Oscar Actors: Dukakis, Olympia–Best Supporting Actress, Moonstruck, Dies at 89

 

Olympia Dukakis - 2006 TIFF Portrait Session - Getty - H 2018
Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

The vet actress appeared in ‘Steel Magnolias,’ ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’ and as a transgender landlady on ‘Tales of the City.’

Olympia Dukakis, who won supporting Oscar for her performance as Cher’s nitpicking Brooklyn mother in Moonstruck, died Saturday. She was 89.

Dukakis died in New York, her brother Apollo wrote on Facebook. “Aftermmonths of failing health she is finally at peace and with her husband Louis.”

The late-blooming star also was known for her turn as Clairee Belcher, a woman of fiber and the widowed friend of Ouiser Boudreaux (Shirley MacLaine), in Herbert Ross’ Steel Magnolias (1989), and she portrayed a personnel director in Working Girl (1988) and a principal in Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995).

Dukakis taught drama at NYU for more than 15 years and was a founding member of two regional theaters: The Charles Playhouse in Boston and the Whole Theater in Montclair, New Jersey.

Her husband of 55 years, stage and character actor Louis Zorich (Paul Reiser’s father Mad About You), died in January 2018 at age 93.

She was a first cousin of former Massachusetts governor and 1988 U.S. presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.

After years on the stage, Dukakis, then in her mid-fifties, scored as the nagging Sicilian wife and mother Rose Castorini in Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck (1987). She won  Golden Globe and top honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review for her career-defining performance.

“My daughter was going to college on credit cards when Moonstruck hit,” she said in the 2013 documentary Olympia Dukakis: Undefined. “I didn’t know about acting, I didn’t know about anything.”

Dukakis made a career playing irritating moms, doing just that opposite Kirstie Alley in the three Look Who’s Talking films released in 1989, ’90 and ’93 and then taking Ted Danson to task in Dad (1989).

“The fun part is that people pass me on the street and yell lines from my movies,” she said in 1991 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “For Moonstruck, they say, ‘Your life is going down the toilet!’

Or from Dad, they say, ‘How much are those pork chops?’ They say, ‘Do you know who you are?’ It’s real funny.”

In 1986-87, Dukakis starred on Broadway as a Jewish octogenarian (and Marlo Thomas’ mother) in Mike Nichols’ long-running comedy Social Security. (Jewison saw her on stage in that and then hired her for Moonstruck.)

She also appeared on the big stage in The Aspen PapersAbraham CochraneWho’s Who in Hell and in the one-woman show Rose, about a Holocaust survivor.

She revered the great classical roles of the theater, reflected in off-Broadway credits like ElectraTitus Andronicus and Peer Gynt(the last one came oppositeStacy Keach with the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park).

Dukakis won Obie Awards for her work in Bertolt Brecht’s A Man’s a Man and Christopher Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo and starred in The Memorandum and Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class.

A three-time Emmy nominee, Dukakis played the transgender landlady Anna Madrigal on Armistead Maupin’s four Tales From the City miniseries/series (the most recent one premiered in June 2019 on Netflix).

She asked to speak with “a human being who’s gone through this” when she arrived to play the character the first time: “They found someone. She came, and when she opened the door, she was, like, 6-foot-2, with hands that could wrap around a football, but a soft voice. Lovely breasts. She walks into the room, she sits down, and … she was a sex therapist, and she evidently helps people with these transitions. And I asked her, ‘What was it that you wanted so much that made it possible for you to go through this incredible journey?’

“And she said to me: ‘All my life, I yearned for the friendship of women.’ And I started to cry. I couldn’t help it. I don’t know what I expected her to say, but not that. And I totally understood. To have your voice silenced, to not be able to be able to speak and be who you are … Who doesn’t know about that? So that’s how I was able to play Anna Madrigal.”

Dukakis was born June 20, 1931, in Lowell, Massachusetts. Her father, a Greek immigrant, launched a drama club to stage the classic Greek plays. After graduating from Boston University, where she was New England fencing champion–she also was good at basketball, tennis, pingpong–she worked as a physical therapist to earn money to get her masters in theater arts.

After attaining degree, Dukakis came to New York in 1958 and taught drama at NYU while pursuing parts.

Her first TV performances came in 1962 in The Nurses and Dr. Kildare.

Playing Mothers

In Peter Yates’ John and Mary (1969), she portrayed Dustin Hoffman’s mom, and she was a mother again, this time Joseph Bologna’s, in Made for Each Other (1971).

Her work also includes Jules Dassin’s The Rehearsal (1974), Death Wish (1974), Rich Kids (1979), The Wanderers (1979), The Idolmaker (1980), Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994) — in a cameo as herself at a chaotic Oscar telecast — Mighty Aphrodite (1995), 3 Needles (2005), Whiskey School (2005), Jesus, Mary and Joey (2005), In the Land of Women (2007), Cloudburst (2011) and The Infiltrator (2016).