Olympia Dukakis Recounts Her Storied Life

At 84, actress Olympia Dukakis is still charming, witty and hard-working.

Olypia Dukakis was 56 when she won her Oscar for Moonstruck almost three decades ago. The victory opened the doors to juicy roles and new challenges.
Olypia Dukakis was 56 when she won her Oscar for Moonstruck almost three decades ago. The victory opened the doors to juicy roles and new challenges.
Photo by Christian Noth

When Olympia Dukakis found out she was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her role in the 1987 film Moonstruck, she was at the Whole Theatre in Montclair, surrounded by family and friends.

But they weren’t the only ones taking part. Also watching that day were millions of viewers of Entertainment Tonight. The show’s producers had called to ask if they could film her reaction when the nominations were announced. The buzz was that she was a shoo-in.

Everyone said it was her moment, and they were calling her an overnight success. But at the time she was nominated, Dukakis was 56 and had been acting and directing in film and theater for more than 30 years. As she says in her memoir, Ask Me Again Tomorrow, “So much for overnight anything.”

Still, winning the Oscar for her role as Cher’s mother in Moonstruck, certainly changed her life. For one thing, Dukakis was finally recognized as one of our finest actors. Juicy offers began to flow. After Moonstruck, she appeared in the hit films Steel Magnolias and Look Who’s Talking 1, 2 and 3. The success was also good for her family; to that point, her daughter had essentially been going to college on credit cards.

Now 84, Dukakis is the subject of an upcoming documentary about her storied life as an actress, director and theater impresario. Olympia Dukakis: Undefined also serves as a testament to her endurance as an entertainer.

Director Harry Mavromichalis met Dukakis when he was studying at New York University, where she teaches acting to graduate students. He was scheduled to take her class, but at the last minute it was cancelled. Instead, he asked if she would come to a workshop for actors and directors he had put together in Cyprus. To his surprise, Dukakis accepted.

After watching a documentary on the actress Carol Channing, Mavromichalis had an inspiration: He would make a film about Dukakis’s life.

“I went to her and said I’d love to do a documentary on you,” says Mavromichalis. “And she said no. She said no one cares. Why would anyone want to see a documentary on me?”

Mavromichalis kept asking. “She’s very dynamic and in your face, but she’s very humble,” says Mavromichalis. “She doesn’t want people making a fuss about her. And she’s not a diva.”

Finally, her husband of 53 years, Louis Zorich, convinced Dukakis.

“He said, ‘What’s the matter with you? It’s something of you that the kids can have,’” says Dukakis.

Zorich, 91, says his wife deserves the attention. “She’s one of the unsung actresses in this country,” says Zorich. “I’ve been in shows with her where her acting was so good, it made me weep.”

Dukakis and Zorich were New York theater actors when they decided they needed more room for their children, and moved to the New Jersey suburbs. They bought a Georgian-style Montclair home in 1971 for $78,000. It seemed like a fortune at the time, but they made it work. And they loved raising their kids in leafy Montclair, she says. (Their son, Peter Zorich, and their grandchildren still live in Montclair.)

After her Oscar win, Montclair celebrated with a parade. Thieves later celebrated by stealing the Oscar statuette from her house. She had to pay $75 for a new one.

After more than three decades in Montclair, Dukakis and Zorich moved back to Manhattan in 1999. She says they always planned to return to the city after their youngest child finished college.

The thing she misses most about New Jersey, besides proximity to family and friends, is something she couldn’t possibly take with her: “The trees. I miss the trees!” says Dukakis. “We had the most beautiful trees in my yard. We had a great big oak in the back of our house, and fir trees. And we had a magnolia in the front yard that had wonderful blossoms every spring.”

Nowadays, Dukakis and Zorich live in a sunny loft near New York University, where Dukakis still teaches. On this day, she’s casually dressed in a black hooded sweatshirt and black pants. She still has her trademark thick, white hair—and she is as charming, warm and quick-witted as ever.

“Did you watch the debate last night?” she asks, as she enters the living room, as though delivering a line offstage from one of her plays. Her voice, deep and throaty, is instantly recognizable.

Dukakis still acts, but the days of running her own theater, the Whole Theatre in Montclair, are behind her. Dukakis speaks wistfully of those times. She and Zorich and some acting friends started the theater; she later helped launch four other theaters, including the renowned Charles Playhouse in Boston.

“I wanted to be a part of community. I wanted my work to matter in the lives of people,” she says. “I wanted to entertain too. That’s what pushed me.”

The Whole Theatre endured for nearly 20 years, producing five plays each season, including the works of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett. Its casts featured marquee names like Blythe Danner and Colleen Dewhurst, as well as Dukakis and Zorich.

Sadly, the theater ran into forces beyond its control. By the late 1980s, public funding for the arts—especially anything controversial—had become contentious. The Whole Theatre suffered, says Dukakis, after it staged a play in 1989 that featured two lesbian characters. “Lesbians were not the problem, Jesse Helms raging was the problem,” she says. Funding from several sources dried up, and Dukakis and her staff struggled to keep the theater open.  By 1990, Dukakis had had enough. “I said, ‘Look I’m not that hungry anymore. You have to get someone else.’ They said, ‘Then we’ll close the theater.’ I said, ‘Then close it.’ ”

Fortunately, her film career was taking off, thanks to Moonstruck. Dukakis says she had no idea she’d attract so much attention for playing an aging Italian mother. She recalls sitting in a limo with the director, Norman Jewison, on the way to the Oscars, when he told her that she was going to win. “I thought he was manipulating me because he wanted something,” she says.

She learned a lot from making Moonstruck—and from working with Jewison. She remembers when they were shooting the last scene in the film, as the whole family gathered at the kitchen table, and Nicolas Cage’s character, Ronny, professes his love for Loretta, played by Cher. Jewison wanted the actors to be more emotional, but they wanted to keep it low-key. Jewison told them that in all his years as a director, he had never found an actor who wouldn’t try something he had suggested. The situation grew tense.

That’s when veteran actress Julie Bovasso, who played Dukakis’s sister-in-law, Rita, spoke up. She implored Cher and Cage to comply with Jewison’s wishes, saying, ‘Oh, c’mon. We’re all actors. Act!”

“Cage looked at her and told her to go f–k herself!” says Dukakis.

Without missing a beat, Bovasso replied, “I haven’t had to do that in a long time.” Cage was so angry that he threw his hot coffee onto the table, splashing Dukakis. Bovasso, who was outraged that Dukakis hadn’t backed her up, told her, “That’s your punishment from God for not opening your mouth.”

Dukakis smiles when she recalls the moment: “I didn’t get engaged in anything political on set. I learned to stay away from that. I said, ‘Listen, no one in the theater thanks you for doing the right thing.’”

Then Feodor Chaliapin Jr., who played the grandfather, stepped in. “Shout, don’t hit!” he said.

“It was like a movie,” says Dukakis. “At that point, Jewison said, ‘Okay, let’s shoot!’”

Jewison had found the heightened emotion he wanted from the actors. The film would win three Oscars, including best actress for Cher.

Along with her role in Moonstruck, Dukakis’s other favorite roles were the title character in Rose, a one-woman play, and the character Anna Madrigal in the TV mini-series, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City—a role she enjoyed because of the ambivalence of playing a woman who used to be a man. “Nature is not evenhanded,” she says, “and I loved being able to put a human face to that. It’s such an interesting role, this man, this woman being caught in a dilemma not of his making.”

Dukakis says she has no choice but to continue to work. “Without working, I wouldn’t recognize my life,” she says. “It’s part of what sends the blood to the muscles. It’s more visceral. I don’t do it for artistic reasons. I do it for existential reasons. It’s like exercising a muscle.”

And she credits her husband with helping her age gracefully. “Having a good husband, lover, friend. And keeping your children in your life. I see them every couple of weeks, and I see my grandchildren,” she says.

For Mavromichalis, Dukakis has been an inspiration.

“She goes out every time and allows herself to become vulnerable and scared about each project,” he says. “She gives 200 percent. She doesn’t want to do anything comfortable. For me it’s a huge lesson in life. You never become comfortable if you want to produce good quality work. You have to keep challenging yourself to do difficult things.”

Jacqueline Mroz frequently covers film for New Jersey Monthly.

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