March 31, 2003 12:00 PM

Nia Vardalos was sound asleep when the phone rang at 5:30 a.m. at her Los Angeles home last month. “My first thought was, ‘Who died?’ ” says the star and writer of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. As a friend delivered the news that Vardalos’s semiautobiographical screenplay had just graduated from sleeper phenom to Oscar nominee, the actress says, “I went from a state of fear to shock, then I got a headache—you know, like when you drink a Slurpee too fast and you get a brain freeze?” When her brain cells thawed, Vardalos found her mind pounding a familiar refrain: “This has been a really, really great year.”

One might even say a big, fat Greek wedding of a year. The Feb. 24 premiere of My Big Fat Greek Life, the sitcom for which Vardalos, 40, triple hits as star, writer and co-executive producer, earned CBS one of its highest series-debut ratings in recent years. Wedding, budgeted at a modest $5 million, has not only raked in more than $350 million over the last 11 months, making it the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time, but continues to play in multiplexes, despite DVD sales that topped 4 million discs in just the first five days. As Oscar night approaches, Vardalos is an odds-on favorite with audiences, if not the oddsmakers. “I feel like people are watching what happened to me and thinking this is an extraordinary thing that happened to an ordinary girl,” she says. More than that, says Lainie Kazan, who plays Vardalos’s Wedding mom in both the film and sitcom, “she’s not a movie-star-made-over kind of glitzy gal. Everybody can relate to her.”

That’s because Vardalos’s art draws on her real-life Everywoman experiences in a buttinsky 52-member Greek clan. As in the film, her husband, Ian Gomez, 38, an actor who is half Jewish, half Puerto Rican, agreed to be baptized into the Greek Orthodox church so that Vardalos could have both her family’s blessing and a church wedding in 1993. Vardalos describes Gomez as “the most secure person I’ve ever met”—but there are limits. During the Wedding shoot, John Corbett (who played the groom, while Gomez played Corbett’s friend) says, “he told me to lay off the lip locks.”

These days, given the hectic schedule the couple runs, Gomez claims his own kissing rights whenever he can. (While Vardalos is completing the final episodes of Life’s seven-episode first season, Gomez is shooting a pilot of Exit 9, a comedy for the WB network.) “Ian was on the [Life] set the other day and took her aside for a quick hug and a smooch,” says Michael Constantine, her film and sitcom father. “They’re lovely together.”

Cast members say that Vardalos’s tireless warmth and humor infuse the Life set. Monday mornings after they greet each other with effusive hugs, “she tells us anything that the network might not have filled us in on or listens to what we have to say about the script,” says Constantine. “She’s still very much part of the ensemble, part of the family. She wouldn’t have it any other way.” Friday nights before the show is taped in front of a studio audience, she talks and jokes with audience members. After the wrap, she invariably invites cast members back to her dressing room for a bit of Greek-style hospitality. “We have martinis and ouzo,” says Kazan. “It’s been a very interesting indoctrination.”

Yet, even as Vardalos converts Hollywood to her Greek ways, she seems little changed by her success. “She is just as sweet now as she’s ever been,” says Constantine. Now in rehearsal for Connie and Carla Do L.A., a film scripted by Vardalos in which she and Toni Collette costar as airport lounge singers, she is gaining new admirers. “Nia is so generous; she wants Toni to have as many great singing lines and as many great jokes as possible,” says the film’s director, Michael Lembeck. “There’s never any star or diva about her.” Just your basic Greek girl—with a big, fat future.

Jill Smolowe

Michael Fleeman, Julie Jordan, Rachel Biermann and Carrie Bell in Los Angeles

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