Olympia Dukakis, the veteran theater and film actor whose flair for maternal roles helped her win an Oscar as Cher’s mother in the romantic comedy Dreamer, is dead. She was 89 years old.
Dukakis died Saturday morning at her home in New York, according to Allison Levy, her agent at Innovative Artists. A cause of death was not immediately revealed.
She won her Oscar thanks to 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. Stomach pains. Dukakis got the part, but his scenes were cut from the film. To make up for it, director Mike Nichols chose her in his hit play Social Security. Director Norman Jewison saw her in this role and chose her Dreamer.
Dukakis won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Cher won the Trophy for Best Actress.
She called her 1988 victory “the year of the Dukakii” because it was also the year Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, her cousin, was the presidential candidate for the US Democratic Party. At the ceremony, she held her Oscar above her head and shouted, “OK, Michael, let’s go!”
Dukakis, born in Lowell, Massachusetts, had aspired to be an actor from an early age and hoped to study acting in college. Her Greek immigrant parents insisted that she pursue a more practical education, so she studied physiotherapy at Boston University on a scholarship from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
After earning her bachelor’s degree, she worked at an understaffed hospital in Marmet, W.Va., and the Communicable Diseases Hospital in Boston. But the allure of the theater eventually led her to study drama at Boston University.
It was a shocking change, she told an interviewer in 1988, noting that she had moved from a quiet world of science to a world where students regularly shouted at teachers.
“I thought they were all crazy,” she says. “It was wonderful.”
The scene was the first love
In 1960 she made her off-Broadway debut and two years later played a small role in Aspen papers on Broadway. After three years in a Boston regional theater, Dukakis moved to New York and married actor Louis Zorich.
During their first 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 children in New York on a limited income, so they moved the family to a century-old house in Montclair, a New Jersey suburb of New York. Zorich died in January 2018 at the age of 93.
Dukakis’ Oscar victory maintained motherly roles in the movies. She was the mother of Kirstie Alley in Look who’s talking and its sequel, Look who’s talking too, the sardonic widow of Steel magnolia trees and the domineering wife of Jack Lemmon (and mother of Ted Danson) in Dad.
His recent projects included the 2019 TV miniseries Tales of the city and the next movie To not forget.
But the scene was her first love. For two decades, she ran the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, New Jersey, specializing in classic dramas.
“My ambition was not to win the Oscar,” Dukakis commented after her Dreamer to win. “It was to play the big roles.”
She accomplished this in New York productions like Bertolt Brecht Mother Courage and her children, Eugene O’Neill’s Long day at night and Tennessee Williams The rose tattoo.