Olympia Dukakis, Oscar winner for ‘Moonstruck,’ dead at 89

Olympia Dukakis, Hollywood’s favorite late bloomer who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in “Moonstruck” — has died at the age of 89.

Dukakis, a cousin of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, died Saturday at her home in New York City where she had lived for most of her adult life.

Her brother, Apollo Dukakis, wrote on Facebook, “After many months of failing health she is finally at peace and with her [husband] Louis.”

In addition to her scene-stealing turn as Cher’s sardonic Brooklyn mom, Rose Castorini, in 1987’s “Moonstruck,” Dukakis was known for her roles in “Steel Magnolias,” “Look Who’s Talking” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus” among many other films. Both she and Cher won Oscars for “Moonstruck.”

Her most memorable on-screen roles, which occurred later in her career, were often tart, tough-talking women with great one-liners like Clairee Boucher, everyone’s favorite Southern girlfriend, in “Steel Magnolias.” Said Clairee in the film, “Well, you know what they say: if you don¹t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me!”

Of course Dukakis wasn’t really a late bloomer at all, having worked as highly-respected actress and director in the theater, both Broadway, off-Broadway and on regional stages, for decades before she won her Oscar. She made her Broadway debut at age 30 as an understudy in “The Aspern Papers.”

She won Obie awards for Bertolt Brecht’s “A Man’s a Man” and Christopher Durang’s “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” and was also nominated for three Emmys in the 1990s.

Most recently, she was in the cast of the Netflix miniseries “Tales of the City,” playing the role of Anna Madrigal, who she also portrayed in previous adaptations of Armistead Maupin’s works.

Dukakis was born June 20, 1931, in Lowell, Massachusetts, the daughter of a Greek immigrants. Her father was from Anatolia and her mother from the Peloponnese. Her dad started up his own drama club in Lowell to stage classic Greek plays.

But despite her theatrical pedigree, the always-athletic Dukakis majored in physical therapy at Boston University and worked as a physical therapist during the polio epidemic. She was also a New England fencing champion.

She ultimately returned to BU to get her master of fine arts degree in the performing arts and headed to the theater.

Dukakis married actor Louis Zorich in 1962. The two were a New York-based theatrical power couple who created and ran the Whole Theatre Company in Montclair, N.J. for nearly two decades, from 1971 to 1990.

Her many stage directing credits included “Orpheus Descending,” “Uncle Vanya” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Dukakis was also known for her work on behalf of women’s rights and the environment.
She introduced Michael Dukakis at the Democratic National Convention in 1988 where he became the nominee but ultimately lost to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

She called 1988 “the year of the Dukakii” because it was the year she won her Oscar and Dukakis won the Democratic party nomination. At the Academy Awards ceremony, after picking up her Oscar, she held it aloft and said, “OK, Michael, let’s go!”

But she will always be remembered for “Moonstruck,” the film directed by Norman Jewison, which she never thought would be a huge success.

She once told A.V. Club that she finally realized the movie might hit when she went with Jewison to a benefit in Canada for a screening of the film.

“And he said, ‘You know, you’re gonna get an Academy Award for this.’ I looked at him like he was stark-raving mad. I thought, ‘This little movie and that little Italian lady are gonna get an award?’ I said, ‘You really think so?’ He said, ‘Yeah!’ I thought, ‘He’s just being nice because I came up here to do the benefit for him. He thinks he has to say something nice to me.’ And then all that happened. It was just amazing.”

Dukakis often spoke about people in the street shouting lines from some of her most well-known movies, especially “Moonstruck.”

“Olympia Dukakis’ delivery of “Old man, you give those dogs another piece of my food and I’m gonna kick you till you’re dead” to her father-in-law in Moonstruck lives in my head rent-free,” read one of many tweets about Dukakis following her death.

Dukakis is survived by her three children.

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