Michael Constantine had already won an Emmy more than three decades before he played Kostas “Gus” Portokalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. From the moment the precedent-smashing blockbuster debuted, however, the veteran actor would find himself autographing one item over and over again.
Constantine died of natural causes in his Reading, Pennsylvania home on August 31, The New York Times reported Wednesday. The obituary includes a quote from an interview Constantine gave his local newspaper, The Reading Eagle, in 2014: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve autographed a Windex bottle.”
No actor whose work spans more than 60 years can be reduced to one movie. But for a generation of viewers, Michael Constantine and his My Big Fat Greek Wedding character will still forever be synonymous—and for good reason. The movie might have been marketed as a romantic comedy, but Constantine and Lainie Kazan supply the real emotional depth as lovebird Toula’s parents, who struggle to process her choice to marry outside of the local Greek community.
Gus is a man of a certain age, from what Constantine once described as “a certain kind of background,” per his Times obituary. He could easily have become a Windex-toting, heavily accented caricature in the wrong actor’s hands, a misogynistic mash-up of all the old stereotypes about backward immigrant fathers. Instead, Constantine grounded his satire in the character’s dignity—and highlighted the degree to which his curmudgeonly nature grew out of his deepest anxieties.
Constantine’s parents were Greek immigrants, which might be why his performance feels so loving even as he puts on an accent. His career began on Broadway in 1955’s Inherit the Wind, and in 1959 he made his screen debut in the Mickey Rooney drama The Last Mile. After decades of film and predominantly TV work as a character actor, Constantine won an Emmy for his performance as Principal Seymour Kaufman in Room 222. He would receive his second nomination a year later. Throughout his career, Constantine would appear on a number of popular programs, including The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, The Love Boat, and Law & Order (twice).
Gus Portokalos, however, was one of a kind—a man who covered his Chicago front lawn with Greek statues and painted the flag on his garage door, all while daring anyone who would listen to “Give me a word, any word!” so that he could prove that the root of that word is Greek.
That outsized pride, however, belies the quieter worries Constantine brings to life. He covers his furniture in plastic because he’s afraid that time will soil it, and he doesn’t want his daughter to marry a Protestant “xeno” because he’s terrified of how time will similarly erode his family’s traditions. At first, Gus’s bluster is pure comedy—but as the film unfolds, we see why his dignity is an act of quiet defiance.
Consider, for instance, when Gus and Maria meet the parents of their daughter’s fiancé, Ian Miller. WASPs in the extreme, Rodney and Harriet gawk at just about everyone and everything. Eventually they get drunk on ouzo and nauseously turn down the delicious looking lamb that’s been roasting on a spit all day. After the party, Toula overhears her father’s anger.
“We were all nice to them, you see it,” Gus tells Maria. “And they look at us like we’re from the zoo!”
Growing up, I was obsessed with My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It wasn’t just that the film happened to be about a woman with curly brown hair and a massive inferiority complex—a struggle to which I, an insecure middle schooler who had not figured out how to transform my frizz into curls, could certainly relate. Toula’s family felt more real to me than any I’d seen in a film before, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s greatest strength is highlighting the way everyone they interact with—from impatient neighbors to Ian’s stuffy parents—seems so judgmental and incurious.
By exploring Toula’s background so thoroughly, My Big Fat Greek Wedding provides context to her insecurities. The “makeover” that transforms Toula from a depressed, dowdy waitress at her father’s restaurant into a zesty travel agent is not merely external. Sure, there’s a montage of her fiddling with hair curlers and learning how to apply contact lenses, but we also see Toula process her feelings of otherness. Haunted by the memory of being isolated in the cafeteria while eating moussaka, she brings Wonder Bread sandwiches to eat with her adult classmates at the Learning Annex. In the end, however, she marries a man whose comfort around her family allows her to fully embrace her identity. She might have married the human equivalent of white bread, but their daughter is still going to Greek school!
And in the end, there her father is, overcoming his discomfort around the Millers by giving a speech that binds the families linguistically. Portokalos, he says, comes from the Greek word for “orange.” And Miller? That comes from the Greek word for apple. (At least according to Gus.)
“So, in the end,” he says, “we’re all fruit.”
Yes, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a romantic comedy. But Michael Constantine was its emotional fulcrum. It’s his pain and feeling of rejection that gives the film real stakes in the beginning, and his ability to process those feelings impart suspense throughout. It’s obvious that Toula and Ian are going to work out; the question throughout the film is simply whether her father will be able to handle it.
Gus embracing the Millers represents not just a green light for Toula and Ian, but also an equally profound moment for him: the realization that even if his daughter branches out from the family business, even if she marries a xeno, even if the family traditions change, she will never, as he so deeply feared, want to leave him behind in this place of opportunity where he nonetheless feels so isolated. Maybe that’s why few movie moments have made this writer cry over the years as reliably as Gus crying and embracing his daughter at her wedding after her stunned husband reveals he’s bought them a house. Right next door.