Olympia Dukakis, the veteran’s stage and film actress whose flair for mother roles helped her win an Oscar as Cher’s mother in the romantic comedy “Moonstruck”, is dead. She was 89.
Dukakis died Saturday morning at her home in New York City, according to Allison Levy, her agent at Innovative Artists. A cause of death was not immediately released, but her family said in a statement that she had been in poor health for several months.
Dukakis won her Oscar through a surprising chain of circumstances, beginning with author Nora Ephron’s recommendation that she play Meryl Streep̵
Dukakis won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and Cher took home the trophy for Best Actress.
She referred to her victory in 1988 as “the year of Dukakii” because it was also the year Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, her cousin, was the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. At the ceremony, she held her Oscar high above her head and shouted, “OK, Michael, let’s go!”
In 1989, her Oscar statuette was stolen from Dukakis’ home in New Jersey.
“We are not pretentious,” her husband, actor Louis Zorich, said at the time. “We kept Oscar in the kitchen.”
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Dukakis had longed to be an actor from an early age and had hoped to study drama in college. Her Greek immigrant parents insisted that she pursue a more practical education, so she studied physiotherapy at Boston University on a scholarship from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
After earning her bachelor’s degree, she worked at an understaffed hospital in Marmet, West Virginia and at the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Boston.
But the lure of the theater eventually led to studying drama at Boston University.
It was a shocking change, she told an interviewer in 1988, noting that she had gone from the quiet scientific world to one where students routinely screamed at teachers.
“I thought they were all nuts,” she said. “It was wonderful.”
Her first master’s degree, however, was a disaster as she sat wordless on stage.
After a teacher helped cure her stage fright, she began working in summer camp theaters. In 1960, she debuted outside of Broadway and two years later had a small role in “The Aspern Papers” on Broadway.
After three years with a regional theater in Boston, Dukakis moved to New York and married Zorich.
During their first year of marriage, acting 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 too difficult to raise children in New York with limited income, so they moved the family to a century-old house in Montclair, a suburb of New York, New Jersey.
Her Oscar win made the maternal film roles come. She was Kirstie Alley’s mother in “Look Who’s Talking” and its successor “Look Who’s Talking Too”, the sardonic widow in “Steel Magnolias” and the overbearing wife of Jack Lemmon (and mother of Ted Danson) in “Dad”.
Her recent projects included the TV miniseries “Tales of the City” in 2019 and the upcoming film “Not to Forget.”
But the scene was her first love.
“My ambition was not to win an Oscar,” she commented after her “Moonstruck” win. “It was to play the big parts.”
She achieved this in such New York productions as Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children”, Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo”.
In 2000, she was on Broadway in Martin Sherman’s one-act play “Rose” and received a nomination for the Drama Desk Award for her role as an 80-year-old survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.
For two decades, she ran the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, New Jersey, specializing in classic dramas.
Zorich died in January 2018 at the age of 93.
Dukakis survived by his children Christina, Stefan and Peter; her brother Apollo Dukakis; and four grandchildren.