MAPLEWOOD, NJ (AP) – Olympia Dukakis, the veteran stage and film actress whose flair for mothering roles helped her win an Oscar as the mother of Cher in the romantic comedy “Moonstruck” has passed away . She was 89 years old.
Allison Levy, her agent at Innovative Artists, said on Saturday that Dukakis died Saturday morning at her home in New York. A cause of death was not immediately revealed.
Dukakis won his 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 “Heartburn”. 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 for “Moonstruck”.
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 Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. At the ceremony, she held her Oscar above her head and shouted, “OK, Michael, let’s go!”
Dukakis had aspired to become an actress from an early age and had 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, West Virginia, and at 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.”
However, her first performance in graduate school was a disaster, as she sat silently on the stage.
After a teacher helped cure her stage fright, she began working in summer theaters. In 1960 she made her off-Broadway debut and two years later played a small role in “The 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.
Her Oscar victory brought mother roles to 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 Magnolias” and the bossy wife of Jack Lemmon (and mother of Ted Danson) in “Dad” .
But the scene had been his first love.
“My ambition was not to win the Oscar,” she commented after her “Moonstruck” victory. “It was to play the big roles.”
She has accomplished this in New York productions such as “Mother Courage and Her Children” by Bertolt Brecht, “Long Day’s Journey into Night” by Eugene O’Neill and “The Rose Tattoo” by Tennessee Williams.
For two decades she ran the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, New Jersey, specializing in classic dramas.
While her passion was on stage, a phrase from her Oscar-winning performance as Rose nonetheless seemed appropriate: “I just want you to know whatever you do, you’re going to die, just like everyone else.
The late Associated Press writer Bob Thomas in Los Angeles was the primary author of this obituary.
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