San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)

Oscar winner for ‘Moonstruck’ also appeared in ‘Tales of the City,’ S.F. stage production­s.


- By Nardine Saad San Francisco Chronicle Senior Arts and Entertainm­ent Editor Mariecar Mendoza contribute­d to this report. Nardine Saad is a Los Angeles Times writer.

Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis, the theater veteran who rose to prominence late in her career with memorable turns in 1980s films such as “Moonstruck” and “Steel Magnolias,” has died at the age of 89.

Dukakis, who appeared in Bay Area production­s and also starred in the adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” “Look Who’s Talking” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” died at her home in New York City.

“My beloved sister, Olympia Dukakis, passed away this morning in New York City,” wrote her brother Apollo, who confirmed her death on his Facebook page Saturday. “After many months of failing health she is finally at peace and with her (husband) Louis (Zorich).”

The longtime stage actress showcased her talent on a broader stage in 1987 as Cher’s sardonic mother in Norman Jewison’s romantic classic “Moonstruck.” She was 56 when she played meddlesome Italian matriarch Rose Castorini, whose involvemen­t in her widowed daughter’s love life and wry concerns about her own straying husband earned Dukakis an Academy Award for supporting actress, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA nomination.

“The fun part is that people pass me on the street and yell lines from my movies: For ‘Moonstruck’ they say, ‘Your life is going down the toilet,’” she told the Times in 1991.

Incidental­ly, her famous toilet line hadn’t been in the script, but was improvised based on experience­s with her own mother.

Dukakis became a household name in 1988 by way of her Academy Award and her cousin, former Massachuse­tts Gov. Michael Dukakis, winning the Democratic nomination in the 1988 presidenti­al election. During her Oscars acceptance speech, she stumped for him, concluding her remarks by spontaneou­sly shouting “OK, Michael, let’s go!” as she lifted her Oscar statuette in the air.

Her cousin lost the election to George H.W. Bush, but the Dukakis cousins remained politicall­y active. The actress was a lifelong arts patron and liberal activist who advocated for numerous causes, particular­ly women’s rights and the environmen­t.

In 2019, she was awarded the San Francisco Greek Film Festival’s Honorary Astron Award for her “significan­t lifelong artistic contributi­on in the film industry.”

Born in Lowell, Mass., on June 20, 1931, Dukakis was the daughter of immigrants from southern Greece. She and her brother Apollo grew up firstgener­ation Greek Americans in New England, which shaped much of her world view. Assimilati­ng to American culture, she said, was a lifelong process.

A selfprocla­imed “poster child for the bad Greek daughter,” Dukakis said she was encouraged “to strive to be authentic” and to become an American without betraying her Greek heritage. The stage gave her a safe arena to do just that.

“It was a place with firm enough boundaries that I could take emotional and psychologi­cal risks there. It was also a place where I could be physical, sexual, and spontaneou­s. It was the place where I felt the most alive,” she wrote.

Dukakis graduated from Boston University, where she earned a degree in physical therapy and a master’s in performing arts. She dreamed of having her own theater company (she would eventually have two) and touring Europe, performing the classics.

“I did not become an actor in order to become famous or rich. I became an actor so I could play the great parts,” she said.

Realizing that to get what she wanted, she would have to make things happen for herself, she turned to Broadway, where she made her debut in “The Aspern Papers” in 1962. That same year she married actorprodu­cer Louis Zorich, who rose to fame on the television show “Mad About You.” They have three children.

Carey Perloff, Artistic Director Emerita for San Francisco’s American Conservato­ry Theater, recalled meeting Dukakis for the first time in 1986 while directing the world premiere of Ezra Pound’s “Elektra” in New York. She said she instantly knew she wanted to work with her, so Perloff commission­ed Timberlake Wertenbake­r to create a new translatio­n of Euripides’ “Hecuba” for Dukakis in 1998.

From then on, “she had a long and deep relationsh­ip with ACT,” Perloff told The Chronicle on Saturday. “She believed in acting companies and great classical literature, she believed in training and generosity of spirit, she believed in community.”

Dukakis went on to star in ACT production­s of “A Mother,” “The Vigil” and “Elektra,” among others. She also became a trustee at ACT and spent “hours and hours in the classroom every time she came to ACT,” Perloff added.

In 1963, she won an Obie Award for “A Man’s a Man” and a second two years later in “The Marriage of Bette and Boo.”

But it was her work the following year in the Broadway comedy “Social Security” playing Marlo Thomas’ mother that caught Jewison’s eye. She said she took the role in “Moonstruck” largely for the money, but regarded it as one of her lesser works.

But with the success of “Moonstruck” and her cousin’s presidenti­al run, the firstgener­ation Greek American ultimately embraced the laurels and said it allowed her to stop living her life as “a hyphenated American.” The success, she said, allowed them to break through the barrier of ethnic discrimina­tion, which had been “at times, vicious, unforgivin­g, and isolating.”

However, the newly minted film star still devoted much of her time and resources to the theater, working on and offstage for more than 40 years.

“As an actress, I’ve made choices that led me directly

away from the fame and fortune acting is supposed to bring,” she wrote.

She and Zorich founded the Charles Playhouse in Boston and the Whole Theater in Montclair, N.J., in the 1970s. They appeared together in several production­s and Dukakis worked tirelessly as an actress and producer trying to keep the lights on.

She also taught drama at New York University and occasional­ly worked with her former students. “There’s such a thing as payback in this business,” she told Canada’s Globe and Mail in 2013. “People have stepped out for me. If I find somebody that has talent, I step out for him.”

That maternal quality carried over in her film and television careers. Dukakis was frequently cast in motherly roles that called for wisdom and strength — portraying Kirstie Alley’s overbearin­g mom in “Look Who’s Talking” and “Look Who’s Talking, Too” and Ted Danson’s smothering septuagena­rian mother in “Dad.”

Her television credits include the transgende­r drama “Tales of the City” set in San Francisco and its sequel, which earned her an Emmy nomination.

Her latest acting credits include “Away From Her” (2006), “In the Land of Women” (2007), “Bored to Death” (2009), “Forgive Me,” (2013), and three projects with filmmaker Thom Fitzgerald, including the series “Sex and Violence” and the onewoman play “Rose.”

“I love transformi­ng,” Dukakis told the Globe and Mail. “It’s the fun part of acting.”

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 ?? Russell Yip / The Chronicle 2012 ?? Olympia Dukakis rehearses for an American Conservato­ry Theater production of “Elektra” at the Geary Theater in San Francisco in October 2012. Dukakis became a trustee at ACT.
Russell Yip / The Chronicle 2012 Olympia Dukakis rehearses for an American Conservato­ry Theater production of “Elektra” at the Geary Theater in San Francisco in October 2012. Dukakis became a trustee at ACT.

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