The last time Nia Vardalos saw her dad, Gus, in person was at Christmas when she was visiting her parents in Winnipeg, Canada.
Gus, the inspiration for Nia’s father in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” was 87 and in declining health. “It was like watching your favorite wind-up toy slowly slowly losing its batteries over the last year,” Nia tells Variety. “At Christmas we were all there. He was on the couch, happy and mobile. He wasn’t incapacitated but not quite running a marathon…I had a feeling this might be it.”
When it was time for Nia to leave, she recalls, “There was a moment that flashed between my dad and me when we said goodbye…I think he was saying, ‘This really is goodbye.”
Within a few weeks, Gus was hospitalized. But with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on the world, Nia wasn’t able to return to Canada for his final days. As local family members stood around Gus’ bed, a nurse FaceTimed with Nia. “They held up the phone to him and I got to thank him for an incredible life and tell him he was a gentleman and he was a great dad,” she said. “My mom held his hand and said, ‘It’s okay for you to go.’”
Gus died on March 12. Seven days later, his funeral was livestreamed from the same church of which he was once president.
“I always said my dad has impeccable timing,” Nia says. She believes that he waited to pass after social-distancing and self-quarantine became the norm because if he had died just a few days earlier, his funeral would attracted a massive of crowd of friends and family, many who would have flown in from Greece, Chicago and Australia.
“If he had gone 14 days ago when they weren’t acknowledging the global threat, we all would have gathered and it could have brought down the city and also we would have gone back to all our communities and could have spread something,” Nia said. “He waited until the church said they couldn’t have any more large gatherings. I think my father knew he was keeping people safe.”
Nia is turning her grief into a fundraising endeavor by urging people on Twitter and Instagram, using #bigfatdonation, to donate to not-for-profits. She’s advising people where to donate to make sure the money is going to legitimate organizations. “One person wrote to me and said, ‘I only have $25, but I want to help,’” Nia said.
Two of the first people to step up were Nia’s longtime friends Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson. Even as the couple battled coronavirus in Australia, they donated to Nia’s father’s church which is sponsoring an outreach program for the elderly. Asylum Entertainment CEO Steve Michaels made sure the church had the right audio and visual equipment to livestream services.
Many others, including Michael Chiklis and screenwriters Brian Lynch and Liz Hannah, have given to Big Sunday, a Los Angeles organization that is helping get masks and gloves to hospitals as well as preparing and delivering dinners to the hospital staffs.
“People in our industry, we’re fortunate, we’re privileged, we’re pampered and some of us want to use our voices to do something,” Nia said. “That’s why I decided to go online and find different organizations. We have to do some good or we’re going to go nuts.”