Oscar winning “Moonstruck” actress Olympia Dukakis dead at 89, star of stage and screen in acclaimed career

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Larry McShane, New York Daily News
·3 min read
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Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis, whose deadpan turn as Cher’s Italian mother in the movie smash “Moonstruck” boosted the theater veteran to sudden Hollywood stardom, died Saturday morning in New York City. She was 89.

The death of Dukakis, cousin to one-time presidential candidate Mike Dukakis and founder of regional theaters in Boston and Montclair, N.J., during her decades-long career, was announced on Facebook by her brother Apollo.

“My beloved sister, Olympia Dukakis, passed away this morning,” he wrote. “After many months of failing health she is finally at peace and with her (husband) Louis.”

Dukakis was already a well-known theater veteran when she took the role in director Norman Jewison’s hit film “Moonstruck,” set and filmed in Brooklyn, to win the best supporting actress Academy Award in 1987.

The daughter of Greek immigrants pitch-perfectly played the role of sardonic Rose Castorini in the smash movie starring Cher, Nicolas Cage and Danny Aiello, additionally earning a Golden Globe and honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review.

She ad-libbed her most quoted line from “Moonstruck,” delivered to Cher: “Your life’s going down the toilet!”

Fellow Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis was among many stars mourning Dukakis’ death.

“RIP Olympia Dukakis... the consummate actor,” she tweeted. “You made all around you step up their game. A joy to work with. Rest well. ‘May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’”

Dukakis, a high-school fencer who founded both the Charles Playhouse in Boston and the Whole Theater in New Jersey, appeared in more than 125 regional theater performances across her long career — as noted by playwright Paul Rudnick, who cast her in the movie version of his play “Jeffrey.”

“RIP Olympia Dukakis, a wonderful actress, a delightful person and a legend in the theater community,” tweeted Rudnick. “She won an Oscar for Moonstruck, and audiences cherished her take-no-prisoners turn in Steel Magnolias. I worked with her on the movie of my play Jeffrey and she was bliss.”

Her post-”Moonstruck” films included the star-studded “Steel Magnolias,” where Dukakis performed with a cast featuring Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts, Sally Field and Dolly Parton. She took third billing behind John Travolta and Kirstie Alley in the baby comedy “Look Who’s Talking” — and the sequel.

Dukakis also appeared opposite Richard Dreyfuss in “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” and turned up in both Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite” and an episode of “The Simpsons.” But she brushed aside the perks that came with her late-career run of success.

“I did not become an actor in order to become famous or rich,” she once declared. “I became an actor so I could play the great parts,” she said.

“Moonstruck” catapulted her career into overdrive a full 25 years after her television debut in 1962, when she guested on “Dr. Kildare” and appeared on an episode of “The Doctors and the Nurses.”

But her acting career began on her first love, the stage, where she appeared in the Broadway productions “The Aspern Papers,” “Who’s Who in Hell” and the one-woman show “Rose.”

“As an actress, I’ve made choices that led me directly away from the fame and fortune acting is supposed to bring,” she once noted.

The native of Lowell, Mass., stumped for her cousin Michael, the former Massachusetts governor, after his 1988 Democratic nomination for the presidency. Though he came up short to George H.W. Bush, Olympia gave him a shoutout at the Academy Awards.

“OK, Michael, let’s go!” she shouted, hoisting her statuette into the air.