“Rooted” is all about the people and places that make us proud to call our community home.
There was always plenty of potential, but Gerry Mendicino says no one could foresee the massive success that was going to come for My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Well, maybe one person knew.
“I do remember one of the producers coming to me when we were done shooting and he said ‘you know, this is going to be the biggest movie that you’re ever going to be in’ and I thought, ‘ok sure, whatever’ but no one knew and no one was more thrilled than Nia when it came out,” says North Bay native Mendicino who played the role of Uncle Taki.
The Nia he is referring to is Nia Vardalos, writer and star of the movie and she had many reasons to be thrilled; 368-million reasons to be exact. That’s how much the movie grossed worldwide after being made on a $5-million budget.
When the budget is that low for a film it is reasonable to temper the expectations, but upon reflection Mendicino says maybe there were signs along the way that hinted at the massive success of what started as a one-woman show.
“Vardalos played all the characters on stage in that show,” says Mendicino.
“That’s how Tom Hanks got to see her and decided to produce this script. We had a great time shooting this and I think you can tell just by everyone’s relationship on screen that we enjoyed working together. It took about 15 years for the next one to get made but it was like nothing had changed on set, we were all so thrilled to get to do that and be working with each other again.”
Mendicino’s journey to the big screen was truly a lifelong passion that started in a basement on Galt Street.
“My brother and I would put on shows for our friends in the basement. We had just gotten a TV in the ‘50s and we would re-enact what we were seeing, especially the Westerns,” he says.
“On Saturdays, we would go to the Capitol Centre and watch movies and then re-enact those as well.
When I started attending elementary school I had a teacher who saw that passion within me. I was on stage singing at a very early age and watching the audience and seeing the smiles on their faces really stayed with me. I don’t remember too many things from back then, but I remember that specific moment because that was the moment I was hooked.”
Mendicino went to Drama School at the University of Windsor, “I did my four years and when I got out I was officially a professional actor,” says Mendicino who graduated in 1973.
His professional career started on stage as he says there was no TV or film training. “It was all live theatre; Shakespeare and the other classics.” But within two years found some opportunities on the small screen.
“The main employers back then were TVO and CBC and I managed to get some work there,” says Mendicino, who appeared on a couple of episodes of the CBC comedy show King of Kensington as well as earning a hosting role on Polka Dot Door.
Mendicino eventually came back to North Bay to expand his portfolio in a number of ways.
“For five years I did some things I never thought I would get to do. I taught at Canadore College for about a year. I worked in a professional theatre company that we formed, and we would do dinner theatres. I taught ballroom dancing at Canadore and night school. This was the era of Saturday Night Fever so that was big,” says Mendicino, who also worked a part-time gig at the Radio Station CKAT.
“As it turns out, somebody took the summer off at the radio station and they had a Sunday afternoon easy listening show for a couple of hours, so they let me do that. They put me in a booth, they showed me how to control everything and I got to pick my own records and so I spent a couple of hours every Sunday doing radio. I would never get a chance to do anything like that in Toronto when I was first starting out.”
The Gateway City was not yet home to the productions of Hallmark Movies and other movie companies like it is today, which Mendicino says is a source of pride to see all the work that can happen locally.
“Everyone in the world knows North Bay’s downtown now. It looks architecturally like it was built to be a perfect backdrop or setting for any movie and it is a beautiful downtown, so I love seeing North Bay in the films and television I watch and I enjoy trying to recognize those locations. With the film and television going on now, the current generation has an even bigger opportunity than I did,” he says.
“I think this industry is going to stay in North Bay for a long time, there are a lot of beautiful places to shoot there, and they have the crew and the technical skilled labourers up there as well. Everyone I talk to that knows I’m from North Bay will tell me how much they enjoyed their time there and they loved the enthusiasm of the people in the city.”
Mendicino says those five years back in his hometown allowed him to learn his craft, “I was allowed to make mistakes; I was able to learn by doing. Being able to do these things with the support of the community was a great opportunity. After a while, I realized I would have to go back down to Toronto in order for my career to really take off.”
Since 1982 Mendicino has earned over 130 acting credits to his name.
Mendicino says acting is always a work in progress and so every opportunity he has taken has been a way to improve his resume. He has learned techniques from a deep talent pool of actors he has had the chance to work with, and sometimes, he says, it's hard not to be awe struck when you first get on set.
“They are amazing people. They are regular people at the end of the day and it’s a pleasure to get to know who they really are and I’ve rarely been disappointed. The first thing I tell these people is that I am a big fan of their work and they genuinely appreciate that,” he says.
“I worked with Kunal Nayyer (star of The Big Bang Theory) on Dr. Cabbie and he was just a lovely man. There’s a movie out now called The Cuban that I was in with Louis Gossett Jr. Some people are just so larger than life and when you’re working with them, they can feel that you might be a little uncomfortable being around them and so one of his techniques to relax a co-worker is to tell a joke. So he introduced himself, I introduced myself, and then he told a joke and that really broke the ice. I’ve worked with some wonderful actors over the years. Anthony Quinn, now he was a movie star. He would tell us stories about other people in the industry, and he knew Marilyn Monroe, so I was in heaven listening to some of his stories.”
With Tom Hanks producing My Big Fat Greek wedding, Mendicino says he also got to spend time with the A-lister on and off the set.
“He came up to the set and took us out for dinner and we got to know him quite a bit. I was the only one that brought a camera and everyone wanted pictures with Tom, and so he just stood there with his arm cupped, waiting to 'greet' the next person, and he stood like that for every single one of us,” says Mendicino.
“Well after everyone had gotten their picture, he stayed frozen in that pose and one of the other actors picked him up and took him away as if he was a cardboard cut out of himself.”
Despite the laughs and the friendships built, Mendicino says there are a lot of tough days as an actor as you’re never sure when that next job may come along.
“You could be one day away from getting a call to audition for that one big part or one big show. I still have that hope, I’m still hoping that when it comes to my career, my best years are still ahead of me,” says Mendicino.
“You’re just not sure when exactly that work is coming or what it's going to be, but that’s also part of the excitement because you’re always staying on your toes and staying ready and you’re not doing the same thing all the time.”
Something that is relatively new on his resume that wasn’t available when he first started in the industry is lending his voice to the cinematic world of video games such as Assassin’s Creed Origins, playing the character Pothinus.
“I’m a dinosaur, but I’ve started to get into the digital world of acting jobs, I’ve been doing voice work for a few video games, so I’m excited to see where that goes,” he says, while adding how much technology has changed the actor's landscape overall.
“What we were doing in the basement, kids can now do on their phones and broadcast it to anyone. We’ve gone from live theatre to live screen presentations. Anybody can do it now, which is wonderful. There are a lot of people who just start out trying their own thing and figuring out how to make the technology work for them.”
On the professional side, he says streaming services have reshaped how much work you can expect to have for a series.
“When we were shooting Ready or Not, we did about 20 episodes a year. Now with streaming, you do maybe eight or ten episodes. There is more work for actors but the work you have is in shorter stints.”
It’s a competitive market as well, as more and more people are looking for work.
“Kids now see that there’s a lot of money in it and a lot of fame and there’s a lot more people trying to make it in this industry, and they find out very quickly that not everyone can do it and not everyone has the fortitude for that kind of lifestyle. It’s a tough job and you don’t always have guaranteed money coming in all the time, so you have to have a lot of perseverance and you have to love what you’re doing.”
And what Mendicino has coming next is something he hopes will be an asset to his hometown.
“I had an idea in mind for a couple of years now and the plan is to premiere it in North Bay, using locally based artists to put on this theatrical performance,” he says.
“I can’t say much about it right now, but more details will come out early in the New Year. We’re in the writing stage and I’m very excited about it and I look forward to sharing it with North Bay.”
If you have a story suggestion for the “Rooted” series, send Matt an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.