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Olympia Dukakis, Oscar-winning star of Moonstruck , dies at 89

Lindsey Bahr
·4 min read
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Olympia Dukakis, the dry-witted stage and screen actress who toiled under the radar for nearly 30 years before becoming a household name with her scene-stealing turn as the indomitable matriarch in the 1987 rom-com Moonstruck, has died. She was 89.

Dukakis' brother Apollo announced her death on Facebook Saturday. "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 Louis." (Dukakis' husband Louis Zorich died in 2018.)

A fiercely independent first-generation Greek American, Dukakis paved her own way through Hollywood while also making time to engage in political activism and theater work.

The daughter of Greek immigrants, Dukakis was born and raised in Lowell, Mass., where she would become accustomed to the casual discrimination that would follow her throughout her career. Though she'd wanted to act from a young age, Dukakis studied physical therapy as an undergraduate at Boston University, which she practiced for a few years during the height of the polio epidemic. The paychecks mainly enabled her to continue pursuing a stage career before returning to BU for a graduate degree in the performing arts. From there, her path was set, even if it would take nearly three decades to start getting onscreen parts worthy of her talent.

Mireya Acierto/Getty Images Olympia Dukakis in 2015.

It was Dukakis' role as a nutty mother in the 1986 Broadway production of Social Security that caught director Norman Jewison's attention. He cast her in Moonstruck on that performance alone. As the straight-talking Rose Castorini, Dukakis brought unforgettable verve to world of the film, which became one of the highest-grossing and most beloved films of 1987. Dukakis, already in her mid-50s, was suddenly an Oscar-season darling, at a time when her cousin, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, was running for the presidency. She won, he didn't.

With a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in hand, she landed high-profile roles such as the personnel director in 1988's Working Girl, the bemused widow Clairee in 1989's Steel Magnolias, and the hard-edged high school principal in Mr. Holland's Opus. In the TV miniseries adaptations of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City books, she memorably portrayed Anna Madrigal, the pot-growing transgender landlady of 28 Barbary Lane.

She also won some younger fans as Zelda, Grandpa Simpson's love interest, in the now-classic Simpsons episode "The Old Man and the Key." And, though she didn't get any major awards recognition for it, Dukakis turned in an indelible performance in Sarah Polley's Away From Her as an aging wife who discovers love outside of marriage as her husband deteriorates in a nursing home. More recently, a documentary about Dukakis' career, Olympia, was released in 2020, and she had been cast as Marlene Dietrich in an upcoming Dionne Warwick biopic.

Together with husband Zorich (Fiddler on the Roof), a Yugoslav-American actor whom she married in 1962, she co-founded and ran the Whole Theater in Montclair, N.J. From 1973-92, the couple mounted five plays each year at the venue, drawing such stars as Colleen Dewhurst, Blythe Danner, and Samuel L. Jackson. She also taught a master acting class at NYU, penned the autobiography Ask Me Again Tomorrow: A Life in Progress, and lectured regularly on everything from feminism and theater life to Alzheimer's disease.

Dukakis may be known for her independent drive and unwavering sense of self, but they were born of insecurity. "Growing up, I was always feeling like an outsider, being Greek in communities that were not very ethnic. I felt like an outsider in the Greek community, too, because women were expected to behave and socialize in a certain way, and I didn't. Also being an actor I felt like an outsider, because not many Greek American women were actors then," Dukakis told Broadway World in 2007. "But once you realize that you are an outsider, there can be a freedom in that. You can find your own way." Or, as Rose Castorini said so memorably in Moonstruck: "I know who I am." So did Dukakis herself.

Additional reporting by Lindsay Bahr.

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