As a struggling actress in Hollywood in the early 1990s, Nia Vardalos had been told to hide the fact that she was of Greek heritage, or to pretend that she was Italian, in order to get film roles. Frustrated, she decided to write her own movie to star in, based on her experiences growing up in a huge Greek-Canadian family. The result, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, was released on this day in 2002.
Born on September 24, 1962, and raised in Winnipeg, Ontario, Vardalos started acting in high school. She later joined Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe, where she met fellow comic Ian Gomez. They married in 1993, after Gomez was baptized Greek Orthodox (an experience that Vardalos wrote into the movie for her onscreen love interest, played by John Corbett). According to an interview with Vardalos later published in Redbook, her career stalled after the couple moved to L.A., where Gomez got roles on The Drew Carey Show and Felicity. When she began shopping her screenplay around, Hollywood execs wanted to cast a name actress (such as the Italian-American Marisa Tomei or the Puerto Rican-American Jennifer Lopez) in the lead role, a change that Vardalos refused to accommodate.
While performing a well-reviewed one-woman comedy show in Los Angeles, Vardalos impressed one particular audience member: the actress Rita Wilson, who happened to be of Greek heritage and married to one of America’s favorite leading men, Tom Hanks. With Hanks and Wilson signed on as producers, My Big Fat Greek Wedding was on its way. Filmed on a budget of $5 million, the movie told the story of a 30-year-old “ugly duckling” (Vardalos) working as a waitress in her family’s restaurant who finally attracts the man of her dreams, a WASP-y teacher (Corbett), and is faced with the bigger challenge of introducing him into her overprotective family.
From a limited release on April 19, buzz for My Big Fat Greek Wedding grew steadily through word of mouth, and the film began earning more and more each week. It would eventually rake in some $240 million at the box office, becoming one of the most profitable movies of all time based on its budget-earnings ratio. My Big Fat Greek Wedding received generally positive reviews, although some critics saw the humor as more suited to a television sitcom than a big-screen comedy. The overwhelmingly enthusiastic reaction of audiences spoke for itself, however, and at the Academy Awards in 2003, Vardalos received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
The CBS network greenlit a sitcom spinoff, My Big Fat Greek Life, which all the original cast members except Corbett (who had a conflict) signed on for. With Vardalos, Hanks and Wilson as executive producers, the series debuted in February 2003, but was cancelled after only seven episodes.