Olympia Dukakis, Oscar-winning ‘Moonstruck’ actress, dies at 89
Olympia Dukakis, a character actress best known for her Oscar-winning supporting turn in Norman Jewison’s “Moonstruck” and for her role as the wealthy widow in “Steel Magnolias,” has died. She was 89.
Dukakis’ brother, Apollo Dukakis, confirmed her death in a Facebook post, writing: “My beloved sister, Olympia Dukakis, passed away this morning in New York City. After many months of failing health she is finally at peace and with her Louis.”
Her talent agent, Allison Levy, also confirmed the actress’ death to NBC News.
Dukakis was 56 when she came to prominence overnight thanks to her Oscar-winning turn in “Moonstruck,” in which she played, with an extraordinary comic ethnic gusto characteristic of the movie as a whole, the mother of Cher’s character. The Washington Post singled out Dukakis for praise: Cher and Nicolas Cage are “backed by an equally quirky cast of marvelous supporting players — especially Olympia Dukakis, whose role as Loretta’s world-weary mother Rose is expected to get Oscar’s attention.”
She referred to her 1988 win as “the year of the Dukakii” because it was also the year Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, her cousin, was the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. At the ceremony, she held her Oscar high over her head and called out: “OK, Michael, let’s go!”
Dukakis, who also did a lot of television work, was thrice Oscar nominated, first for the 1991 TV movie “Lucky Day,” the second time for “Armistead Maupin’s More Tales of the City” in 1998 and the third time in 1999 for the miniseries “Joan of Arc.”
Probably made before her Oscar changed her fortunes, Mike Nichol’s “Working Girl” returned Dukakis to the sort of role she had had on a regular basis for much of her career: She was 12th credited for her role as the personnel director.
By the next year, however, she was third-billed, behind John Travolta and Kirstie Alley, in baby comedy “Look Who’s Talking,” in which she played the pregnant Alley’s mother in a manner reminiscent of her work in “Moonstruck.” She returned for the 1990 sequel.
Herbert Ross’ 1989 hit “Steel Magnolias,” starring Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine and Dukakis, drew women of all ages with its effective sentimentality and even more effective one-liners, but Rolling Stone said, “For the real fun, stick with MacLaine as the town crank and Dukakis as the wealthy widow who goads her to distraction; they’re priceless.”
The actress starred with Diane Ladd and Ellen Burstyn in the Bill Duke-directed 1993 film “The Cemetery Club,” about three Jewish women all of whom find themselves widowed over the course of a year and must reconstruct their lives, with Dukakis’ character prickly and strong-willed.
Dukakis was part of the Greek chorus that was either a charming conceit or an ungainly one, depending on whom you ask, in Woody Allen’s 1995 romantic comedy “Mighty Aphrodite,” in which the chorus comments on the Allen character’s infidelity. Also that year she appeared as the skeptical, hard-nosed principal in sentimental Richard Dreyfuss vehicle “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” and as the mother of a gay man in the AIDS drama “Jeffrey.”
The next year she had a small role in Danish auteur Bille August’s spiritually based period film “Jerusalem.” The actress also had a small but powerful role in the 2005 father-son road movie “The Thing About My Folks,” starring Peter Falk and Paul Reiser.
In 2006, Dukakis was part of the ensemble cast of “The Great New Wonderful,” a series of vignettes about life in New York City a year after the 9/11 attacks, and she did excellent work in Sarah Polley’s Alzheimer’s drama “Away From Her,” starring Julie Christie, in which Dukakis’ character reveals an unwaveringly realistic view of a difficult situation — her husband is an Alzheimer’s patient as well.
She played a senile grandmother in Jon Kasdan’s “In the Land of Women,” starring Adam Brody, Kristen Stewart and Meg Ryan. But much more interesting was writer-director Thomas Fitzgerald’s 2011 film “Cloudburst,” in which Dukakis starred with Brenda Fricker as a lesbian couple who travel to Canada in order to get married. Variety said, “Dukakis outdoes even her most memorable earlier turns as Stella, the irrepressible old dame determined to spring her lover free.”
Her TV work included playing Anna Madrigal, the flamboyant matriarch presiding over an apartment house in San Francisco, in HBO’s 1993 “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City” and the 1998 sequel “Armistead Maupin’s More Tales of the City,” for which she drew an Emmy nomination; and 2001’s third entry “Further Tales of the City.”
Among the many TV movies in which Dukakis appeared was HBO and BBC’s “The Last of the Blonde Bombshells” (2000), starring with Judi Dench and Ian Holm and focusing on a reunion of a group of women who formed an orchestra in London during WWII.
Dukakis was a series regular on the brief 2004 CBS sitcom “Center of the Universe,” starring John Goodman and Jean Smart. She also guested on numerous TV series, providing voices on “Frasier” and “The Simpsons” and appearing on “Numbers”; “Law & Order: SVU,” as a defense attorney; and HBO detective comedy “Bored to Death.”
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Dukakis graduated from Boston University and studied acting with Peter Kass in Boston.
Dukakis’ first experience on Broadway was as an understudy in 1962 on the original play “The Aspern Papers,” written by Michael Redgrave based on a story by Henry James and starring Maurice Evans and Wendy Hiller. Dukakis won an Obie in 1963 for her work Off Broadway in Bertolt Brechlt’s “Man Equals Man.” She hit the stage in 1964 in the one-nighter “Abraham Cochrane.” She returned to Broadway in 1974 in Peter Ustinov’s “Who’s Who in Hell,” but its run proved brief as well. Much more successful was her 1986-87 run in Andrew Bergman’s “Social Security,” directed by Mike Nichols and also starring Ron Silver, Marlo Thomas and Joanna Gleason. In 2000 she starred on Broadway in the one-woman show “Rose,” in which she played an 80-year-old Jewish woman in Miami Beach who talks to the audience of her life, including her experiences in the Holocaust.
She made her television debut in 1962 on an episode of “The Doctors and the Nurses,” also guesting on “Dr. Kildare” the same year. The actress made her bigscreen debut in the 1964 film short “Twice a Man.” Over the next 10 years she had a number of small, often uncredited, roles in films including “Death Wish.” In the Peter Yates’ 1969 film “John and Mary,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow, Dukakis played the Hoffman character’s mother; she also had a supporting role in 1971’s “Made for Each Other,” starring Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna.
Dukakis was one of the stars of a 1974 political film by writer-director Jules Dassin called “The Rehearsal,” concerning the massacre of students protesting the ruling junta in Greece; many famous people were involved with the film, including Laurence Olivier, Arthur Miller, Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell and Arthur Millet, but by the time the film was completed the junta fell and it was never publicly seen in this country until decades later. In 1975, the actress appeared in a “Great Performances” presentation of a production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” that also starred Frank Langella, Blythe Danner and Lee Grant. She had supporting roles in Philip Kaufman’s “The Wanderers” in 1979 and in Taylor Hackford’s “The Idolmaker” in 1980. But despite years earning credits in film, on television and onstage, the actress did not break through until “Moonstruck” in 1987.
Much later, Dukakis taught master classes in acting throughout the U.S. and elsewhere. In July 2020, a documentary feature about her life, titled “Olympia,” was released in the U.S.
Dukakis’ husband, actor Louis Zorich, died in 2018. She is survived by daughter Christina Zorich, an actress; and sons Peter and Stefan Zorich.