Olympia Dukakis, Oscar-Winning ‘Moonstruck’ Actress, Dead at 89
The actress’ brother Apollo Dukakis announced his sister’s death on Facebook Saturday. No cause of death was revealed.
“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 [Zorich, Dukakis’ husband of 55 years who died in January 2018].”
Olympia Dukakis brought warmth, humor and wit to the stage and screen for almost 60 years, including a stellar run of unforgettable roles in ‘Steel Magnolias’ ‘Tales of the City’ and ‘Moonstruck,’ for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar,” the Academy tweeted. “She will be missed.”
Olympia Dukakis brought warmth, humor and wit to the stage and screen for almost 60 years, including a stellar run of unforgettable roles in “Steel Magnolias” “Tales of the City” and “Moonstruck,” for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She will be missed. pic.twitter.com/TLuNTx32PI
— The Academy (@TheAcademy) May 1, 2021
Dukakis was June 20th, 1931 in Lowell, Masschussetts, the daughter of Greek immigrants. After receiving a master degree in fine arts from Boston University, Dukakis first made her impact on the stage: She won a Obie Award in 1963 for her performance in Man Equals Man. After she and her husband, actor Louis Zorich, moved to Montclair, N.J. in 1970, they went on to start their own theater company, founding the Whole Theater. The theater folded in 1990 when financing dried up, but they remained committed to supporting theater in the town. The couple returned to Manhattan, where they continued to live. Zorich died in 2018.
Despite her success on the stage, over the first two decades of her career, Dukakis was primarily cast in bit parts in films and television. Stardom, however, arrived seemingly overnight after Dukakis was cast as the Italian-American mother of Cher’s character in the 1987 comedy Moonstruck.
Playing matriarch Rose Castorini in the film, Dukakis earned accolades for her performance, which resulted in Best Supporting Actress wins at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes.
(As Entertainment Weekly notes, around the same time Dukakis was nominated for an Oscar, her cousin Michael Dukakis was the Democratic candidate in the 1988 presidential election. She won, he didn’t.)
Following another small role as a personnel director in the 1988 comedy Working Girl, Dukakis appeared alongside an all-star ensemble in 1989’s Steel Magnolias, as well as the comedy Look’s Who Talking.
During the 1990s, Dukakis earned three Emmy nominations for her television roles, including for 1992’s Sinatra miniseries (she played Dolly Sinatra) and the 1998 TV movie More Tales of the City. The latter was the second installment in a series of TV movies based on the works of author Armistead Maupin, with Dukakis in the role of the landlord Anna Madrigal. The actress played that character in three TV movies over a decade-long span, as well as reprised the role when Tales of the City was turned into a Netflix miniseries in 2019. She was one of the only actors to appear in all iterations of the saga — alongside Laura Linney and Barbara Garrick.
Although she won her Oscar when she was in her late 50s, the venerable stage and screen actress most groundbreaking (and some would argue iconic) role of her career — which certainly had a huge impact on her outlook on life — was Anna Madrigal, the transgender landlady of a fictional house in San Francisco, where writer Armistead Maupin set his Tales of the City novels.
To research and understand the role, she told Out magazine in 2012 that she’d interviewed a trans woman who was a therapist:
“I finally said to her, ‘Look, I have read something about what you’ve been through, and I have to ask you, what was it that you wanted or needed so deeply, so profoundly, that made it possible for you to first of all have the courage to do it and secondly to endure it?’ And this is what she said to me: ‘All my life I yearned for the friendship of women.’
“I cannot tell you… I instantly started to cry. I know what it is to want the friendship of women. I know how difficult sometimes that is to make happen, especially when you are competing heterosexually with women for men. There are all sorts of things that it brought out for me, and I understood something about Anna Madrigal and her relationship to other women that are around her.”
Dukakis remained active as an actress and as an activist for gay and transgender rights and carved out a reputation for playing queer roles and allies, including a cameo role as the mother to an adult trans child in Paul Rudnick’s 1995 movie Jeffrey and a foul-mouthed lesbian in the 2012 indie film Cloudburst, opposite Brenda Fricker, about women trying to get married.
Last year, Harry Mavromichalis released a documentary, titled Olympia, that detailed her storied career. In it a former student of hers opines: “Olympia probably invented the feminist movement,” when explaining some of her acting preferences. But she may not have had those many opportunities if she hadn’t played that pivotal role as Cher’s mom.
“I’m very glad I did Moonstruck,” she said in a 2012 interview. “It meant that I woke up the next day and was finally able to pay the bills. But no, it didn’t go to my head.”
Additional reporting by Jerry Portwood