May 10, 2021

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Oscar-winning movie star Olympia Dukakis dies at 89

File photo: Actress Olympia Dukakis
Image Credit: Reuters

Olympia Dukakis, a theater and veteran film actress whose penchant for maternal roles helped her win an Oscar as Cher’s mother in the romantic comedy Moonstruck, has died at the age of 89.

Dukakis died Saturday morning at her home in New York City, according to Alison Levy, her agent at Innovative Artists. The cause of death was not immediately revealed, but her family said in a statement that she had been in deteriorating health for months.

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Olympia Dukakis
Photo Credit: Agence France-Presse

Dukakis won an Academy Award through a surprising series of circumstances, starting with writer Nora Efron’s recommendation that she play Meryl Streep’s mother in the film version of Efron’s book “Heartburn.” Dukakis got the role, but her scenes were cut from the movie. To compensate for it, director Mike Nichols chose her in his hit play “Social Security”. Director Norman Jewison saw her in this role and cast her in “Moonstruck”.

Dukakis won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and Cher won the Best Actress award.

She referred to her victory in 1988 as “the year of Dukakii” because it was also the year of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, her cousin, was the Democratic presidential candidate. At the party, she raised the Oscar high above her head and yelled, “Okay, Michael, let’s go!”

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Olympia Dukakis with Oscar
Image Credit: AP

In 1989, her little Oscar statuette was stolen from the Dukakis home in New Jersey.

Her husband, actor Louis Zurich, said at the time, “We are not pretentious.” “We kept the Oscars in the kitchen.”

Dukakis, born in Lowell, Massachusetts, had longed to become an actor from a young age and had hoped to study drama in college. Her Greek immigrant parents insisted on continuing her practical education, so she studied physical therapy at Boston University on a scholarship from the National Polio Foundation.

After earning her bachelor’s degree, she worked at a understaffed hospital in Marmite, West Virginia, and at the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Boston.

But the lure of theater eventually led her to study drama at Boston University.

She told an interviewer in 1988 that it was a shocking change, stating that she had moved from the quiet world of science to a world in which students routinely yelled at teachers.

“I thought they were all crazy,” she said. “it was amazing.”

Her first graduate performance was disastrous, as she sat in silence on stage.

After the teacher helped treat her theatrical horror, she began working in summer stock theaters. In 1960, she made her debut Off-Broadway and two years later she had a small role in “The Aspern Papers” on Broadway.

After three years with a provincial theater in Boston, the Dukakis moved to New York and married Zorich.

During their early years of marriage, acting jobs were scarce, and Dukakis worked as a waiter, waitress, and other jobs.

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File – Olympia Dukakis, center, with members of the Hall Theater Company, which she and her actor husband Louis Zuresh helped find in Montclair, NJ, on November 21, 1973. The actress who often played the weary characters of the world and wisdom passed away, who won An Academy Award for her role as Just A Woman, the Italian-American mother in “Moonstruck”, Saturday May 1, 2021 in New York City. She was 89 years old. (Larry Morris / The New York Times)
Image Credit: NYT

She and Zorich have three children – Christina, Peter, and Stephan. They decided it was too difficult to raise children in New York with little income, so they moved the family to a century-old home in Montclair, a New Jersey suburb of New York.

Her Oscar win led to the continued roles of the film mother. Kirstie Alley’s mother was “Look Who’s Talking” and its sequel, “Look Who’s Talking Too,” the mock widow in “Steel Magnolias” and the arrogant wife of Jack Lemon (Ted Danson’s mother) in “Dad.”

Her recent projects have included the 2019 short TV series “Tales of the City” and the upcoming movie “Not to Forgot”.

But the stage was her first love.

“My ambition was not to win an Oscar,” she commented after winning “Moonstruck”. “It was to play a great role.”

She has accomplished this in New York productions such as Bertolt Brecht, Eugene O’Neill and The Rose Tattoo, and Tennessee Williams.

In 2000, she was on Broadway in Martin Sherman’s play “Rose”, and earned a Drama Desk nomination for the role of an 80-year-old survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.

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Olympia Dukakis
Image Credit: NYT

For two decades she ran the Hall Theater Company in Montclair, New Jersey, specializing in classic dramas.

Zurich passed away in January 2018 at the age of 93.

Dukakis survived her children Christina, Stephan, Peter, brother Apollo Dukakis, and four grandchildren.