How strangely time passes. Yet stands still.
We’re in 2012, and a 58-year-old Pia Zadora is singing to 55-year-old me at her home in Summerlin—just as in 1965, when an 11-year-old Pia sang to 8-year-old me at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway.
“Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match/find me a find/catch me a catch!” she sings, and nearly half a century of an often-difficult public life evaporates like a fine mist.
“For Papa, make him a scholar/for Mama make him rich as a king/for me, well, I wouldn’t holler if he were as handsome as anything!”
You can’t help but enjoy the pure joy in her face, given the uphill journey to reach that joy. “I was in therapy for a long time,” she says. “Therapy made me self-aware and brought out my fighting instinct. It got me out there to become who I’ve become.”
Today’s Pia Zadora is a proud mother of three on her third, and by all appearances happy, marriage to a Las Vegas detective, while rebooting a successful singing career (appearing July 27-28 at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts’ Cabaret Jazz room).
Yet there have been three distinct public versions of Pia Zadora. Which one do you know?
Maybe you know Pia 1.0, the child who performed alongside Zero Mostel as Tevye’s youngest daughter, Bielke, in the original Fiddler on the Roof and even acted onstage opposite Tallulah Bankhead. Or if you’re really up on your kitschy trivia, you’ll know she played a Martian in 1964’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
“I was raised by parochial-school nuns, and I started in show business because the nuns felt I was socially retarded,” Zadora says. “I was an only child, I had a heart condition [a defective aortic valve] and my mother kept me apart from other kids.”
Early career success unlocked her inner extrovert but left her, with benefit of hindsight, deeply ambivalent about living a showbiz life. “My mother would say, ‘You’ve chosen it,’” she remembers. “I’d say, ‘Mom, if I had chosen to jump off a building, would you let me do it?’ I never was able to have a normal life as a child. I felt exploited, I did.”
Maybe you know Pia 2.0, the young woman mercilessly derided in the 1980s for making “crappy movies” (her words) that leered over her baby-faced, pouty-lipped sexiness and (sometimes unclothed) physical assets. Exhibit A: Butterfly, a 1982 melodrama about father-daughter incest. Exhibit B: The Lonely Lady from 1983, in which her character, an aspiring screenwriter, is beaten, raped with a garden hose nozzle and suffers a nervous breakdown.
Fallout intensified over accusations that after those cinematic blights, her then-husband, Israeli-born businessman Meshulam Riklis—very rich and 54 years old when he married the 23-year-old Zadora in 1977—“bought” her a Golden Globe as Best Newcomer with a promotional tsunami. (Some incorrectly thought she won it for Best Actress.) Triggering a career nosedive, it also netted her several Razzie Awards and the Golden Raspberry Award as Worst New Star of the Decade.
“That was such a strange period for me,” Zadora says. “I totally understood all the controversy surrounding that film [Butterfly]. Nobody had seen me, I was a complete newcomer, my ex-husband had financed the film, and it was like, ‘Oh my God!’”
More public drubbing was to come. Complicating the couple’s frayed relationship with contemporary Hollywood was another flare-up invoking classic Hollywood. Pickfair—the 56-acre, Beverly Hills estate once owned by silent-film stars Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Mary Pickford—was purchased by Riklis and Zadora in 1988. Amid stinging criticism—from film historians, preservationists and Fairbanks himself—they demolished it, claiming it was termite-infested and beyond repair, then rebuilt it to their specifications.
Welcoming visitors to the mansion was an oil portrait, commissioned by Riklis, of Zadora in the buff. After 16 years of marriage, she and Riklis divorced in 1993.
“I made some bad choices,” she says. “But I could either go out with my tail between my legs or get out there and fight. Everybody was looking at me. I did what I needed to do to disprove my critics.”
Which brings us to Pia Zadora 3.0, the survivor who has capitalized on a singing talent that has, throughout all the public battering, earned respect from critics and audiences. Even a Grammy nomination came her way in 1984 for Best Female Rock Vocal performance for her song, “Rock It Out.” With pride—and a touch of defiance—she notes: “You can’t buy a Grammy nomination.” All part of a parallel career that paired her onstage with, among others, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Tony Bennett as their opening act. Plus, the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Pointedly, her Smith Center show—featuring standards from the classic American songbook, backed by an ensemble led by ex-Sinatra musical director Vincent Falcone—is titled Pia Zadora: Back Again and Standing Tall.
Expect tunes sung from a battle-tested heart, as the titles of her favorites could double as a personal declaration of independence. One is “I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles. “It’s what it’s all about,” she says, “but the melody’s a bitch. Some of those intervals!” Laughter, hearty and unguarded, follows. Another that speaks to her spirit: “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”
Clearly her music memories trump her movie misadventures. “Mentor” Sinatra? “An extreme perfectionist in a good way,” she says. “He would give me that pep talk every night before the show: ‘Don’t screw up!’” Sammy Davis Jr.? “Very easygoing, a walk in the park next to Frank, and a sense of humor.” Recalling separate tokens of affection sent by Sinatra and Davis—who lost an eye to a car accident—she says: “Frank used to send me flowers saying, ‘From the guy with the blue eyes.’ Sammy sent me flowers saying, ‘From the guy with the brown eye!’”
Off-camera and off-stage, Zadora finally seems settled. After a second, six-year marriage to writer/director Jonathan Kaufer ended in 2001, she met current spouse Michael Jeffries, a detective with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, in a particularly Pia-like manner, finding the good amid the bad. “I had a stalker, and he was the detective on the case,” she says. “We spoke on the phone a few times, then we met and connected.”
Along the way came three children. Kristofer, 24, her son with Riklis, is a general in the Israeli infantry. “He felt he was a pampered Beverly Hills kid and he wanted to become a man, quote-unquote,” she says. “I was so proud of him but scared to death. He’s like, ‘Hey Mom, I threw my first grenade.’ What do you say—‘Did you clean up afterward?’ Give me a Valium!”
Daughter Kady, 26 (also with Riklis), is a singer in Los Angeles. Under the name Kady Z, she hit the Billboard charts with the song “Beautiful Disaster” and lives with Christian Savalas, son of late actor Telly Savalas. Showbiz was apparently her destiny early on. “I remember I picked her up from her first day of preschool and asked her how it went,” Zadora remembers. “She said, ‘We learned the alphabet, then we went outside for intermission!’”
Only her 15-year-old son Jordan (with Kaufer) still lives with her. “He’s a big fan of mine, and he’s hysterical,” she says. “He keeps telling people, ‘My mother is Pia Zadora, go see the show.’ He should be an agent.”
Contentment, hard-fought and hard-won, radiates from Pia Zadora.
Finally—personally and professionally—matchmaker, matchmaker has made her a match.
Pia Zadora: Back Again and Standing Tall, 8 p.m. July 27 and 7 p.m. July 28, Cabaret Jazz at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, $36-$43, 749-2000, TheSmithCenter.com.