MAPLEWOOD, NJ (AP) – Olympia Dukakis, the veteran stage and film actress whose flair for maternal roles helped her win an Oscar as Cher’s mother in the romantic comedy Moonstruck, has died. She was 89 years old.
Dukakis died at her home in New York City on Saturday morning, according to Allison Levy, her agent at Innovative Artists. One cause of death was not released immediately, but her family said in a statement that she has not been healthy for months.
Dukakis won her Oscar through a surprising chain of circumstances, beginning with author Nora Ephron’s recommendation to play Meryl Streep’s mother in the film version of Ephron’s book Heartburn. Dukakis got the role, but her scenes were cut from the film. To make amends, director Mike Nichols cast them in his hit “Social Security”. Director Norman Jewison saw her in this role and cast her in “Moonstruck”.
Dukakis won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Cher took home the trophy for Best Actress.
She referred to her victory in 1988 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, “OK, Michael, let’s go!”
In 1989, her Oscar statuette was stolen from Dukakis’ home in New Jersey.
“We’re not demanding,” said her husband, actor Louis Zorich, at the time. “We kept the Oscar in the kitchen.”
Dukakis, who was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, had longed to be an actor at an early age and hoped to go to college to study theater. Her immigrant Greek parents insisted that she get a more hands-on education, so she studied physiotherapy at Boston University on a grant from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, she worked at an understaffed hospital in Marmet, West Virginia, and the Infectious Disease Hospital in Boston.
But the lure of 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 the quiet world of science to a world where students routinely yelled at teachers.
“I thought they were all crazy,” she said. “It was wonderful.”
Her first school performance, however, was a disaster as she sat on stage without a word.
After a teacher cured her stage fright, she started working in summer theaters. In 1960 she made her off-Broadway debut and two years later she played a small role in “The Aspern Papers” on Broadway.
After three years with a regional theater in Boston, Dukakis moved to New York and married Zorich.
There were few acting jobs in the early years of their marriage, and Dukakis worked as a bartender, waitress, and other jobs.
She and Zorich had three children – Christina, Peter and Stefan. Deciding that raising children in New York on limited incomes was too difficult, they moved the family to a centuries-old home in Montclair, a suburb of New York, New York.
Her Oscar win kept the maternal film roles upright. She was Kirstie Alley’s mother in Look Who’s Talking and its sequel Look Who’s Talking Too, the sardonic widow in Steel Magnolias and the arrogant wife of Jack Lemmon (and mother of Ted Danson) in Dad.
Her most recent projects included the 2019 TV miniseries “Tales of the City” and the upcoming film “Not to Forgot”.
But the stage was her first love.
“It wasn’t my goal to win the Oscar,” she commented after her “Moonstruck” victory. “It was the big part to play.”
She achieved this 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”.
In 2000 she was on Broadway in Martin Sherman’s one-actor play “Rose” and received a nomination for the Drama Desk Award for the role of an 80-year-old survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.
For two decades she directed the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, New Jersey, specializing in classical drama.
Zorich died in January 2018 at the age of 93.
Dukakis is survived by her children Christina, Stefan and Peter; her brother Apollo Dukakis; and four grandchildren.
The late Associated Press writer Bob Thomas in Los Angeles was the lead author of this obituary.
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