Long a vital, respected lady of the classic and contemporary stage this grand lady did not become a household name and sought-after film actress until age 56 when she turned in a glorious, Oscar-winning perf as Cher’s sardonic mother in the romantic comedy Moonstruck (1987). Since then movie (and TV) fans have discovered what the East coast theater-going audiences had uncovered decades before — an acting treasure. Her adaptability to various ethnicities (Greek, Italian, Jewish, Eastern European, etc.), as well her chameleon-like versatility in everything from cutting edge comedy to stark tragedy, has kept her in high demand for the past 30 years as of one of Hollywood’s topnotch character players.
Olympia Dukakis was born on June 20, 1931, in Lowell, Massachusetts, the daughter of Greek immigrants, Alexandra (Christos), from the Peloponnese, and Constantine S. Dukakis, from Anatolia. She majored in physical therapy at Boston University, where she graduated with a BA. She practiced as a physical therapist during the polio epidemic. She later returned to her alma mater and entered the graduate program in performing arts and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree.
Olympia found early success by distinguishing herself first on stage performing in summer stock and with several repertory and Shakespearean companies throughout the county. She made her Broadway debut as an understudy in “The Aspern Papers” at age 30, followed by very short runs in the plays “Abraham Cochrane” (1964) and “Who’s Who in Hell” (1974). In 1999, she premiered a one-woman play “Rose”, at the National Theatre in London and subsequently on Broadway in 2000. The play earned her an Outer Critics Circle Award and Drama Desk Award nomination and she continues to tour the country with it. Most recently she was seen on the New York stage in the Roundabout Theatre’s production of “The Milktrain Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” (2011), in San Francisco in A.C.T.’s production of “Vigil” (2011) and as “Prospera” in “The Tempest” (2012) at Shakespeare & Co. She has performed in over 130 productions Off-Broadway and regionally at theatres including the Public Theatre, A.C.T., Shakespeare in the Park, Shakespeare & Co., and the Williamstown Summer Theatre Festival, where she also served as Associate Director. She will be seen again at Shakespeare & Co. in the summer of 2013 as the title role in “Mother Courage and Her Children.”
Olympia married Yugoslav-American actor Louis Zorich in 1962. The New York-based couple went on to co-found The Whole Theatre Company in Montclair, New Jersey, and ran the company for 19 years (1971-1990). As actress, director, producer and teacher, she still found the time to raise their three young children. She also became a master instructor at New York University for fourteen years. She scored theater triumphs in “A Man’s a Man,” for which she won an Off-Broadway Obie Award in 1962; several productions of “The Cherry Orchard” and “Mother Courage”; “Six Characters in Search of an Author”; “The Rose Tattoo”; “The Seagull”; “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” (another Obie Award); and, more notably, her many performances as the title role in “Hecuba.” A good portion of her successes was launched within the walls of her own theater company, which encouraged the birth of new and untried plays. Her prolific directing credits include many of the classics: “Orpheus Descending,” “The House of Bernarda Alba,” “Uncle Vanya,” and “A Touch of the Poet,” as well as the more contemporary (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Kennedy’s Children”). She also adapted such plays as “Mother Courage” and “The Trojan Women” for the theater company. Over the duration of their marriage, she and her husband have experienced shared successes, appearing together in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Camino Real, “The Three Sisters” and “The Seagull,” among many others. Both are master interpreters of Chekhovian plays — one of their more recent acting collaborations was in “The Chekhov Cycle” in 2003.
Making an inauspicious debut in a bit role as a mental patient in Lilith (1964), she tended to gravitate toward off-the-wall films with various offshoots of the ethnic mother. She played mom to such leads as Dustin Hoffman in John and Mary (1969), Joseph Bologna in the cult comedy Made for Each Other (1971) and Ray Sharkey in The Idolmaker (1980). Interestingly, it was her scene-stealing work on Broadway in the comedy “Social Security” (1986) that caught director Norman Jewison’s eye and earned her the Moonstruck (1987) movie role. The Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actress was the last of a stream of awards she earned for that part, including the American Comedy Award, Los Angeles Film Critics, and Golden Globe Award. From then on, silver-haired Olympia was first in line for a number of cream-of-the-crop matron roles: Steel Magnolias (1989), Dad (1989), Look Who’s Talking (1989), The Cemetery Club (1993), Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995) and Mother (1995). Her most recent film, Cloudburst (2011), has been a critical and audience darling, winning her several Best Actress awards and over 40 awards for Best Film at various Film Festivals around the world.
On TV, she received high praise for her work especially for her sympathetic trans-gendered landlady in the acclaimed miniseries Tales of the City (1993) and its sequels More Tales of the City (1998) (Emmy Nominee) and Further Tales of the City (2001). She was additionally seen in episodes of Bored to Death (2009), and TV movies The Last of the Blonde Bombshells (2000) (Judi Dench), Sinatra (1992) (Golden Globe Nominee), and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999) (Emmy Nominee). This work is among more than 40 other series, mini-series and guest starring roles she has accumulated over her long career.
An ardent liberal and Democrat, she is the cousin of one-time presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Moreover, she is a strong advocate of women’s rights and environmental causes. Olympia published her best-selling autobiography “Ask Me Again Tomorrow: A Life in Progress” in 2003, an introspective chronicle full of her trademark candor and wry humor. She is also a figure on the lecture circuit covering topics as widespread as life in the theater to feminism, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and osteoporosis. A hardcore New Yorker, she still resides there with her husband. She has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Greek America Foundation and the National Arts Club Medal of Honor and is set to receive her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame later this year.
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