Olympia Dukakis has died. The Oscar-winning actor, director, activist, teacher, playwright, and more was celebrated for roles in films like Moonstruck and Steel Magnolias, once romanced Abe Simpson himself, and spent her life and career as an advocate for progressive causes and LGBTQ+ rights. Dukakis died today in her home in New York City; she was 89.
Born to Greek immigrants in Massachusetts in the 1930s, Dukakis wasted little time in excelling; she was a New England fencing champion three times over at an early age, and used her degree in physical therapy to aid the recovery of victims of polio. She moved into acting in the early ’60s, starting in Massachusetts theater before moving to Off-, and then On-, Broadway productions. By 1962 she was married to fellow actor Louis Zorich—with whom she remained married until his death in 2018—and continuing to work steadily even while raising three children. Her hats during this period included artistic director, teacher, and more, but while she acted in a number of films, the veteran stage actress frequently found herself relegated to the smallest of parts.
That all changed in 1989, when Dukakis—then 58—was cast in Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck. As family matriarch Rose, Dukakis garnered praise, wide acclaim (and an Oscar and a Golden Globe) for a performance hailed as simultaneously tough and hilarious, dancing between sternly judgmental and deeply funny. Here’s Dukakis talking to us in 2015 for a Random Roles, discussing Jewison’s confidence in the film, and in her performance:
He had asked me to come to a benefit for him in Canada. He was going to show the movie, and he wanted me to come. And I was so grateful to him for that experience and so admiring of him that I went. And he said, “You know, you’re gonna get an Academy Award for this.” I looked at him like he was stark-raving mad. I thought, “This little movie and that little Italian lady are gonna get an award?” I said, “You really think so?” He said, “Yeah!” I thought, “He’s just being nice because I came up here to do the benefit for him.”
Moonstuck also informed Hollywood of the talent it had been missing out on for the last 30 years, and Dukakis soon was fielding performances in films like Steel Magnolias (as the cheerful Clairee, of “Slap her!” fame) and in the influential 1993 miniseries Tales Of The City and its various follow-ups, where she played trans landlady Anna Madrigal opposite Laura Linney. (The cast would reunite for the last time in 2019 for a Netflix-produced sequel series; it was one of Dukakis’ final roles.) In that same interview, Dukakis called Anna her “favorite of all,” and discussed both her preparation for the role, and how it changed her outlook on LGBTQ+ issues:
But when I finally got on the set, I turned to the producer and said, “Look, I’ve got to talk to somebody. I’ve got to talk to a human being who’s gone through this.” So they did that for me. They found someone. She came, and when she opened the door, she was, like, 6’2”, with hands that could wrap around a football, but a soft voice. Lovely breasts. She walks into the room, she sits down, and… she was a sex therapist, and she evidently helps people with these transitions. And I asked her, “What was it that you wanted so much that made it possible for you to go through this incredible journey? I mean, I’ve read about it, but…” And this is what she said to me: “All my life, I yearned for the friendship of women.” And I started to cry. I couldn’t help it. I don’t know what I expected her to say, but not that. And that I knew. And I totally understood. To have your voice silenced, to not be able to be able to speak and be who you are… Who doesn’t know about that?
But even as her star rose, Dukakis continued to cultivate her career in multiple walks of life, taking up teaching positions at NYU, continuing to act and direct in the theater, and just generally living life to its fullest. In addition to her acting work, Dukakis spent much of her life as an advocate and activist, championing same-sex marriage, speaking out about living with chronic diseases, and raising awareness for care and understanding of Alzheimer’s, which her own mother eventually died from. Her 2003 autobiography, Ask Me Tomorrow, was a widely read bestseller, while a 2018 documentary, Olympia, received strong reviews for its efforts to capture her spirit—not just on the screen, but in the seemingly fearless way she conducted her life.