Veteran artist said the ambition was to “play the big roles”, not win an Oscar
Olympia Dukakis, the veteran theater and film actress whose talent for maternal roles helped her win an Oscar as Cher’s mother in the romantic comedy Moonstruck, died. She was 89 years old.
Dukakis died on Saturday morning at his New York City home, according to Allison Levy, his agent at Innovative Artists. The cause of death was not immediately disclosed.
She won her Oscar for a number of surprising circumstances, starting with author Nora Ephron’s recommendation that she play Meryl Streep’s mother in the film version of Ephron’s book, Heartburn. Dukakis got the part, but his scenes were cut from the film. To compensate, director Mike Nichols cast her for his hit Social Security. Director Norman Jewison saw her in that role and cast her for Moonstruck.
Dukakis won the Oscar for best supporting actress and Cher took home the trophy for best supporting actress.
She referred to her victory in 1988 as “the year of the Dukakii” because it was also the year that Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, her cousin, was the presidential candidate for the US Democratic Party. At the ceremony, she lifted the Oscar high over her head and shouted, “Okay, Michael, let’s go!”
Dukakis, who was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, wanted to be an actor from a young age and hoped to study theater in college. Her Greek immigrant parents insisted that she pursue a more practical education, so she studied physiotherapy at Boston University on a grant from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
After earning her bachelor’s degree, she worked at a low-staff hospital in Marmet, W.Va., and at the Hospital for Contagious Diseases in Boston. But her attraction to the theater eventually led her to study dramatic art at Boston University.
It was a shocking change, she told an interviewer in 1988, noting that she had moved from the calm world of science to one where students routinely shouted at teachers.
“I thought everyone was crazy,” she said. “It was wonderful.”
The stage was the first love
In 1960, she made her off-Broadway debut and two years later had a small part in The Aspen Papers on Broadway. After three years with a regional theater in Boston, Dukakis moved to New York and married actor Louis Zorich.
During the early years of marriage, actor jobs were scarce and Dukakis worked as a bartender, waitress and other jobs.
She and Zorich had three children – Christina, Peter and Stefan. They decided it was very difficult to raise children in New York on a limited income, so they moved the family to a century-old home in Montclair, a New Jersey suburb of New York. Zorich died in January 2018 at the age of 93.
Dukakis’ Oscar victory maintained his maternal roles in cinema. She was the mother of Kirstie Alley in Look Who’s Talking and her sequel, Look Who’s Talking Too, the sardonic widow in Steel Magnolias and the arrogant wife of Jack Lemmon (and mother of Ted Danson) in Dad.
His recent projects include the 2019 TV miniseries Tales of the City and the upcoming film Not to Forget.
But the stage was his first love. For two decades she directed the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, N.J., which specializes in classic dramas.
“My ambition was not to win an Oscar,” commented Dukakis after his Moonstruck victory. “It was supposed to play the big roles.”
She achieved this in New York productions such as Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht, Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill and The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams.