Film and theater actress Olympia Dukakis died on Saturday, as first reported by family and confirmed by the Associated Press. Though a cause of death was not given, she had been in ill health for some months. A successful actress on stage since the 1960s, her performance as the wise Italian-American mother Rose Castorini in the 1987 film Moonstruck brought her a new level of fame, and also won her the Academy Award. She was 89 years old.
The daughter of Greek immigrants, Dukakis, born in Lowell, Massachusetts, attended Boston University and studied physical therapy. That line of work took her to around the country during a polio epidemic, but she later returned to B.U. to get a masters in theater. She moved to New York City in 1959 and began performing Off-Broadway, as well as picking up roles on television series like Dr. Kildare. She won an Obie Award in 1963 for her role in Berthold Brecht’s A Man’s a Man, and played older than her actual age as Dustin Hoffman‘s mother in the Peter Yates’s 1969 film John and Mary, and as Joseph Bologna’s mother in the 1971 film Made For Each Other, one of the many projects Bologna co-wrote with his wife Renée Taylor.
In an oft-told tale, it was being cut out of another film that helped get her the Moonstruck gig. Nora Ephron saw Dukakis in the Off-Broadway production of Christopher Durang‘s The Marriage of Bette and Boo, and felt she’s be perfect for the part of Meryl Streep‘s mother in the 1986 film Heartburn, which she and Mike Nichols were adapting from her book. Nichols ultimately removed her scenes, but to make up for it, he cast Dukakis in the role of Sophie Greengrass in Andrew Bergman‘s play Social Security, which he directed on Broadway. Director Norman Jewison saw her in that role and knew he’d found his Rose Castorini.
Moonstruck, directed by Jewison and written by John Patrick Shanley was, and remains, a sensation. Its stature as one of the finest romantic comedies ever made is due in no small part to Dukakis and her world-weary delivery of love-coated truthbombs. It won Oscars for Dukakis, Shanley, and, of course, Cher, in the lead role. Jewison and Vincent Gardenia were also nominated, as was the film itself for Best Picture. (It lost to The Last Emperor and competed against Broadcast News, Hope and Glory, and Fatal Attraction. What a year!!!)
When Dukakis picked up her statue, she famously concluded her speech by calling out “okay, Michael, let’s go!”
This was in reference to her first cousin, Michael Dukakis, who, at the time, was running for president, but ultimately lost to George H.W. Bush.
She also thanked her husband, actor Louis Zorich, a character actor with a slew of credits ranging from Fiddler on the Roof to The Muppets Take Manhattan, as well as a recurring role as Paul Reiser‘s father on Mad About You. Dukakis and Zorich founded the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, New Jersey together in 1973. (She was also a founding member of The Charles Playhouse in Boston.)