Growing up, Thaao Penghlis lived the safe, comfortable life that most children of Greek migrant parents lived. Born in Surry Hills, Sydney, his adolescence was comprised of routine, stability, and little room for questioning or self-discovery.
“Everyone was staying home until they got married, and I thought, what is that life? We didn’t have a lot of choice,” says Thaao.
“I wanted to go beyond my parents in a sense, I thought there has to be something beyond being Greek…I went on a discovery for what I didn’t know about myself.”
In his 20s, he made an impulsive decision to quit his job and move to New York. It was this decision that took a young Thaao Penghlis from a “good Greek boy” with no acting experience, to a Hollywood star that would grace our television screens in Days of Our Lives, Mission Impossible and more.
A ‘mission impossible’ from Sydney to New York
Thaao’s journey to New York was the polar opposite to the safe Greek routine that is still prevalent in Greek culture today.
Being at the right place at the right time, Thaao met famous Mexican ballet choreographer, Amalia Hernandez at a party, who loosely invited him to come to Mexico City to join the Ballet Folklórico. How did he secure such an offer? Due to his resemblance with her son.
“You look like my son” she said. “Why don’t you come with us? We have a flight going to Mexico city, maybe you want to be a dancer.”
Initially, Thaao himself thought the decision would have been slightly impulsive. Though, Thaao recalled his visit to a psychic months before who told him he would move to New York to become an actor on August 29th, which he laughed off at the time.
“When is the flight?” asked a curious Thaao.
“August 29th”, replied Ms Hernandez.
Almost instantly, Thaao decided to accept the wild adventure.
His parents reaction? Not as thrilled.
“Are you crazy?”, Thaao’s mother replied, as she simultaneously called all the relatives over for a family meeting.
While Thaao describes the reactions of his family members as “dismissive”, he had one uncle who supported his decision, whose words still stick with him to this day:
“Go. Go find out who you are and what you want to do,” said his Uncle Bill.
The transition from “good Greek boy” to ambitious New Yorker
From Mexico City, Thaao booked a one-way ticket to New York.
As he walked the streets, the loneliness, fear and doubts of his decision began to dawn on him. He quickly shook them off when he overheard a conversation on the street about renting an apartment for $130 a month. Thaao piped in and desperately exclaimed, “I’ll take it!”
With his accommodation sorted, his next prospect was finding a job. He managed to secure himself an apprenticeship in the world of Chinese Art, for $75 a week.
He remained in the art world for two and a half years, and then entered the fashion world. It was through the relentlessness of the fashion and art worlds, and his common encounters with high calibres like Ralph Lauren and Jacqueline Kennedy, that Thaao became comfortable in the world of the rich and the famous.
“I discovered that my 20s, all the seeds I planted in that decade is what I am still using today,” says Thaao.
“Your 20’s are so important, it is what you decide to plant…when you get into your 30s you start looking at the foundations”
Through his network and the seeds he planted in the art and fashion world, Thaao met the man that changed the direction of his life – famous director, producer and Hollywood acting instructor – Milton Katselas.
From one Greek to another – the impact of Milton Katselas
When Thaao met Milton, he immediately asked to study acting with him.
“He said ‘you’re not an actor’, and I said ‘what does that mean’, and he said ‘you’re just not ready, by the way you look’” explains Thaao. For the next 2 years, Thaao pursued acting with another couch.
What was his motivation?
“I couldn’t go back home, because they would say ‘we told you’,” says Thaao.
As Thaao learnt to loosen up in his acting, he pursued many different activities that allowed him to improve as an actor, or how he puts it, “to get that stiff Greek out of my system”.
Then, 2 years later, he went back to Milton and asked to be his student, again.
Thaao describes Milton in one short, very frank, term – “Greek”. He also later describes him as “the biggest saviour in his life”. After years of persistence, Milton finally agreed to allow Thaao to take his class. The gig was not easy, and his first three months under Milton’s wing were spent doing nothing but listening.
“2 years later I became his assistant. He was an assistant when he was young to Elia Kazan,” explains Thaao.
From that point on, a 40-year relationship was born. Thaao was Milton’s assistant for 10 years. He says the best thing he did during those years was that he kept studying.
“Every time I got a job, I took a journey,” he says. “Everything is about being a student.”
Some of the best lessons that Thaao took from Milton, that he applied to the rest of his career and personal life were administration, being on time, knowing how to listen and communicate, and knowing when your ego is threatened.
“Things come through us rather than from us. If they’re coming through us they’re coming from a higher place. If they’re coming from us, they’re coming from ego,” says Thaao.
Thaao also credits many of his life lessons and current perspective on the spiritual counsellor he visited.
“Greek boys in those days had a lot of troubles with their fathers…so I went to a spiritual counsellor, I spent 12 years with her, to undo all the stuff that was imposed,” he says.
As Thaao recounts his first spiritual counselling session, he distinctly remembers the first thing the counsellor said to him: “how dare you come here with the mind you have and the trash you associate with”.
After this comment, Thaao became very aware of the people he allowed into his space.
When Thaao gained this greater sense of self, he realised he had a desire to learn about other cultures.
“Greek was not enough. It was limited, because of their rules and behaviour. When you come back and win, you bring change. When you come back and lose, they say ‘well I told you so’ and dismiss you. So for me, I had to come back and for that win to be big enough to create change,” explains Thaao.
Thaao worked as Milton’s assistant for 8 years, until one day, he was offered an acting job that skyrocketed his acting career.
From Surry Hills to the Hollywood Hills
When Thaao got a call that he had been successful in attaining a role in Ben-Hur and was to meet Charlton Heston, his acting career began. Though, he later got a call that another actor who had just won a Tony Award was going to take the role, and he was to be the understudy, to which he replied ‘no’. To this day, he calls that decision a mistake, but he still credits this experience as the day his acting career began.
From there, he was involved in New York plays, then continued making small features in movies. He then moved to LA, where he played a monk in the film “Play with Fire”. From there, his Hollywood television career began, after he secured a role in the hit-series General Hospital. His role on General Hospital led him to one of his most renowned roles – Days of Our Lives.
At this point, Thaao finally deemed himself enough of a “success” to be able to explain the scale of his achievements to his parents. How did he do this? A birthday shoutout for his father on Australian Morning television, no less.
“I called mum and I said, I’m going to do an interview from America to the Morning Show. I have some news…I come on, my father is shocked. Then they sing Happy Birthday Peter…My mum said I’ve never seen your father cry. He was in tears. I announced I was coming to Australia to do Mission Impossible,” says Thaao.
Thaao credits Mission Impossible as “the big one” as he feels it “brought a lot more prestige” to his acting career.
Passion for travel and culture
Thaao credits his acting career for financially supporting his travels around the globe. Greece and Egypt are his favourite places to travel, due to the rich ancient history and stories prevalent in both cultures. His travels have motivated him to write books. So far he has written 2 books. The first a reflection of his travels called “Places: The Journey of My Days, My Lives” and the other, a cookbook called “Seducing Celebrities One Meal at a Time”. He is also currently working on a third book.
One of his most eventful travel experiences was his trip to Mount Athos, where he met a group of 13 monks from Melbourne who were Mission Impossible fans. When the monks realised who he was, they made some adjustments to the sleeping arrangements. They followed the monk to a locked area with three suites. According to Thaao, one of the suits belonged to Prince Charles, the other to the King of Greece and the third to a dignitary.
Thaao had a curiosity to learn about the lives of the monks, and while he found his trip incredibly inspiring, he was also awoken to the sadness that is prevalent in the monasteries.
Speaking to the monks from Melbourne, he recalled their sadness to leave their families behind.
“They said to me, it was so tough to leave our parents behind. Especially mothers, as our mothers would never see us again. We weren’t allowed to leave the peninsula. But fathers could visit. But it meant we had died to our mothers. They would never forgive us for that decision. They started screaming. It was like you became a murderer. You do this to the family. But the fathers would understand….There’s a sadness…It’s not a path of great joy,” explains Thaao.
Through his journey throughout spirituality, different cultures and different religions, Thaao has realised the difference between religion and spirituality.
“Religion is something that’s been given to you growing up, not necessarily a choice you’ve made. Spirituality is when you go beyond the self and you allow a greater source to come through…One is told to you, and the other is your own discovery,” he said.
The highs and lows of being Greek
Just as he recongised the highs and the lows of religion and spirituality, Thaao realised these highs and lows quite early on in his life when it came to Greek culture.
Thaao has visited Greece a number of times and is constantly drawn back to the food, the music and the rich ancient history.
“I love Athens. I love to walk below the Acropolis and the ancient marketplace and sit there and have a kafe. Give me a ruin and I’m going to tell you a story. When you go to the modern world there’s nothing to talk about except what you’ve been doing. Greece to me is a constant discovery,” says Thaao.
Despite, his fascination for Greek Orthodox religion and his connectedness to the country’s history, Thaao also outlines a lot of flaws with Greek culture that impacted him growing up, and are still prevalent today.
“I’m not always crazy about their behaviour to be honest with you, the arrogance…How they turn on you. Too much ego. There’s a lot of betrayal I’ve found,” said Thaao.
Thaao recalls a time where this element of ego and betrayal in Greek people ruined an opportunity for him to star in a Greek television show.
“They called me 3 times to do a series in Greece I thought, wouldn’t that be nice. Going to a Greek series, speak the language, and do it for my parents,” starts Thaao.
“We’re now in a restaurant, and they’ve filled it up with models. Beautiful, publicity, they love the publicity and nothing happens. So I’m sitting around the table, and there is the head of MEGA channel, journalists, models, suddenly this woman who I saw earlier that day walks in. Dressed to the nines, with a beautiful wrapped box. Comes to me first, kisses me on the cheek and says for you…This is where you learn about Greeks bearing gifts…then she goes to MEGA channel and says ‘I got him first and I got him cheap’. How do you screw up a deal? Do what she did – poniria. Suddenly, head of MEGA says I didn’t know you made a deal with someone else…now he thinks I’ve gone behind his back…suddenly I’m being accused of going behind their backs. I got up, dinner hadn’t even been served, I said thank you very much. I wanted to do this series because of my parents. I wanted to do something Greek. But this is not going to change my life nor my career. I see how you people operate and behave, you’re all accusatory and I’m saying goodbye.”
The life of Thaao Penghlis has been an extraordinary one. And what he credits this to is that he “made a solid decision” in his younger years, was constantly open to learning and studying and still, to this day, is committed to self-growth.