MAPLEWOOD, NJ (AP) – Olympia Dukakis, the veteran stage and film actress whose talent for mother roles helped her win an Oscar when Cher’s mother in the romantic comedy “Moonstruck” has passed away. 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.
Dukakis won her Oscar through a surprising chain of circumstances, starting with author Nora Ephron’s recommendation to play Meryl Streep’s mother in the film version of Ephron’s book “Heartburn.” Dukakis got the part, but her scenes were cut from the movie. To make up for it, director Mike Nichols cast her in his hit play “Social Security.” Director Norman Jewison saw her in that role and cast her in ‘Moonstruck’.
Dukakis won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and Cher took home the Best Actress trophy.
She referred to her 1988 victory as “the year of the Dukakii,” because it was also the year that 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, “Okay, Michael, let’s go!”
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Dukakis had longed to be an actress from an early age and had hoped to study drama in college. Her Greek immigrant parents insisted she get a more hands-on education, so she studied physical therapy at Boston University with a grant from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
After receiving her undergraduate degree, she worked at an understaffed hospital in Marmet, West Virginia, and at the Hospital for Contagious Diseases in Boston.
But the theater’s appeal eventually led her to study drama at Boston University.
It was a shocking change, she told an interviewer in 1988, noting that she had gone from the calm world of science to one where students routinely yelled at the teachers.
“I thought they were all crazy,” she said. “It was amazing.”
Her first performance in graduate school, however, was a disaster as she sat on stage wordlessly.
After a teacher helped cure her stage fright, she began working in the summer stock theaters. In 1960 she made her off-Broadway debut and two years later she had a small role 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 their early years 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 limited-income children in New York, so they moved the family to a century-old house in Montclair, a New York suburb of New Jersey.
Her Oscar win kept the maternal movie roles coming. She was the mother of Kirstie Alley in Look Who’s Talking and its sequel Look Who’s Talking Too, the sardonic widow in Steel Magnolias and the predominant wife of Jack Lemmon (and mother of Ted Danson) in Dad.
Her recent projects have included the 2019 TV miniseries ‘Tales of the City’ and the upcoming movie ‘Not to Forgot’.
But the stage was her first love.
“It was not my ambition to win the Oscar”, she said after her victory with “Moonstruck”. “It was to play the big parts.”
She did so in New York productions such 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.”
For two decades she directed the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, New Jersey, specializing in classical dramas.
Zorich died in January 2018 at the age of 93.
While her passion was on stage, a line from her Oscar-winning performance as Rose nonetheless seemed fitting: “I just want you to know whatever you’re doing, you’re going to die like everyone else.”
The late Associated Press writer Bob Thomas in Los Angeles was the primary author of this obituary.