In 2002, Joel Zwick's My Big Fat Greek Wedding became a worldwide phenomenon. Shot on a budget of $5 million, the Tom Hanks-produced movie went on to earn more than $368 million at the global box office. The film was written by its star, Nia Vardalos, who played Fotoula "Toula" Portokalos, a Greek-American who falls for non-Greek-American Ian Miller (John Corbett), much to the disapproval of her overbearing family. Here are some facts about the highest-grossing romantic comedy of all-time, on the 15th anniversary of its release.
1. IT BEGAN LIFE AS A STAGE SHOW IN LOS ANGELES.
In 1997, Second City alum Nia Vardalos wrote and performed a one-woman show about her Greek family. "I basically took every Greek wedding I’ve ever been to, including mine, and on a scale of one to 10, I turned it up to an 11," Vardalos said. Los Angeles' Hudson Theater over-sold the six-week run of the show after Vardalos sent flyers to every Greek church in Southern California. Rita Wilson, who is also Greek, attended one of the performances; she went backstage after the show and told Vardalos that it should be made into a movie. One week later, Wilson's husband, Tom Hanks, attended a performance.
2. WHEN TOM HANKS CALLED, NIA VARDALOS THOUGHT IT WAS A PRANK.
After Vardalos told her friends that Hanks had seen her show, one friend repeatedly called her pretending to be the Oscar-winning actor. When Hanks actually did call her (she was on her treadmill at the time), she assumed it was the same friend. Hanks assured her it was really him, "And then I heard Forrest Gump," Vardalos recalled.
3. DISNEY WANTED MARISA TOMEI TO STAR.
Before Hanks' call, several production companies expressed interest in purchasing the rights to Vardalos' project. One wanted to turn it into a story about a Hispanic family. Disney was interested in buying the story as is, but wanted Marisa Tomei to star in it. Hanks and his production company, Playtone, saw Vardalos playing herself.
4. IAN MILLER IS BASED ON ACTOR IAN GOMEZ.
Ian Gomez and Vardalos met while performing at Second City in Chicago in the early 1990s. Gomez, like Miller, wasn't Greek but had himself baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church and won over Vardalos' family. The couple married in 1993. Gomez played Ian Miller's best man, Mike, in the movie.
5. VARDALOS'S MOTHER CONTRIBUTED A LINE TO THE SCRIPT.
"[My mother] gave me a line for the movie the other day," Vardalos said before filming began. "I have the father in the movie say, 'I am the head of this house' and the scene as it exists now is that the mother turns to the daughter and gives a 'yeah, right' look heavenward. But my mother suggested I have the mother character reply, 'But the woman is the neck and she can turn the head any way she wants.'"
Vardalos' father contributed some dialogue, too. He really did tell her once that she'd better get married because she was starting to look old.
6. VARDALOS WROTE THE ROLE OF AUNT VOULA WITH ANDREA MARTIN IN MIND.
Andrea Martin is of Armenian descent, but Vardalos had always wanted to work with the fellow Second City alum.
7. MICHAEL CONSTANTINE CAME OUT OF RETIREMENT TO PLAY VARDALOS'S FATHER, GUS, MUCH TO THE EXCITEMENT OF TOM HANKS.
When Michael Constantine (The Hustler) left the audition, Hanks slapped the table and exclaimed, “We’re done!”
8. JOHN CORBETT WAS OFFERED THE ROLE OF IAN AT A HOTEL BAR.
John Corbett was in Toronto shooting Serendipity (2001), telling his friend over drinks about the funny script he had read. (Corbett tried to get a reading for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but his shooting schedule had not allowed it.) Hearing the actor talk about their movie, Vardalos and producer Gary Goetzman walked over and introduced themselves. Within 10 minutes, Goetzman offered Corbett the part of Ian Miller.
9. IT WAS PRIMARILY SHOT IN TORONTO.
Vardalos grew up in Winnipeg, but the movie was set in Chicago, and filmed in Toronto. Much of the Ontario city's large Greek population volunteered to be extras at the large wedding scenes. Some of Vardalos' relatives joined in as well. Toula and Ian actually tie the knot in Toronto's St. Nicholas Ukrainian Church.
10. VARDALOS GOT HER ALMA MATER INTO THE MIX.
11. THE OPENING SCENE WAS SHOT LAST.
The scene where Gus and Toula drive to open the restaurant in the early morning was the last scene filmed. According to the DVD commentary, the sadness Vardalos and Constantine displayed on screen came from the sadness of most of the cast and crew having already wrapped.
12. IT BROKE RECORDS.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding made $241,438,208 in U.S. theaters, making it the highest-grossing romantic comedy in history, over $58 million ahead of What Women Want (2000). It's also the highest-grossing movie since at least 1982 to never be number one during any box office weekend. With a gross revenue (theater and home video sales) of approximately $369 million off of a $5 million production budget, it's also one of the most profitable movies ever made.
13. VARDALOS'S MOTHER KEPT HER HUMBLE.
"When I first did the movie and got a call telling me that never before had a film playing in so few theaters been seen by so many people, I hung up and told my mom 'Hey, I think something huge is happening with the movie,'" Vardalos told The Huffington Post in 2012. "She said, 'That’s so nice ... now, will you take the chicken out of the oven?'"
14. IT SPAWNED A SHORT-LIVED TV SHOW.
The CBS series My Big Fat Greek Life (2003) brought everyone back except for Corbett, who was busy starring in Lucky (2003). Only seven episodes of the small-screen version ever aired.
15. VARDALOS WASN'T READY TO WRITE THE SEQUEL UNTIL SHE BECAME A MOTHER.
Because she always wrote "from a personal place," Vardalos felt she couldn't pretend to know how to write about Paris, Toula and Ian's six-year-old daughter who appears at the end of the first film. But in 2009, Vardalos and Gomez adopted a daughter, Ilaria, which allowed her to reconsider the idea of a sequel. My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 was released in theaters on March 25, 2016.