Michael Constantine Dead: Father in ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ Was 94

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Michael Constantine, who played Gus, the father of Nia Vardalos’ Toula Portokalos in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” by far the highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time, died on Aug. 31. He was 94.

Constantine’s agent confirmed the news of his death to Variety. He died of natural causes.

“My Big Fat Greek Wedding” scored a domestic gross of $241 million in 2002; No. 2 on the list is “What Women Want” with $183 million. The film drew a SAG Awards nomination for outstanding performance by the cast of a theatrical motion picture.

As Roger Ebert recounted, Constantine’s Gus “specializes in finding the Greek root for any word (even ‘kimono’), and delivers a toast in which he explains that ‘Miller’ goes back to the Greek word for apple, and ‘Portokalos’ is based on the Greek word for oranges, and so, he concludes triumphantly, ‘In the end, we’re all fruits.’ ”

Variety said: “Constantine fares best as a patriarch whose staunch traditionalism is at once dim-bulb and big-hearted.”

Constantine reprised his role in a short-lived CBS series that also starred Vardalos and Lainie Kazan in 2003, “My Big Fat Greek Life,” and the 2016 film sequel, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” in which the wedding was that of Gus and Kazan’s Maria after a procedural defect in their original nuptials in Greece is uncovered, necessitating another ceremony.

In a review of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” the Los Angeles Times said, “Constantine delivers an appealing mixture of bravado and bumbling as Gus, a man claiming cultural superiority who doesn’t know how to use a computer mouse. According to Gus, the Greeks invented everything, even Italy, and now he’s on an Internet quest to confirm that he is a direct descendant of Alexander the Great. In a sequence that will feel familiar to anyone who has ever introduced an older relative to Google, this quest will take a village.”

Before the “Big Fat Greek Wedding” phenomenon, Constantine was best known as a television actor who played principal Seymour Kaufman on James L. Brooks’ then-hip-for-TV high school comedy “Room 222,” which ran on ABC from 1969-74 and also starred Lloyd Haynes as teacher Pete Dixon; Denise Nicholas as school counselor Liz McIntyre; and Karen Valentine as student teacher Alice Johnson.

For his work on “Room 222,” Constantine was twice Emmy nominated, in 1970 and 1971, winning the first time.

He recurred as the Sorcerer on “Electra Woman and Dyna Girl” in 1976 — the same year he got his own show, a forerunner of “Night Court” called “Sirota’s Court,” an the NBC comedy in which he starred as Judge Matthew Sirota. It ran for 13 episodes.

Also in 1976 Constantine played one of many German Jews seeking to flee the Nazis in the feature “Voyage of the Damned” (1976), starring Faye Dunaway, Oskar Werner and Lee Grant.

He played the father of Kristy McNichol’s character in the noted TV movie “Summer of My German Soldier” (1978) and had a small part in “Roots: The Next Generations” (1979).

He guested on a wide variety of TV series for decades, recurring on “Remington Steele” as an idiosyncratic businessman — and appearing memorably in a 1994 episode of “Law & Order.”

Constantine played the father of Patrick Dempsey’s “Sonny” Wisecarver, a 15-year-old who elopes with a 21-year-old played by Talia Balsam, in the 1987 romantic comedy “In the Mood.”

The actor had two movie gigs in 1996, playing the judge in courtroom thriller “The Juror,” starring Demi Moore and Alec Baldwin, and portraying the man who places a curse on the hit-and-run driver who killed his daughter in “Stephen King’s Thinner.” Then “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” hit in 2002.

Constantine Joanides was born in Reading, Penn.

He began his career on the New York stage (though the actor made his small-screen debut in the very early days of the medium with a single appearance on NBC’s “The Big Story” in 1949). In 1955 he served as understudy to Paul Muni, who played Henry Drummond in the original Broadway production of “Inherit the Wind.”  Constantine’s acting mentors also included Howard Da Silva.

He appeared on Broadway in “Compulsion,” a play based on the Leopold and Loeb case starring Dean Stockwell and Roddy McDowall, in 1957-58, and in 1959 he appeared in the original Broadway production of “The Miracle Worker” as Mr. Anagnos, the headmaster of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, the school where Anne Bancroft’s Annie Sullivan trained. He subsequently appeared in “The Egg” and “Arturo Ui,” but both had extremely brief runs in 1962 and 1963, respectively.

While appearing on Broadway and on other stages, he made ends meet by working as a night watchman and a barker in a shooting gallery.

Constantine made his film debut in Howard W. Koch’s death row picture “The Last Mile,” starring Mickey Rooney. Despite the familiarity of the material, the New York Times raved about the movie, declaring: “The acting, almost from top to bottom — we repeat, almost — is fine. As Mr. Rooney’s fellow inmates, Clifford David, Harry Millard, John McCurry, Ford Rainey, John Seven, Michael Constantine, John Vari and George Marcy are entirely credible.”

Constantine had a memorable supporting role as Big John in Robert Rossen’s classic 1961 pool picture “The Hustler,” starring Paul Newman.

During the 1960s the actor guested on “Dr. Kildare,” “The Untouchables,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Perry Mason,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” “My Favorite Martian,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” to name but a few. He recurred on NBC’s 1966-67 comedy “Hey, Landlord” as John “Jack” Ellenhorn.

On the big screen he appeared in the Delbert Mann-directed, Antarctic-set comedy “Quick Before It Melts” (1964), starring George Maharis and Robert Morse; the 1966 “Beau Geste” remake; George Roy Hill’s “Hawaii,” starring Julie Andrews and Max von Sydow; 1968’s notorious “Skidoo,” “Otto Preminger’s monumental misfire of a counterculture comedy,” in the words of the Austin Chronicle; travelogue comedy “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” (1969), in which he played a former G.I. in Italy searching for a long-lost love; the misbegotten “Justine” (1969); and “Don’t Drink the Water,” an adaptation of Woody Allen’s play in which Constantine played Krojack, head of the Vulgarian secret police.

While appearing on “Room 222,” Constantine maintained a busy schedule, continuing to guest on other shows.

“My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” was his final credit.

Constantine was married to actress Julianna McCarthy from 1953 until their divorce in 1969.

He is survived by daughter Thea Eileen Constantine and son Brendan Neil Constantine.