MAPLEWOOD, N.J. – Olympia Dukakis, the veteran stage and screen actor whose flair for maternal roles helped her win an Oscar as Cher’s mother in the romantic comedy “Moonstruck,” has died. She was 89.
Dukakis died Saturday morning in her home in New York City, according to Allison Levy, her agent at Innovative Artists. A cause of death was not immediately released, but her family said in a statement that she had been in failing health for months.
Dukakis won her Oscar through a surprising chain of circumstances, beginning with author Nora Ephron’s recommendation that she 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 it up to her, director Mike Nichols cast her in his hit play “Social Security.” Director Norman Jewison saw her in that 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 1988 win as “the year of the Dukakii” because it was also the year Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, her cousin, was the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. At the ceremony, she held her Oscar high over her head and called out: “OK, Michael, let’s go!”
In 1989, her Oscar statuette was stolen from Dukakis’ New Jersey home.
“We’re not pretentious,” her husband, actor Louis Zorich, said at the time. “We kept the Oscar in the kitchen.”
Dukakis, who was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, had yearned to be an actor from an early age and had hoped to study drama in college. Her Greek immigrant parents insisted she pursue a more practical education, so she studied physical therapy 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 Hospital for Contagious Diseases in Boston.
But the lure 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 gone from the calm world of science to one where students routinely screamed at the teachers.
“I thought they were all nuts,” she said. “It was wonderful.”
Her first graduate school performance was a disaster, however, as she sat wordless on the stage.
After a teacher helped cure her stage fright, she began working in summer stock theaters. In 1960, she made her off-Broadway debut and two years later had a small part in “The Aspern Papers” on Broadway.
After three years with a Boston regional theater, Dukakis moved to New York and married 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 hard to raise children in New York with limited income, so they moved the family to a century-old house in Montclair, a New Jersey suburb of New York.
Her Oscar victory kept the motherly film roles coming. She was Kirstie Alley’s mom in “Look Who’s Talking” and its sequel “Look Who’s Talking Too,” the sardonic widow in “Steel Magnolias” and the overbearing wife of Jack Lemmon (and mother of Ted Danson) in “Dad.”
Her 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.
“My ambition wasn’t to win the Oscar,” she commented after her “Moonstruck” win. “It was to play the great parts.”
She accomplished that in such New York 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 was on Broadway in Martin Sherman’s one-actor play “Rose,” and received a Drama Desk Award nomination for the role of an 80-year-old survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII.
For two decades she ran the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, New Jersey, specializing in classic dramas.
Zorich died in January 2018 at age 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 primary writer of this obituary.