Olympia Dukakis, the confident, croaking actress who often played world-weary and worldly characters and won an Oscar for her role as such a woman in “Moonstruck”, died on Saturday at her Manhattan home. She was 89 years old.
Her death was announced by her brother, actor Apollo Dukakis, who said she was in hospice care.
Ms. Dukakis was 56 years old and an East Coast veteran of three decades when she starred in John Patrick Shanley’s “Moonstruck” (1987), a romantic comedy about a young Italian-American widow, Loretta Castorini (played by Cher), the life of a young woman it is turned upside down when she falls in love with her fiancé’s brother (Nicolas Cage). Ms. Dukakis stole scene after scene as Rose, Loretta’s sardonic mother, who saw the world clearly and advised accordingly.
“Do you love him, Loretta?” she asks her daughter, referring to the boring fiance. When Loretta says no, Rose replies, “Good. When you love them they drive you crazy because they know they can. “
The role earned Ms. Dukakis the 1988 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (Cher also won) and a host of other awards – that same year her cousin Michael Dukakis won the Democratic President nomination. The price resulted in more film roles.
She played a crazy southern widow in the mostly female cast of “Steel Magnolias” (1989); the mother of Kirstie Alley’s character in the three “Look Who’s Talking” films (1989-93); the transgender landlord Anna Madrigal, who lived in San Francisco from 1993 to 2019, in the four TV miniseries from Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” stories; and Frank Sinatra’s mother Dolly in the 1992 television movie “Sinatra”.
That was a far cry from her first mature roles. At the age of 40 she had played the mother of 36-year-old Joseph Bologna in “Made for Each Other” (1971), and at 38 she was the mother of 32-year-old Dustin Hoffman in “John and Mary” (1969).
“I’ve always played older,” she told the New York Times in 2004. “I think it was the voice.”
She played different ages on the stage where her career began. And in a way, she owed it all to Nora Ephron.
April 26, 2021 at 12:32 AM ET
Ms. Ephron saw Ms. Dukakis in Christopher Durang’s Off Broadway play “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” and decided she wanted Ms. Dukakis in Mike Nichols’ 1986 film “Heartburn,” based on Ms. Ephron’s novel à Clef. Mr. Nichols then cast Ms. Dukakis on his next Broadway Social Security project. Norman Jewison saw “Social Security” and cast Ms. Dukakis in a film he was about to make: “Moonstruck”.
Despite the awards and her other successes on screen, Ms. Dukakis never gave up the theater work. In 2011 she starred in an off Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here”. Charles Isherwood, who reviewed her performance in The Times, called her “macabre, hilarious, and strangely touching” with an “attention-grabbing bullying valor.” The next year she played Prospero (actually Prospera) in “The Tempest” for Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts.
Olympia Dukakis was born on June 20, 1931 in Lowell, Massachusetts, the elder of two children of Constantine and Alexandra (Christos) Dukakis, both Greek immigrants. Her father worked in a variety of settings including an ammunition factory, printing company, and Lever Brothers quality control department. He also started an amateur theater group.
Olympia graduated from Boston University with a degree in physiotherapy and practiced this profession. During the worst days of the mid-century polio epidemic, she traveled to West Virginia, Minnesota, and Texas. Eventually she made enough money to return to the BU and study theater.
Before receiving her MFA, she embarked on her new career, making her stage debut in a summer stock production of Outward Bound in Maine in 1956. She moved to New York in 1959 and made her New York stage debut the next year in “The Breaking Wall” at St. Mark’s Playhouse.
Her first screen appearance was in 1962 in the television series “Dr. Kildare. “Her first film role was an uncredited psychiatric patient in” Lilith “(1964). She received an Obie Award in 1963 for her role as widow Begbick, the canteen owner, in Bertolt Brecht’s drama” A Man is a Man “and another , 22 years later, for the role of the grandmother of Mr. Durang’s character in “The Marriage of Bette and Boo.”
On the way she married Louis Zorich, a fellow actor who had appeared with her in a production of “Medea” in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Together they helped found the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, New Jersey, where they lived while growing up children. The company produced Chekhov, Feigling, and Williams for nearly two decades. Ms. Dukakis also taught acting at New York University.
Mr. Zorich died in 2018. In addition to her brother, her three children Christina, Peter and Stefan Zorich survived. and four grandchildren.
In recent years she has played recurring characters on several television series, including “Bored to Death,” in which her character had a hot affair with Zach Galifianakis. In her last film, “Not to Forget”, due to open this year, she plays a judge who sentenced a millennium to care for his grandmother.
When The Toronto Sun asked her in 2003 if she wanted to retire, she replied, “From what? I love this messy, contradicting, loving mess that was my life. “
She reflected on her success in a 2001 interview with London’s The Guardian newspaper. “Maybe happiness comes to you for the same reason as bad,” she said. “It’s about understanding more: you learn a lot of things when you struggle and other things when you are what the world calls successful. Or maybe something just happens. Some days it’s cold and some days it’s hot. “