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Olympia Dukakis, late-blooming Oscar winner for ‘Moonstruck,’ dies at 89

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/1/2021 Adam Bernstein
a close up of Olympia Dukakis wearing a hat and smiling at the camera: Actress Olympia Dukakis in 2008. © Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images Actress Olympia Dukakis in 2008.

Olympia Dukakis, a versatile actress who toiled in obscurity onstage for decades before her Oscar-winning breakthrough at 56 as Cher’s sardonic mother in the romantic comedy “Moonstruck,” died May 1 at her home in New York City. She was 89.

The death was confirmed by her representative, Allison Levy, who did not specify the cause.

“Moonstruck” (1987) — about the exasperation, disappointment and unpredictability of love — was a light comedic showcase for Cher, Nicolas Cage, Danny Aiello, Vincent Gardenia and Ms. Dukakis as Brooklynites in the throes of agony and ecstasy.

As the tart-tongued matriarch Rose Castorini, Ms. Dukakis suffers the infidelity of her neglectful husband (played by Gardenia), a prosperous plumbing contractor, and finds herself the object of the sexual fascination of a womanizing professor (John Mahoney), whose momentary ardor she gently tames.

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The film received an Oscar nomination for best picture, and Cher won for best actress, Ms. Dukakis for best supporting actress and John Patrick Shanley for best original screenplay. Ms. Dukakis’s critical and commercial triumph — Variety observed that her “warm, lyrical performance . . . provides the finest moments in the film” — brought a long-simmering career to a boil.

“I’ve been ‘discovered’ about six times, y’know,” she once told The Washington Post.

[Danny Aiello, actor who excelled as blue-collar heavies and hotheads, dies at 86]

At the Academy Awards ceremony in 1988, she used the platform to promote the presidential prospects of her cousin, then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (“Okay, Michael, let’s go!”). He later received the Democratic nomination, in what they both called the “year of the Dukakii.”

Her success in “Moonstruck” made her a premier character actress in Hollywood.

She was in a tightknit circle of Southern belles in “Steel Magnolias” (1989) and played a high school principal opposite Richard Dreyfuss in “Mr. Holland’s Opus” (1995). She also attracted a devoted following as the marijuana-harvesting, transgender San Francisco landlady Mrs. Madrigal in “Tales of the City,” a miniseries based on Armistead Maupin’s books that has aired in various incarnations since the 1990s.

Mostly, Ms. Dukakis specialized in wise, meddlesome or cynical mothers. She was Jack Lemmon’s dominating wife in “Dad” and Kirstie Alley’s mother in the verbal-baby franchise launched by “Look Who’s Talking” (both 1989). She earned an Emmy Award nomination playing a mother who is a recovering alcoholic in the ABC-TV movie “Lucky Day” (1991) and portrayed Frank Sinatra’s mother, Dolly, in the 1992 CBS miniseries “Sinatra.”

Before “Moonstruck,” Ms. Dukakis subsisted as a stage actress, playing classical and modern tragic parts from Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra to Eugene O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone. She maxed out the family credit cards to pay her daughter’s college tuition and took out additional mortgages on her home in Montclair, N.J., the New York City suburb where she ran an acclaimed regional theater for almost 20 years on a shoestring.

“I can buy books without thinking twice,” she enthused to the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “My son forced me to buy myself a house by the sea — a place on the Caribbean island of St. Maartens that I’ve named ‘Moonstruck.’ Before, I would never have spent money on something like this. . . . I only dealt with necessities. Still, I’m renting it out, using it as an investment. I’m too much of a Greek — some part of me can’t do it all the way.”

She added: “If I don’t work for a couple of weeks, I start thinking, ‘That’s it.’ It’s ridiculous, I know . . . but these things are very ephemeral.”

Olympia Dukakis standing in front of a curtain: Olympia Dukakis holds her Oscar in 1988. © Lennox McLendon/Associated Press Olympia Dukakis holds her Oscar in 1988.

Olympia Mary Dukakis was born June 20, 1931, to Greek immigrants in Lowell, Mass., and grew up in the Boston suburbs of Somerville and Arlington. Her father trained as a lawyer but failed the bar exam. Reduced to working in a textile mill, he was prone to rage, Ms. Dukakis recalled. Her mother, who also labored in mills, was physically abusive.

But both parents expressed an appreciation for aesthetic pleasures. Her father belonged to a theater group in his youth, and her mother played piano.

“Those are the parents that make artists,” Ms. Dukakis told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002. “We’d go to the beach with my mother, take 114 streetcars and pots of food. And we’d wait for the sunset. For her there was no going before she watched the sun go down. Was she an artist? No. Was she a philosopher? No. But her spirit hungered for that beauty.”

Ms. Dukakis was a junior fencing champion and excelled on the high school rifle team. She also nurtured an early interest in performing, sparked by playing the white-robed Spirit of Greece in an American Red Cross wartime benefit show when she was about 11.

Her parents encouraged her to pursue a more practical career. At the height of the polio epidemic, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (later renamed the March of Dimes) awarded her a scholarship to study physical therapy at Boston University.

After graduating in 1953, she worked in sanitariums while completing a master’s degree in fine arts at BU, awarded in 1957. She then helped start the Charles Playhouse in Boston before heading for New York a few years later.

She received a 1963 Obie award for playing the Widow Begbick in “A Man’s a Man,” an off-Broadway revival of Bertolt Brecht’s play set during the British Raj in India, and she worked under producer Joseph Papp in off-Broadway productions of Sophocles’ “Electra,” Vaclav Havel’s “The Memorandum” and Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt.” She also was a regular at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in western Massachusetts.

In 1962, she married actor Louis Zorich, later known for playing Paul Reiser’s father on the 1990s sitcom “Mad About You.” They settled in Montclair in the early 1970s and, with Ms. Dukakis’s actor brother, Apollo, organized the Whole Theatre in a church basement.

They soon refurbished an old bank building and went on to stage works by Tennessee Williams, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Anton Chekhov, among others. Ms. Dukakis was the resident dervish: She answered phones, raised money from state and federal agencies and local businesses, served as producing artistic director, directed shows, and starred in at least one play a year.

“I decided that when I got to be 65, I wanted to be able to say I’d done a substantial body of work,” she told People magazine in 1988, “that I wasn’t on the fringe waiting for somebody to give me the opportunity to act.”

When her husband was almost killed in a car crash in 1977, leaving him unable to work for two years, Ms. Dukakis sought extra income. She started teaching at New York University’s theater department, appeared in Aunt Millie’s spaghetti sauce commercials and took a recurring role as a therapist on the soap opera “Search for Tomorrow.”

She won her second Obie award for her portrayal of a dimwitted matriarch subjected to withering scorn by her husband in Christopher Durang’s dark comedy “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” (1985). The next year, she was Marlo Thomas’s octogenarian mother outstaying her welcome in “Social Security,” an Andrew Bergman comedy directed by Mike Nichols that ran on Broadway for 388 performances.

[Mike Nichols, ‘The Graduate’ director, dies at 83]

“Armed with a walker and a running gag involving sourballs, Miss Dukakis is a formidable paragon of guilt-inflicting piety as the mother, even when she must contentiously deliver an unimpeachable sermon . . . about a senior citizen’s right to be ‘alive,’ ” New York Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote.

That same year, she was cast as Meryl Streep’s daft mother in the film “Heartburn,” also directed by Nichols, but her part — poised to mark her breakout — was scissored from the final version. Then film director Norman Jewison, who had seen her twice in “Social Security,” hired her for “Moonstruck” without even the formality of a screen test.

Although her theater in New Jersey was shuttered in 1990 amid a recession, Ms. Dukakis continued to appear onstage, notably on Broadway as a Holocaust survivor who runs a Miami Beach hotel in Martin Sherman’s monologue “Rose” (2000).

Among her film roles, she played Jocasta, part of the Greek chorus, in Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite” (1995), the understanding wife of an Alzheimer’s patient in “Away From Her” (2006), and a thick-skinned aunt of Bryan Cranston’s undercover drug agent in “The Infiltrator” (2016).

Her husband died in 2018. In addition to her brother, survivors include three children — Christina Zorich, Peter Zorich and Stefan — and four grandchildren.

Ms. Dukakis wrote a memoir, “Ask Me Again Tomorrow: A Life in Progress,” published in 2003.

“Success has never been easy for me,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “I was pushing the Oscar away the moment I accepted it. What I finally realized is that the good, the bad, are all a part of the journey. People think of an Oscar as the culmination of your life, payment for so many sacrifices. To me, it’s less about reward than evolution.”

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