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Tony Ganios: The gentle giant who was a Renaissance man

By on April 2, 2024

A tribute on his passing
By Nikos Linardakis, M.D.

I met Anthony Ganios in 2006, and we quickly became close friends. I was introduced to Tony by actor and co-star Scott Colomby (Porky’s and Caddyshack). Scott was going to direct a film adaptation of Harry Mark Petrakis’ book, In the Land of Mourning, which I had optioned. My first phone call with Tony must have lasted at least five hours long. We talked about our Greek family histories, strategic military marches, Xenophon’s Anabasis, people we knew, classic cars we owned, and music we cherished from the 1950’s. It began one of those friendships you rarely find anymore. I know he must have experienced this with several others, because he was a cherished friend to many.

Despite Tony’s likely preference for a short obituary, I believe he deserves a detailed tribute and to honor his private life. This is his story.

Anthony Ganios passed away on Sunday, February 18, 2024, leaving behind a cinematic legacy that resonated around the world. Born in Brooklyn, New York, on October 21, 1959, Ganios’ life journey unfolded against the hard-working city backdrop, with his film debut in The Wanderers. This 1979 cult classic movie was written and directed by Philip Kaufman and starred Ken Wahl. Almost everyone recognizes Kaufman from his blockbuster movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Right Stuff; and Wahl from the highly successful Wiseguy television series.

Tony Ganios’ upbringing reflected his Greek-Italian heritage, and his family played a significant role in molding his life. As a beloved actor, Tony was known best for his roles in The Wanderers and Porky’s. Ganios’ father came from northern Greece to New York City, where he later married Marie, and gave birth to Tony. Several years later, his father remarried and Tony’s sister Trinity was born. Each of his uncles, including his favorite, “Pete,” were physical giants. They were men crafted in the glory of Greek Gods, as though fashioned from bronze or marble. Although his uncle Pete had the opportunity to play the role of the father in the Wanderers, his heavy Greek accent may have limited that acceptance. His uncle’s part went to another strong broad-shouldered man, William Andrews.

Just as equipped with door-wide shoulders and impressive biceps, Anthony towered at 6-feet-4-inches tall. Tony possessed remarkable strength, capable of bench pressing over 400 pounds and deadlifting over 700 pounds. The Brooklyn-born Tony Ganios entry into the film industry was somewhat unexpected. At the age of eighteen, his uncle Pete, even larger and more powerful, interrupted Tony’s workout to push him into auditioning for director Philip Kaufman. Tony secured the part as Perry, and the rest, as they say in show business, is history.

His physical presence always matched his on-screen roles. Ganios also appeared in Back Roads (1981), a role he actually landed by hurling the film’s script into the chest of its director. Next, he played a former football player turned mountain man in the 1981 John Belushi film Continental Divide before another “coming of age” film beckoned, and he was cast as Meat in the raunchy, but highly successful Porky’s franchise (1982). Ganios repeated the popular role in Porky’s II: The Next Day (1983) and Porky’s III: Revenge (1985). Tony’s other well-known role was in the 1990 hit film Die Hard 2 as Baker, a member of the terrorist team.

A military history and period weapons expert, Ganios was one of Brazilian jiu jitsu pioneer and UFC founder Rorion Gracie’s original students. Some of Ganios’ other film and television credits include The Taking of Beverly Hills (1991), Ring of the Musketeers (1992), The Rising Sun (1993), and the Emmy Award-winning television series Wiseguy (1987-1990). As well as creating the concept and writing the screenplay for Daddies’ Girls, Tony was to portray the father of the film’s female lead, and take on the role as Producer.

He possessed a commanding presence. In a memorable incident from his youth, he shared with me how he was challenged to lift a car; however, his strength proved too much, causing the car to flip over onto the sidewalk! From a short distance away, he apologized to the owner who witnessed the scene unfold in slow motion, unable to intervene in time. Reflecting on the event, Tony recounted, “The man asked me why I did that, and I just looked at him, shrugging my shoulders, ‘I don’t know, but sorry!’” The teenagers responsible for the dare ran off with mixed emotions of accomplishment and guilt. Tony’s robust build undoubtedly served him on the silver screen. Especially as his breakout role came in 1979, as Perry, a tough and recent loyal member of the Wanderers street gang. Set in the Bronx in 1963, the film portrayed the dynamics of power struggles among ethnic groups and captured the essence of youth culture, camaraderie, and life’s challenges.

Ken Wahl and his crew gawking at woman passing by in a scene from the film ‘The Wanderers’, 1979. (Photo by Orion/Getty Images)

His iconic line, “Leave the kid alone!” became as legendary as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back”—which surfaced later from the Terminator film. Ganios’ portrayal resonated deeply with audiences, cementing the film’s status as a cult classic, and his persona has persisted for 45 years. His widespread acclaim stemmed from his authenticity and genuine talent.

This reminded me of how occasionally, Tony would glance at my son, Constantine, who tried to impress the formidable Ganios. In his trademark low voice, echoing his famous line, Tony would playfully tell my son, “Costa, stop the evil!” My children loved that, and like many Greek kids, grew up wanting to embody righteousness.

Tony soon played a memorable role as Meat in Bob Clarke’s raucous teen comedy, Porky’s (1981). The film follows mischievous high school students who band together to outwit the lecherous owner of a nearby strip club. Starring alongside another Greek actor and former football player, Alex Karras, who portrayed a tough police officer, Porky’s became a cultural phenomenon. Regarded as one of the first and highest grossing teen-sex comedy of its time, it generated millions at the box office and for decades to come, and solidified Ganios and his peers as rising stars in Hollywood.

Throughout his illustrious career, Ganios graced the screens in several notable films, such as Die Hard 2, Rising Sun (alongside Sean Connery), and the 1981 film Continental Divide with Chicago’s John Belushi, whose family we knew in Chicago and were Albanian Orthodox background. In Continental Divide, Tony portrayed the brawny ex-football player turned mountain man Max Bernbaum alongside Belushi. He also continued into television, with the help of his pal Ken Wahl. His role as an attorney in the highly-successful late 1980’s Wiseguy series featured actors Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Banks, as well as Jerry Lewis and Robert Davi. During one of our conversations about Wiseguy, I mentioned knowing his Director of Photography, Frank Johnson, through my work as Chairman of the Utah Film Incentive Committee. It was gratifying seeing them reconnect. Frank always held fond memories of Tony and Ken, and these enduring friendships meant a lot.

Dan Monahan, Mark Herrier, Tony Ganios, Wyatt Knight looking at stag film in a scene from the film ‘Porky’s 3: Revenge’, 1985. (Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images)

Beyond his on-screen achievements, one remarkable aspect of Tony was that he was a savant. Not many knew this, and he wanted to protect the fact that he possessed the ability to memorize any subject. As he said several times when I would ask him in disbelief, “How do you know all that, word-for-word?” He would humbly reply, “I’m just interested in it.” While we all have interests in our fields, talents, hobbies, and families, Tony’s knowledge and passion went beyond mere curiosity. He was a self-taught military historian, versed in the exact events, timelines and strategies of historical leadership. When confronted with another historian, religious leader or person who knew their topic, Tony would be leagues above in the level of understanding and knowledge. Yet, he never let anyone know about this gift. He was humble, and wanted to learn more. He was blessed with the mind of a savant.

In my lifetime, I’ve been privileged to know three savants, and Tony Ganios was one of them. To grasp the magnitude of such a miracle mind, a man of brilliance, one might recall Kim Peek, immortalized in the movie Rain Man. I once introduced Kim and his father to my mother. She asked Kim if he knew anything about her village in Greece. Without hesitation, he provided detailed facts of her small childhood kingdom, “Yes, the village is in the center of the Peloponnese, in Arcadia, with a population of 140…” Moving my mother and me to tears. He was faster than any computer to provide information. While Kim struggled with social connection, Tony navigated social interactions with ease. He kept his intellectual prowess discreet, a fascinating aspect of his persona. When you looked at Tony, you thought he was a thug. How wrong could people be, and Tony kept that to his advantage. It was fascinating to observe.

He memorized the Bible, Quran, Torah, and Book of Mormon cover to cover, in a single reading, engaging in conversations with full understanding and agility. “We would stay up until 3 or 4AM talking about Christ and Mohammed. We respected one another and he was deeply religious, knowledgeable about his faith and respectful of others’ opinions,” said his friend Abdul Mullahkhel. “I was fortunate to have known him.”

Tony had a fondness for birds, filling his home with them, and his favorite was his dusky conure “Pixie.” His affection for birds, particularly Pixie, revealed his gentle nature. During a visit to Los Angeles one weekend, Pixie unexpectedly landed on my shoulder. Tony cautioned me not to move, because Pixie could tear off my ear lobe. Despite the warning, I couldn’t help but laugh, my shoulders bounced, and Pixie bobbed his head up and down. With his massive hands, Tony gently removed the bird from my shoulder—saving my earlobe from harm. It was a moment filled with laughter and relief, leaving me to wonder if that bird mirrored Tony’s gentle demeaner, or if it would have led to a trip to the plastic surgeon.

On another occasion, I brought Tony with me to a legislative meeting at the Utah State Capitol building to support a Bill I was advocating. The police seemed apprehensive, lurking behind marble columns, eyeing him as if he was about to cause trouble. They murmured into their shirt collars and earpieces, warning each other to be cautious around this tough guy. I had to reassure the authorities that he was with me. Once they recognized who he was, we all shared a laugh. The State passed the bill into law, and we marched to my 1970 Ford Fairlane and drove away.

On a different time, Tony attended my son Michaelis’ basketball game. Prior to the event, Tony asked me to fetch a white cardboard sign and a blue marker. With swift strokes, he sketched a picture of Spartan King Leonidas wearing his warrior helmet, and wrote “ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ” in bold Greek letters. “Now we can go. Let’s cheer him on, the way the Spartans would.” Tony remarked. ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ (“Come and take them!”) encapsulated one of his life’s mottos.

Despite his imposing appearance, Ganios was known for his honesty, humility and generosity. Much like the characters he portrayed on screen, he was passionate about defending the underdog. He cherished his Greek and Italian heritage, and took pride in his Brooklyn roots. Learning of his passing through a post by Ken Wahl deeply affected me. It was hard to fathom the loss of such a towering figure at the young age of 64. My heart went out to his wife, who together for 32 years of marriage, they carved out a private life in the realms of Hollywood and Los Angeles, with a preference for New Rochelle, New York.

He is survived by his wife Shirley Ganios (they recently celebrated their 32nd wedding anniversary), his sister Trinity, his birds and pets, his friends, and of course his movies. At the time of his death, Tony was working on producing his film, Daddies’ Girls, the brainchild of Tony and castmate, Cyril O’Reilly.

And he is mourned as well by his friends and co-stars, including Ken and Barbi Wahl, Cyril O’Reilly, Scott Colomby, Jim Youngs, Alan Rosenberg, Mark Lesley, and others from his films and television shows.

My own children, Michaelis, Constantine and Angelina, deeply feel his loss. They grew up with Tony in their lives, a presence of the gentle-yet-stern giant, whose reassuring voice they always listened to.

His wife, Shirley Ganios, shared some tearful words, “On Sunday, February 18, 2024, I lost the love of my life and my best friend…Anthony, known as Tony by many, was brilliant, witty, loyal and kind to a fault…Tony would have appreciated a candle lit, and a small prayer for each of us.”

For those who wish to send sympathies or care letters, please address them to:

Fr. Anthony Salzman
St. Philothea Greek Orthodox Church
3761 Mars Hill Rd
Watkinsville, GA 30677

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