Information: (415) 292-1233 or www.jccsf.org/arts.