MAPLEWOOD, N.J. (AP) — Stage and screen veteran Olympia Dukakis, whose maternal flair helped her win an Oscar as Cher’s mother in the romantic comedy “Moonstruck,” has died at 89.
Her agent, Allison Levy, said Dukakis died Saturday morning in her home in New York City. Cause of death was not released, but her family said she had been in failing health for months.
Dukakis won her Oscar through a surprising chain of events. Author Nora Ephron recommended her to play Meryl Streep’s mother in the film version of Ephron’s book “Heartburn.” Dukakis got the role, but her scenes were cut. To make it up to her, director Mike Nichols cast her in his hit play “Social Security.” Director Norman Jewison saw her in the role and cast her in “Moonstruck,” for which she won the best supporting actress Oscar to Cher’s best actress trophy.
She referred to the 1988 win as “the year of the Dukakii,” because it was also the year her cousin, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, was named the Democratic presidential candidate.
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Dukakis yearned to be an actor from an early age and hoped to study drama in college. But her Greek immigrant parents insisted she pursue a more practical education, so she earned a degree in physical therapy at Boston University, going on to work at hospitals in West Virginia and Boston.
But she studied drama, too. In 1988, she recalled going from the calm of science to students screaming at teachers: “I thought they were all nuts. It was wonderful.”
Her first graduate school performance, however, was a disaster as she sat wordless on the stage. After a teacher helped cure her stage fright, she began working in summer stock theaters, making her off-Broadway debut in 1960, followed two years later by her Broadway debut.
After three years of regional theater, Dukakis moved to New York and married actor Louis Zorich. During their first years together, acting jobs were scarce, and she worked as a bartender and waitress.
She and Zorich had three children — Christina, Peter and Stefan — but decided it was too risky to raise them in New York and so moved to a century-old house in a New Jersey suburb of New York.
Dukakis’ Oscar kept the motherly film roles coming. She played Kirstie Alley’s mom in “Look Who’s Talking” and its sequel, the sardonic widow in “Steel Magnolias,” and Jack Lemmon’s overbearing wife in “Dad.” Her last projects included the 2019 TV miniseries “Tales of the City” and the upcoming film “Not to Forget.”
But the stage was her first love: “My ambition wasn’t to win the Oscar,” she said. “It was to play the great parts.” She did so in such productions 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.” In 2000, she appeared on Broadway in Martin Sherman’s one-actor play “Rose,” about a survivor of the World War II Warsaw Ghetto, earning a Drama Desk Award nomination. For two decades she ran the Whole Theater Company, specializing in classic dramas.
Zorich died in 2018 at age 93. Dukakis is survived by her children, brother Apollo Dukakis, and four grandchildren.