Oscar-winning actor Olympia Dukakis passed away on May 1, aged 89. The celebrated Greek-American actress performed in over 130 stage productions, more than 60 films and dozens of television series during a long and distinguished career in the US.
Born during the Great Depression in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1931 to Greek immigrants Alexandra and Constantine, the young Dukakis endured the struggles and the discrimination against Greeks from an early age. In an interview with Giorgos Tsiros for Costa Navarino Magazine in 2015, she elaborated on her childhood memories:
“Our parents fought in the mills and we, the children, fought in the streets. What were we fighting about? I am Greek, you’re Italian, you’re German. By the time I was 13 I had my own knife. Did I use it? No, but people had to know you had a knife, otherwise they would make fun of my name, my nose, my food; they would make fun of my parents. I fought not to let the others make fun of my identity, besmirch it (…).”
Although she majored in physical therapy at Boston University and treated polio patients, she later earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in performing arts. In 1961, she embarked on an acting career in productions around Massachusetts. Her talent and her grace were soon discovered and in 1963, her Off-Broadway performance in Bertolt Brecht’s “Man Equals Man” earned her an Obie Award for Distinguished Performance.
After she met her husband, Louis Zorich, the son of Serb immigrants from Croatia, they established the Whole Theater Company, where she served as producer, director and artistic director. Over the course of nearly two decades, the company produced a wide range of plays, including the works of Euripides, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, and others.
Her stage experience opened up the path to Broadway. In 2000, she was awarded the Outer Circles Award for her Outstanding Solo Performance in Martin Sherman’s one-woman play “Rose,” about a woman who survived the Warsaw Ghetto.
Dukakis also appeared in numerous films and gained international stardom following “Moonstruck,” the 1987 romantic comedy by Norman Jewison. Her performance as Rose Castorini, the Italian immigrant mother of Loretta (Cher), earned her an Academy Award for Supporting Actress and a Golden Globe.
Critics praised the film for its charming performances, witty screenwriting and madcap New York humor, which won the hearts of the viewers.
She also played memorable characters in “Steel Magnolias” and “Look Who’s Talking Now,” and was the subject of a documentary-tribute “Olympia” by Harry Mavromichalis in 2019.
Despite her advancing age, she remained a dedicated and passionate teacher, giving masterclasses in acting and performing arts to various theater schools around the US and being a founding member of New York University’s Graduate Acting program, where she taught for 15 years.
She was also a strong advocate for a number of social causes, from raising awareness for Alzheimer’s disease to women’s rights, same-sex marriage and LGBT rights.
In the Costa Navarino interview, she surmised: “I don’t think of myself as a celebrity but simply as a woman who achieved what she wanted: to be a good actress, to play in serious plays and movies, to play the classical roles. This could have something to do with the fact that my so-called stardom came late in life (…).”