Michael Constantine, the veteran actor who played patriarch Kostas “Gus” Portokalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, its sequel and TV spinoff, has passed away. He was 94 years old. Constantine began his long career in 1959, appearing on TV and film consistently through the early 2000s, but his career-defining role came when he was 82 years old, and played Portokalos, the eccentric patriarch of Nia Vardalos’s large, loud family whose solution for virtually every malady was to put a little Windex on it. Aside from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Constantine’s most recognizable role may have been as Principal Seymour Kaufman in the ’70s high school drama Room 222.
Born in Reading Pennsylvania in August 1921, Constantine was raised by first-generation Greek immigrants. He launched his acting career on the stage in New York when, in the mid-1950s, he served as understudy to Paul Muni in Inherit the Wind. There, he met and married actress Julianna McCarthy on October 5, 1953. The relationship was end in 1969, but not before the pair had two children, Thea Eileen and Brendan Neil. Per a statement released by Constantine’s family to the local paper, the Reading Eagle (via The Hollywood Reporter), the actor passed away at his home on August 31 after a long illness.
Constantine moved to the screen in 1959, scoring roles on shows like Brenner and The Detectives and movies like The Last Mile and The Hustler. Given his large frame, Constantine often played roles that required an air of authority, often cops or criminals. In The Hustler, he had to hold his own against Hollywood legends like Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and George C. Scott.
In 1969, Constantine got the role on Room 222, which centered on a Black high school teacher (Lloyd Haynes) who came into a predominantly white school district and struggled to both connect with the students, and to teach them racial sensitivity. Constantine won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1970, and then was nominated again the next year, but lost the trophy to Ed Asner for his iconic portrayal of Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Asner passed away on August 29 at age 91. Constantine was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award in 1971, but lost out to James Brolin for Marcus Welby, M.D.
After Room 222, Constantine portrayed night court magistrate Matthew J. Sirota on the 1976 sitcom Sirota’s Court, where he earned his second Golden Globe nomination. In that same year, Constantine became part of Sid and Marty Krofft’s The Kroft Supershow, playing a sorcerer in the popular “Electra Woman and Dyna Girl” segments. He would carry the role over to the Electra Woman and Dyna Girl spinoff. While he would never headline his own successful series again after Sirota’s Court, Constantine appeared in shows like Airwolf, Highway to Heaven, Remington Steele, Magnum, P.I., and MacGyver throughout the 1980s.
His other film roles prior to My Big Fat Greek Wedding included If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, the adaptation of Stephen King’s Thinner, and a memorable turn as Santa Claus in Prancer.
Our thoughts go out to Constantine’s family, friends, collaborators, and fans at this difficult time.