Olympia Dukakis, the stage veteran and screen actor whose sense of motherhood helped her win an Oscar as Cher’s mother in the romantic comedy Moonstruck, has died. She was 89 years old.
Dukakis died Saturday morning at her home in New York, according to Alison Levy, her agent at Innovative Artists. The cause of death was not immediately reported, but her family said in a statement that she had not been in good health for months.
Dukakis won his Oscar through a surprising chain of circumstances, beginning with author Nora Efron’s recommendation to play Meryl Streep’s mother in the film version of Efron̵
Dukakis won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and Cher took the Best Actress trophy.
She described her 1988 victory as the “Year of the Dukaki,” as it was the year when Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, her cousin, was the Democratic presidential candidate. At the ceremony, she raised Oscar high above her head and shouted, “All right, Michael, let’s go!”
In 1989, her Oscar statue was stolen from Dukakis’ home in New Jersey.
“We are not pretentious,” her husband, actor Luis Zorich, said at the time. “We kept the Oscars in the kitchen.
Dukakis, who was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, longed to be an actor from an early age and hoped to study drama in college. Her Greek immigrant parents insisted that she pursue a more practical education, so she studied physical therapy at Boston University with a scholarship from the National Foundation for Polio.
After earning her bachelor’s degree, she worked at a staffing hospital in Marmet, West Virginia, and at the Infectious Diseases 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 a quiet world of science to one where students regularly shout at teachers.
“I thought everyone was crazy,” she said. “It was beautiful.”
However, her first performance in graduate school was a disaster, as she sat speechless on stage.
After a teacher helped her cure her stage fever, she began working in summer stock theaters. In 1960, she made her debut outside of Broadway and two years later had a small role in “The Aspern Papers” on Broadway.
After three years with the Boston Regional Theater, Dukakis moved to New York and married Zorich.
During the first years of her marriage, acting was scarce, and Dukakis worked as a bartender, waitress, and others.
She and Zoric had three children – Christina, Peter and Stefan. They decided that it was too difficult to raise children in New York with limited income, so they moved the family to a century-old house in Montclair, a New York suburb of New York.
Her Oscar victory supported her mother’s film roles. She was Kirsty Ali’s mother in See Who’s Talking and its sequel See Who’s Talking Too, the sardonic widow in Steel Magnolias and Jack Lehman’s supernatural wife (and Ted Danson’s mother) in Daddy.
Her latest projects include the 2019 TV miniseries Tales of the City and the upcoming film Let’s Not Forget.
But the stage was her first love.
“My ambition was not to win an Oscar,” she said after winning the Moonstruck. “I had to play great roles.”
She has achieved this in such New York productions as Bertolt Brecht’s Mother of Courage and Her Children, Eugene O’Neill’s The Journey of the Long Day into the Night, and Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo.
In 2000, she appeared on Broadway in Martin Sherman’s play for an acting rose, Rose, and was nominated for a Drama Bureau Award for her role as an 80-year-old survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.
For two decades, she ran the Whole Theater Company in Moncler, New Jersey, specializing in classical dramas.
Zoric died in January 2018 at the age of 93.
Dukakis is survived by his children Christina, Stefan and Peter; her brother Apollo Dukakis; and four grandchildren.