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Lainie sings the blues

She’s nothing like one would expect knowing her from character roles in film and television. Benjy Stone’s overbearing mother in “My Favorite Year” would never politely and rationally answer questions over a dietetic lunch, in what once was termed a cultured voice.

Lainie Kazan is lovely, in fact, turning heads as she enters a restaurant, her dancer’s bearing intact, her clothing classic and luxurious, her countenance alive. No, she’s nothing like the mascara-stained alcoholics, the used Italian wives, in other words the character roles she takes on for her art.

She will bring songs from her newest CD, “In the Groove,” to Smothers Theatre Jan. 23. The evening should include standards and original tunes. “A lot of heartbreaking tunes,” she warns. “I’m a little heartbreaker.”

She orders 3-1/2 ounces of fish and a salad. “All I do is think about food,” says the heartbreaker. That’s impossible, considering what’s on her plate.

She won a Golden Globe nomination for her role in “My Favorite Year” and says she still laughs when she sees the movie. “Peter O’Toole, what a dream,” she says. She was required to audition for the part because no one knew her as a film actress. At least the screenwriter knew her as funny. “When he sent me that script, I knew that Jewish mother like the back of my hand.” She fashioned the character after her mother in the 1950s. Her success led to the Broadway musical version and a Tony Award nomination.

Other film credits include “Delta Force,” “Beaches” and “Harry and the Hendersons.”

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Known for her early television appearances on variety and talk shows, she hosted her own variety special for NBC. Other television appearances produced an Emmy Award nomination for “St. Elsewhere.” These days, she can be seen in recurring roles, as Aunt Frieda on “The Nanny” and as Kirstie Alley’s mom on “Veronica’s Closet.”

Her hopes for the future include more recordings. “And a series,” she says. “I need to be in one place for a while, but in a great role.” Yet she says it is the singing that defines who she is. “Not only is it the expression of the lyrics and the music but it’s a feeling of the sound within your body — the sound reverberating in your head and chest and stomach.

“I don’t need anything when I sing. If it’s right, it’s incredible, and the only way it’s right is if you’re communicating with your musicians.”

She says she’s an actress when she sings. “I must consider myself a Method singer,” she says. “I definitely try to find the meaning for me in each song. It’s never the same. Each night I try to bring what I’m feeling to the lyric.” In New York, where she lives most of the year, she teaches acting for singers and vocal technique. “So many young people have such bad technique,” she says.

The legend of Kazan’s calling began when she was 3, on the Coney Island boardwalk. Her parents thought she was lost, until they saw a circle of people crowded around a little girl who was singing and dancing for the crowd. She took dance classes in her Flatbush neighborhood until she was ready for the prestigious teachers of Manhattan. “I was an OK dancer,” she says. “It’s just that I looked good. I was more show than technique. I was much better as a singer.”

She began singing lessons at 14 with Mabel Horsey, a black woman who taught her about jazz and soul and introduced her to the material Kazan still sings.

Wanting acting courses, she attended Hoffstra University on a scholarship, where she played leading ladies opposite classmate Francis Ford Coppola. She later studied with Sanford Meisner and later still with Lee Strasberg. “Meisner taught me the basics, the technique,” she says. “Lee taught me how to go into my psyche.”

The career became serious when she understudied Barbra Streisand on Broadway in “Funny Girl” (although theater lore has it Streisand did her best to never miss a performance).

The show’s musical director, Peter Daniels, became Kazan’s coach and husband. They had a daughter, Jennifer Daniels, now a singer and dancer, who will give Kazan her first grandchild, in June. “She’s married to a really nice guy,” Kazan says. “They’re sweet together.” Kazan believes her daughter isn’t starry-eyed about the profession. Says Kazan, “For me it was magical, even though I haven’t had an easy time.”

There were times when Kazan couldn’t afford to stop working, when she couldn’t find work, when she became ill. She worked in a wheelchair for two years after breaking a leg chasing her dog on the beach in Malibu. She was fired from the Broadway production of “Seesaw,” which she calls “a horrifying period.” It did cause her to move to California. Here, she opened and operated two nightclubs.

After being a chanteuse in New York’s finest hotels, she says she sang “in the toilets of America” — on the south side of Chicago, in Milwaukee, “in this horrifying place in Wisconsin.” While in Wisconsin, she recalled better days working for Hugh Heffner in Lake Geneva, so she telephoned the Wisconsin Playboy Hotel, which invited her to stay. She noticed the business was faltering. She offered suggestions, leading to a meeting with Heffner, which led to management of one of his clubs in L.A.

Working out of her home, she answered the telephone, “Lainie’s room,” which became the name of the club. “In six months, I put them in the black,” she says. After one year, Heffner offered her the New York club, which she booked and entertained at for four years.

Acting returned to her life when Coppola contacted her and cast her in “One from the Heart.” “Everyone in the acting underworld knew I was funny and I could act,” she says. “People in ‘The Business’ didn’t know who I was.” She fixed that.

She’s also fixed her singing career. She claims to have had a few hostile piano players, “who’ve screwed around with me on stage, playing notes not wrong but distracting.” Happily, the master musicians in the Jim DeJulio Quintet will open her show at Smothers. Kazan will offer jazz standards, some comedy material, a Sophie Tucker song and an Ethel Merman medley, with help from three of the musicians from the quintet.

Lainie Kazan appears Jan. 23, 8 p.m., at Smothers Theatre. Tickets may be purchased through Ticketmaster at 213/365-3500 or the theater at 456-4522.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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