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Thaao Penghlis’ Journey from Hollywood Star to Discovering Lost Treasures of Greece

Thaao Penghlis at the Erechtheion on the Acropolis of Athens.
Thaao Penghlis at the Erechtheion on the Acropolis of Athens. Credit: Thaao Penghlis

Untied, after 42 years, from his iconic TV role as villain Tony DiMera in Days of Our Lives, Australian-Greek actor Thaao Penghlis embarks on new plans and projects, powered by the very same traits and values that have always guided him on his life path and inspired his remarkable acting career.

Greek Reporter met the star in Athens, where he was on a stopover to the Greek islands around the time of the launch of his history and archaeology podcast, “The Lost Treasures,” in autumn 2023.

During a long chat at his hotel lobby, a couple of times interrupted by long-time fans, Penghlis not only described personal details about his Greek migrant family, the events and decisions that led him to international fame but also shared photos from his archive. He spoke of his passion for travel, history, and ancient cultures that triggered his latest creative endeavor.

Rough beginnings are “seeds for success”

Far from the glamor of Los Angeles film studios that were to become his second home, Thaao Penghlis was born and raised in Australia. His parents had arrived in Sydney from the tiny Greek island of Kastelorizo in the 1930s, during what was “a difficult time for migrants.”

“They weren’t really welcomed in those early days, because of the Anglo-Saxon mentality that permeated through Australia at that time,” he says.

Australians “needed the Greeks, Italians, Yugoslavs, for their labor force,” he explains. “And they weren’t really that interested in their cultures and so they clashed. They didn’t like the smell of the [migrants’] food, [and] it was funny to them. They called us a lot of different names because the country was young and ignorant, and afraid of change.”

“But when the Greeks and other foreigners came along, through perseverance, [they] succeeded because when you come from a country that had great struggles, your strength comes from having survived those hardships in order to raise  your family,” Penghlis says.

“But I think that’s always the classic migrant’s story,” he opines. “It’s still happening today all over the world, but [it’s] more dangerous in its plight.”

While Australians were very comfortable in their ways, Penghlis’ father worked in hard jobs as a canecutter or drilling roads. Thaao remembers how they “were looked upon as something behind the times” by locals.

Overcoming hardship

Penghlis’ parents didn’t understand the English language well themselves, and their four children were sent to both English and Greek school for five years. As a young man, Thaao Penghlis was looking for a mentor, similar to those he had heard about in the ancient Greek world.

This quest offered him a new perspective during his youth, and he soon left for the United States “with only 180 dollars in his pocket.”

“It’s very important for young men and women to have people other than their family to look up to,” he said. “And the struggle for me was that I couldn’t find anyone, because [those in my environment] had their own struggles…So, I grabbed the opportunity to go to America.”

Before leaving for New York, he worked in the diplomatic corps as an immigration official and welcomed Greek migrants to Australia.

“So, my beginnings were with Greeks,” Penghlis says, reminiscing about his life decades earlier. “And because my parents were poor, I was very sensitive to Greeks who had also immigrated after us…they had a lot of struggles making money to bring their children back to this foreign country as well. They [also] had a hard time finding work and so the labor market was their only option. Beginnings for every society in a new place are always difficult.”

Penghlis is convinced that such hardships sufficiently toughen you up so you can accomplish many greater things later on. “Life prepares you as you go along if you’re willing to listen,” the actor notes.

Thaao Penghlis
Thaao Penghlis sees rough beginnings as a preparation for great accomplishments in life. Credit: Thaao Penghlis

Thaao Penghlis’ rise to fame

Upon leaving his native Australia for the United States, young Thaao Penghlis felt obliged to prove to himself and everyone else that he would go further than his parents. He studied art and worked briefly in the fashion industry before stepping into the world of acting. This was when Greek-American director Milton Katselas became his teacher and mentor.

“I studied with him as an actor, because I didn’t have anything else to do,” Penghlis tells Greek Reporter. “Honestly, my choices were limited and I couldn’t go back [to Australia] as a loser.”

“When my first breaks came in the industry, I was able to [finally visit] home,” he reveals. He admits that prior to his leaving for the United States, his father had been upset about his decision to leave and start a new life abroad. However, upon his return to Australia, his father opened his arms to him and became emotional.

Pengheli discloses that his father was ecstatic and called him “his ‘levendi,'” (Greek for “brave man”). “It was a great transition for me and for him,” he recalls. It was a different embrace too when he landed the starring role in the 1989-91 remake of Mission: Impossible.

“Everybody has their own road to explore,” he said. “Some of us are blessed because people cross our paths and if you are sensitive enough, you recognize that these people have something to do with you moving forward. Even when you fall, you are still moving forward. That was the whole approach.”

“When you get to face new obstacles and overcome them…that’s when success comes, but you also have to have an idea which direction you’re going in,” he adds. “Great explorers in life always have a plan.”

Thaao Penghlis.
Thaao Penghlis believes everybody has their own road to pave and explore. Above, pictured with his guide in Egypt, Mansuor Hamed Hussein. Credit: Thaao Penghlis

A cultural shift in American daytime TV

For a foreigner, becoming an established actor on an American TV show was an almost unthought-of achievement when Thaao was starting out, as daytime TV was all about American stories based on American characters. Penghlis stood out like a sore thumb among the actors at the time because of his Australian accent, which made casting more difficult. Nonetheless, he managed to turn this into a competitive advantage.

“I didn’t want to change,” he explains. “I didn’t want to become like everybody else, and so because of that, I was put into another category, since my style was more sophisticated than the ordinary. It was the accent finally that won the game.”

This proved crucial in securing him his iconic role in the hit drama series Days of Our Lives, in which Penghlis starred as villain Tony DiMera, one of daytime television’s most enduring characters, for four decades from 1981 to 2023.

“They first rejected me when I auditioned and they chose somebody else, whose persona turned out to be rather weak,” he recounts. “So, they remembered me.”

Thaao Penghlis and Deidre Hall in Days of our Lives.
Thaao Penghlis as Tony DiMera with co-star Deidre Hall in Days of Our Lives. Credit: Facebook / Thaao Penghlis Official

A little later, international movie star Elizabeth Taylor, with her equally distinct British accent, was cast on General Hospital, another popular American TV show in which Penghlis starred.

“Suddenly, I realized I had changed the face of daytime TV, of how we [foreigners] were perceived,” the now-veteran actor points out. “It was like the same thing I went through in Australia; the society started to change and accept things that were not part of the culture they were comfortable with.”

“People sometimes will reject things because…they don’t understand,” he says. “And that’s why I always say to younger actors, if you can travel, travel, find out how other cultures live, because it only adds to your persona.”

Greek heritage and values

Thaao Penghlis admits he doesn’t have many Greek friends. However, he always loves Greek cuisine, and he can cook “real good moussaka and very good avgolemono and keftedes” for his guests. He also used to make traditional desserts from Kastelorizo, such as strava, and the famous Greek Christmas cookies, kourambiedes.

“I love celebrating Greek cuisine,” he says. “What I remember about Greeks is the culture, and celebrating it with cuisine.”

He believes that another element of his Greek heritage that played a role in forging his personality is the “duality of joy, of laughter, comedy, and tragedy” that exists not only in Greek theater but has generally been a part of Greek life and history since ancient times. According to Penghlis, Greeks continue to possess these qualities.

Thaao Penghlis
Thaao Penghlis has always embraced his Greek heritage. Above, pictured at the Lions’ Gate, Mycenae, where the Trojan War began. The heraldic pose of two lions at the entrance of the citadel is the sole surviving sculpture of Mycenaean Greece. Credit: Thaao Penghlis

“I think of the joy, like when we went to a Greek dance, and watched people dance with such passion,” he recounts. “On the other hand, I like the discipline that we have, that we respected those who were older, because that’s education for yourself, so that you understand the boundaries of life.”

As an adult, Thaao Penghlis realized that even customs he resented growing up as a Greek child proved to be invaluable life lessons. “We grew up with that kind of foundation which taught me to be so disciplined and to understand the social standards as an actor, when I went into acting,” he explains.

“Boundaries given to me as Greek, such as kissing my father’s hand on his name day and speaking to my grandmother in a certain way, never disrespecting, all those were part of this foundation,” he says. “Nowadays, people do not get subtleties.”

Travel, roots, and ancient cultures

International travel has been a big part of Thaao Penghlis’ life. He traveled as soon as he could afford it, he tells Greek Reporter. Learning about his own family roots, he discovered that his interest lies primarily in ancient cultures.

Since childhood, Penghlis dreamed of seeing the Acropolis and Egyptian Pyramids up close. He dreamed of looking up at them and seeing them for what they truly are.

“I learnt that my grandparents came from Constantinople, while my other grandparents generations before, came from Alexandria, Egypt,” he discloses. “So, I found out I love Egypt, I love Greece, and I love Turkey—even though I am not crazy about the Ottoman history.”

Thaao Penghlis
Thaao Penghlis at the “Treasury of Atreus,” the Tomb of the King Agamemnon in Mycenae. Credit: Thaao Penghlis

In an article he wrote a few years ago, called “The Whispered Past,” the actor explored the Greek character. He wanted to learn more about why modern-day Greeks are the way they are today and how Turkish influences from four hundred years of Ottoman occupation changed them as a people. Among other things, the article detailed how, in the early years of Ottoman rule on Greek territories, many artisans from Greece left and became part of the Renaissance in Italy.

A few years ago, Penghlis authored the memoir and travel diary, Places: The Journey of My Days, My Lives. He believes that learning about other cultures to write his book was the best education he could have attained because, he says, showing interest in others allowed him to keep developing himself.

It allowed for time to “learn about other cultures, their customs, their rituals,” he reveals.

“Bringing Ulysses home after 3,000 years”

Thaao Penglis’ latest creative project, a podcast titled “The Lost Treasures,” launched in autumn 2023, is an attempt to shed new light on ancient heroes and civilizations. Homer’s epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey from the ninth century B.C. are also explored in depth through the eyes of Heinrich Schliemann’s archaeological discoveries from the nineteenth century, specifically in Troy and Mycenae.

Thaao Penghlis at ancient ruins in Paliki, Kefalonia.
Thaao Penghlis at ancient ruins in Paliki, Kefalonia. The location is debated as Eumaios’s pig farm, where Ulysses returned after the Trojan War and hid, disguised as a shepherd. Credit: Thaao Penghlis

The four-part series is based on the Schliemann archives, stored at an Athens library to which Penghlis gained access in the 1990s to study the material.

“The podcast, what is beautiful about it, is that it came from Greece, my heritage, that in my youth I tried to escape,” he admits. “And because it is about archaeology, it touches my very core, so I decided it was time to do something about this.”

However, “The Lost Treasures” also highlights novel archaeological hypotheses around the controversy of which of the two was home to Ulysses’ actual palace and kingdom—today’s island of Ithaca or Argostoli in adjacent Kefalonia?

Thaao Penghlis with John Crawshaw, Trustee & Project Coordinator of theOdysseus Unbound Foundation, at Kastelli, Kefalonia.
Thaao Penghlis with John Crawshaw, Trustee & Project Coordinator of the Odysseus Unbound Foundation, at Kastelli, Kefalonia. Credit: Thaao Penghlis

Modern-day experts interviewed by Thaao Penghlis present new evidence, backed by geomorphological data from the area, situated in one of the worst earthquake zones in the world.

The podcast’s final chapter is looking to “bring Ulysses home after 3,000 years.”


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