Screenwriter-actress Nia Vardolous initially wrote “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” thinking a few people who identified with her might appreciate it. But the indie movie, starring John Corbett — then the hunky Aidan Shaw on HBO’s “Sex and the City” — went on to become the sleeper hit of the summer in 2002 and remains the highest-grossing romantic comedy until this day. Take a look back at the origins of the hit film, about a Greek woman whose family struggles to accept the non-Greek man with whom she has fallen in love.
Fotoula “Toula” Portokalos is the leading role written and played by Nia Vardalos. It is based on her own upbringing as a Greek American — as indicated by a caption she placed next to her childhood photo: “I am Toula.”
A few years before Vardalos played Toula on the big screen, she was portraying the character in a one-woman stage show.
Rita Wilson, who is also Greek, saw one of the Vardalos’ stage performances and went backstage after the show to tell the fledgling writer-actress that her creation should be made into a movie. One week later, Wilson’s famous husband Tom Hanks attended a performance — and then something astounding happened …
Tom Hanks called up Vardalos and from there the Oscar winner and his wife Wilson signed on as producers. But first, the woman who would forever become known as Toula thought the call from Hanks was a prank. “When Tom finally did call… I thought it was my friend Brian,” she said in a 2002 interview, explaining that her friend had been phoning her up repeatedly pretending to be the famed “Forrest Gump” actor.
Once Vardalos and her team got to filming, feeding the cast and crew wasn’t a problem. According to the writer-actress, local Greek restaurants were so enthused about the project, they’d feed the production for free. Incidentally, filming mostly took place in Toronto.
You know the scene in the film when dad Michael Constantine uses Windex to cure ills “from psoriasis to poison ivy”? Well, Nia Vardalos explained its origins in a 2013 book-signing chat, saying her own father used it to remove warts. Before referencing it in the movie, she sought the all-clear from Windex parent company SC Johnson, who told her: “As a family company, we’d be proud to be part of this movie that has family values.”
The movie hit theaters in limited release in on April 19, 2002. It did well enough to continue expanding and by the weekend of May 10 it picked up major steam, earning $1.3 million from 247 theaters. But that’s not all …
The box office returns were so consistently strong, distributors gave it a wide release (more than 1,000 locations) by mid August. Gross percentages continued to increase the following two weekends by more than 27 and 52 percent respectively — an almost unheard of phenomenon. Then another really cool thing happened …
“My Big Fat Greek Wedding” became a massive summertime sleeper hit and the highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time, making $241.4 million in North America alone. It remains the top money-making rom-com of all time to this day, according to Box Office Mojo — just ahead of 2000’s “What Women Want.”
And to think, it all started with a stage show and a call from an Oscar winner. Here’s a behind-the-scenes photo (from left): Gary Goetzman (producer,) Tom Hanks (producer,) Steven Shareshian (executive producer) Diana Choi (development,) Nia Vardalos, Amy McKenzie (Hanks’ assistant). “This was during the shoot of the interiors of Toula’s Parents-Meet-The-Inlaws Party scene,” wrote Vardalos in a Facebook post.