Olympia Dukakis who won an Oscar for ‘Moonstruck’ dies at 89

Veteran actress died at her home in New York City

(FILES) In this file photo taken on June3, 2019, Actress Olympia Dukakis attends "Tales Of The City" New York Premiere at The Metrograph in New York City.    Dukakis, a character actress who won an Oscar for her role as an overbearing mother in the romantic comedy "Moonstruck," died on May 1, 2021, at the age of 89. The passing of the theater veteran who made a name for herself in film late in her career was confirmed on Facebook by her brother Apollo. “My beloved sister, Olympia Dukakis, passed away this morning in New York City,” he wrote. "After many months of failing health she is finally at peace and with her [husband] Louis [Zorich].”  / AFP / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Theo Wargo
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Olympia Dukakis, the veteran stage and screen actress who won an Oscar for her role as Cher's mother in the romantic comedy Moonstruck, has died. She was 89.

Dukakis died on Saturday morning in her home in New York City, according to Allison Levy, her agent at Innovative Artists. The cause of death was not immediately known.

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 compensate 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 for their roles in the film.

FILE - In this April 11, 1988 file photo, Olympia Dukakis holds her Oscar  at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angles after being honored at the 60th Academy Awards as best supporting actress for her role in "Moonstrck." Olympia Dukakis, the veteran stage and screen 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. (AP Photo/Lennox Mcleondon, File)
Olympia Dukakis with her Best Supporting Actress gong for her role in 'Moonstrck' in 1988 at the Oscars. AP

She referred to her 1988 win as “the year of the Dukakii” because it was also the year Massachusetts governor 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!”

Dukakis, who was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, had yearned to be an actress 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 theatre eventually led her to study drama at Boston University.

FILE - In this May 24, 2013 file photo, Actress Olympia Dukakis is honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her stage work in front of the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. Olympia Dukakis, the veteran stage and screen 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. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
Actress Olympia Dukakis was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her stage work in 2013. AP

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 theatres. 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 theatre, 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 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 mother 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 2019 TV miniseries Tales of the City and the coming film Not to Forget.

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's The Rose Tattoo.

For two decades she ran the Whole Theatre Company in Montclair, New Jersey, specialising in classic dramas.

Zorich died in January 2018 at age 93.

While her passion lay in stage, a line from her Oscar-winning performance as Rose nonetheless seemed fitting: “I just want you to know no matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.”