Olympia Dukakis, Oscar Winner for ‘Moonstruck,’ Dies at 89

By Anita Gates

Olympia Dukakis, the self-assured, raspy-voiced actress who often played world-weary and worldly wise characters, and who won an Academy Award for her role as just such a woman in “Moonstruck,” died Saturday at her home in New York City. She was 89.

Her death was announced by her brother, actor Apollo Dukakis, who said she had been in hospice care.

Dukakis was 56 and an East Coast stage veteran of three decades when she starred in John Patrick Shanley’s “Moonstruck” (1987), a romantic comedy about a young Italian American widow, Loretta (played by Cher), whose life is turned upside down when she falls in love with her fiance’s brother (Nicolas Cage). 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 dull fiancé. When Loretta says no, Rose replies: “Good. When you love them, they drive you crazy, because they know they can.”

The role won Dukakis the Oscar for best supporting actress (Cher also won) and a host of other prizes in 1988 — the same year her cousin Michael Dukakis won the Democratic presidential nomination. The award led to more film roles.

She played a catty Southern widow in the mostly female ensemble cast of “Steel Magnolias” (1989); the mother of Kirstie Alley’s character in the three “Look Who’s Talking” movies (1989-93); the pot-growing transgender San Francisco landlord Anna Madrigal, from 1993 to 2019, in the four television miniseries made from Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” stories; and Frank Sinatra’s mother, Dolly, in the 1992 television movie “Sinatra.”

Those were far from her first mature roles. At 40 she had played 36-year-old Joseph Bologna’s mother in “Made for Each Other” (1971), and at 38 she was 32-year-old Dustin Hoffman’s mother in “John and Mary” (1969).

“I always played older,” she told The New York Times in 2004. “I think it was the voice.”

She played various ages onstage, where her career began. And in a way, she owed it all to Nora Ephron.

Ephron saw Dukakis in Christopher Durang’s off-Broadway play “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” and decided she wanted Dukakis in Mike Nichols’ 1986 film “Heartburn,” based on Ephron’s roman à clef. Nichols then cast Dukakis in his next Broadway project, “Social Security.” Norman Jewison saw “Social Security” and cast Dukakis in a film he was about to direct: “Moonstruck.”

Despite the awards and her other screen successes, Dukakis never gave up theater work. In 2011 she starred in an off-Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.” Charles Isherwood, reviewing her performance in The Times, called her “macabre, hilarious and weirdly touching,” with a “bullying bravado that commands attention.” The next year she played Prospero (Prospera, actually) in “The Tempest” for Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts.

Olympia Dukakis was born on June 20, 1931, in Lowell, Massachusetts, the older of two children of Constantine and Alexandra (Christos) Dukakis, both Greek immigrants. Her father worked in various settings, including a munitions factory, a printing business and the quality control department of Lever Bros. He also founded an amateur theater company.

Olympia Dukakis graduated from Boston University with a degree in physical therapy and practiced that occupation, traveling to West Virginia, Minnesota and Texas during the worst days of the midcentury polio epidemic. Eventually she earned enough money to return to BU to study theater.

Even before she received her MFA, she threw herself into her new career, making her stage debut in a 1956 summer stock production of “Outward Bound” in Maine. 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 came in 1962, on the television series “Dr. Kildare.” Her first movie role was an uncredited one as a 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’s a Man” and another, 22 years later, for playing the grandmother of Durang’s character in “The Marriage of Bette and Boo.”

Along 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 1973 in Montclair, New Jersey, where they lived while bringing up their children. The company produced the likes of Chekhov, Coward and Williams for almost two decades. Dukakis also taught acting at New York University.

Zorich died in 2018. In addition to her brother, she is survived by their three children, Christina, Peter and Stefan Zorich; and four grandchildren.

In recent years she played recurring characters on several television series, including “Bored to Death,” in which her character had a torrid affair with Zach Galifianakis’. In her last film, “Not to Forget,” scheduled to open this year, she plays a judge who sentences a millennial to care for his grandmother.

When The Toronto Sun asked her in 2003 whether she was planning to retire, she answered: “From what? I love this chaotic, contradictory, loving mess that has been my life.”

She reflected on her success in a 2001 interview with the London newspaper The Guardian.

“Maybe good fortune comes to you for the same reason as bad,” she said. “It’s all about understanding more: You learn a lot of things when you’re struggling, and other things when you’re what the world calls successful. Or perhaps it’s just something that happens. Some days it’s cold, and some days it’s hot.”

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