In one of Cyprus’ most recognisable actors, THEO PANAYIDES meets a man much like his most famous character: grumpy but dedicated to money and family
I meet George Zenios in the village of Nisou, just outside Nicosia; he’s working nearby, shooting a TV series called I Familia in an empty house in the middle of nowhere. (The house has been set up for zero distractions, so we can’t talk there.) We find each other with some difficulty, then find a random Coffee Island on the outskirts of the village to conduct the interview. As we cross the road – in this out-of-the-way place, less than five minutes after having met him – a young man leans out of a passing pick-up truck and lustily yells at George: “Eshi kou-ou-ou-ouspo!!!”.
That’s a reference to ‘Eshi kouspo sto Mitsero’ – a Cypriot-dialect exclamation literally meaning ‘There’s a hoe in the village of Mitsero’ but used to indicate irate refusal, as in ‘No way!’ or ‘Dream on!’ – which of course was George’s catch-phrase as Rikkos Mappouros, the tight-fisted paterfamilias in Vourate Geitonoi. It’s surely superfluous to say so – but Vourate Geitonoi is a landmark, the ultimate Cypriot family sitcom, our version of Till Death Us Do Part or All in the Family. The show didn’t run for very long (three seasons, 2001 to 2004) but it’s never been off the air in the 15 years since – and now of course there’s a big-screen version which came out last month, continues to play to packed houses, and has a real shot at unseating Titanic as the most successful film of all time at the local box office.
Oddly enough, the chronic problem of Cyprus TV – its perpetual lack of money, which makes it so hard to be an actor here – has also contributed to his celebrity, forcing cash-strapped channels to fill their schedules with endless repeats. George tells a story of shooting near Limassol last December and being mobbed by a bunch of excited nine-and-10-year-olds from the local school, who rushed to take photos with Rikkos Mappouros. “I asked the teacher, ‘Tell me, how do these kids know me? It’s been 15 years since the show ended’. She says, ‘But they watch you every Sunday!’. So this generation has also grown up – and we’ll see how many more will grow up – with Vourate Geitonoi.”
It doesn’t end with the guy in the pick-up truck. Our coffees, we’re informed, have been taken care of by Mr Theodoros, a local man sitting at a table with two of his cohorts. (“Are you working on something new?” asks Mr Theodoros, obviously hoping for a scoop in exchange for his generosity.) The barista bounces over to our table, begging for a selfie – and George obliges, but later seems slightly put out by all the attention. “People are showing their love,” he concedes. “That’s a good thing, that people love me” – but it’s annoying when, for instance, he goes to the beach with his grandkids in summer and ends up unable to play with them because he’s so swamped by well-wishers. It’s a little hard to discern what he really thinks, since his default expression – like Rikkos’ – is somewhat grumpy. His eyes are hooded, the face wrinkled as befits his 70-ish years, the voice deep and gravelly. He even has a little tic, his mouth twitching slightly in confusion now and then, faintly recalling his TV character’s trademark snort.
‘How much of George Zenios is in Rikkos Mappouros?’ I ask – but it’s not a question he especially wants to pursue, maybe because Vourate Geitonoi is by no means his only achievement. He’s had other local TV hits, to be sure (To Katothkio tis Madaris in the 70s, Manolis kai Katina in the mid-90s, Brousko in the past few years) – but he also studied at RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, as a scholarship student, then spent a decade in the UK (where he grew up) acting alongside the likes of Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave. Admittedly, it’s not quite accurate to say that he acted ‘alongside’ those stars – he mostly played small roles, invariably as a swarthy foreigner, in British TV shows and occasional movies – but he did enjoy a thriving career on stage and screen; one of his plays, Hugh Williams’ The Irregular Verb to Love, ran in the West End for over a year. By the time he came to Cyprus in the early 70s (initially just to visit), his arrival was momentous enough to be noted in the local papers.
By that time he’d been away for about 15 years, since the age of nine. He’d also married young, to an Englishwoman, and divorced soon after; he met his second wife Aliki – now the mother of his three children – soon after coming to the island, which may be why he stayed on (they’re still together, nearly 50 years later). It certainly wasn’t because of the money, a recurring theme in our conversation. Rikkos Mappouros’ obsession with money in Vourate Geitonoi is extreme, even for a Cypriot; there’s a scene in the movie where he falls off a cliff and some loose change drops out of his pocket as he’s falling – and Rikkos instantly tries to grab the money, oblivious to the fact that he’s plummeting to his death. George isn’t quite so obsessed, but he certainly knows the value of a pound or euro – a worldview instilled by his father, a builder who took the family (including George, his brother and sister) to the UK for a better life and worked like a slave, including Saturdays and Sundays.
Actors don’t get paid properly here, he complains more than once. “In England, I could make a living from this profession. Because you get paid.” He always recalls what he got for a role, often more readily than details of the role itself. I see you made a softcore movie called Emmanuelle: Queen Bitch in 1980, I note, hoping for some sleazy details; “It was good money for the time,” he replies, £1,000 a day for four days’ work. (He played a politician, and had nothing to do with the sex scenes.) For the shot-in-Cyprus BBC series Sunburn in 1999 he ‘only’ got £3,000 a day – it should’ve been more but he’d been away from the UK too long, then again other local actors (in smaller roles) were on only £120 a day. In Woman of Straw he played a barman and also got £3,000 a day, straight out of RADA. “My dad said to me – because he knew I liked sports cars, nightlife, I loved all that! – he took the money and said to me: ‘I’ll buy you a house with it’.”
The money paid for a three-storey house in Muswell Hill. It cost £5,500; some years later, in 1972, George was opening Café Paris in Limassol and asked his dad to sell the house, which he did for £8,000; 12 years after that, in the booming 1980s, he was passing by the property, saw a ‘For Sale’ sign – and found out from the agent that the cash price for the house was now £1,300,000. “Biggest mistake I ever made,” he tells me gloomily.
Some actors will talk to you of their motivation for this or that role, or share insights about their performance; this is not what you get with George Zenios. There’s no doubt he’s a serious actor. He has a reputation for always being on time (he turns up 20 minutes early for our interview, driving up from Limassol while I’m still on the highway) and always knowing his lines. He can’t get to sleep till he’s recited his lines for the next day, and not just recited them but assimilated them; he once called the writer of Brousko (in Athens) at 1am to ask why his character spoke a particular line in an episode, unable to retire till the writer explained that it had to do with another line in a previous episode. All this is true – but he’s also a businessman and, like Rikkos Mappouros, a paterfamilias. His two most cherished subjects, the ones he comes back to most often, are money and family.
Café Paris, for instance, was massive, a hugely successful music club (George also used to sing there; he has a parallel career as a singer) which could seat 800 people, and often did. He opened it in the 70s, rented it out in 1980 then reclaimed it in the 90s and sold it just a few years ago – just before the haircut, he notes with satisfaction. The reason why he rented it out was because he went back to England in 1980, raising his kids in London as he himself was raised. George’s relationship with the UK is a little complicated. His dad used to beat them, he recalls, if they spoke English at home when they were kids (“When you come into this house, you’re Cypriot, re!”), but he still goes back two or three times a year and “when I set foot in the airport, I feel like I’m home”. We talk in Greek but he sometimes slips into English – “I want you to help me,” he recalls having asked the actor Phaedros Stassinos, when he was trying to get into RADA – and the accent is pure London Cyp, ‘I wanchoo to hailp me’. His father, incidentally, threw him out of the house when he learned about the acting (he later relented) – not least because George was already studying Medicine, and dropped out to pursue his dream. “I brought you here to make men of you,” roared the fierce old man, “and now you want to become a clown!”
The dad was strict; George, by his own account, was also a strict dad. Even now, he says, with his older son – who has a wife and kids, a Master’s degree and a big house – “I go to his house and immediately he gets up: ‘Sit down, dad, I’ll get you a coffee’. There’s that respect,” notes George with approval. “When the respect is lost – as it has been lost, unfortunately, with our youth today…” He shakes his head, looking glummer than ever. (His default mode, as already mentioned, is rather grumpy.) His devotion to family runs deep – he’s talked at length of how devastated he was by his brother’s death last year – yet his concept of family is quite traditional. They married when his wife was 18, he recalls, and “we made a deal… I’m the man of the house – not in a dictatorial way, but I’ll provide for the home, for everything, and you take care of the children”.
He’s been lucky; showbiz marriages tend not to last very long. I know it, says George, nodding soberly in the anonymous coffee shop – and credits Aliki with everything. “She stood by me,” he admits. She put up with him, when others might’ve not been so tolerant – “because there were nights when I didn’t come home. You understand?”. He worked so much he barely had time to see his kids – but he also liked the nightlife and the parties, and (like other patriarchs before him) wasn’t above the occasional lapse.
“I hurt her, many times. I admit it,” he says mournfully. “I was a little bit frisky, I was a bit – as a magazine wrote recently – of a ‘handsome jeune premier’… It was the profession, as well. The profession plays a role. The temptation is huge,” adds George fervently (this is why he didn’t want his kids, or now his grandkids, to become actors). “I often say in interviews that I thank my wife, I should really build her a statue and worship her for putting up with me… Now that I’m old, I’ve finally realised it. I say to her, ‘I’m sorry, I should build you a statue’. She goes, ‘Yeah, whatever. Now that you’re old…’”
George Zenios is indeed getting on a bit. He had a heart attack eight years ago, after having been prescribed the wrong pills, and is going for a (purely preventive) Gamma scan a few days after our interview. Still, he’s not that old; he did all his own stunts for Vourate Geitonoi, including being suspended above that 85-metre cliff (down the road from Mitsero, of catch-phrase fame). He’s proud of the film, which was made under difficult conditions and has been such a massive hit, both in Cyprus and the diaspora, making him bigger – and more recognisable – than ever. Life, you might say, began at 50 or thereabouts, in the late 1990s when he stopped being a ‘jeune premier’ and started playing grumpy middle-aged men, at least the life of being mobbed by schoolkids and hailed by random fans in pick-up trucks. George was always well-known – but Rikkos is also beloved.
I suspect he secretly enjoys the attention, despite his protests, just as he once enjoyed the sports cars and nightlife as a younger man. George, after all, isn’t a precious, artist-in-the-garret type; he’s a canny entrepreneur, and surely knows the value of celebrity. It’s been, by any measure, a successful life, if only as the link between a poor immigrant father and a family who grew up in luxury – a definition of success he’d surely appreciate. We walk back to his car, getting a smile and a wave from the barista on the way out – and I wonder briefly if she’s already shared that selfie, showing off her unexpected meeting with Rikkos Mappouros.