Olympia Dukakis, the actress, who has died aged 89, was a veteran of off-Broadway theatre largely unknown to cinema audiences, when at the age of 56 she was cast in the romantic comedy Moonstruck and won an Academy Award.
Acclaimed for a freshness and unsentimental warmth reminiscent of the golden age of Hollywood comedy, Moonstruck (1987) starred Cher as a woman falling for her fiancé’s brother; as her interfering mother, Rose, the Greek-born Olympia Dukakis made for one of cinema’s most memorable Italian-American matriarchs.
After decades of obscurity, she found herself accosted in the street by admirers who would quote the tirades she rasped at her daughter in the film – notably “What’s the matter with you, your life’s going down the toilet!”, which she had improvised on set.
While Cher won the Oscar for Best Actress, Olympia Dukakis carried off the Best Supporting Actress statuette. At the ceremony she voiced her support for her cousin Michael Dukakis – “Ok, Michael, let’s go!” – who was running as the Democratic nominee for the White House against the eventually successful Republican George HW Bush.
With her throaty voice and mournful features that could appear either stern or long-suffering, Olympia Dukakis had long been prematurely cast as older women: her role in the film John and Mary (1969) as the mother of Dustin Hoffman, in reality only half a dozen years her junior, was typical casting in her early years. Perhaps it was inevitable that she had to wait until she was in late middle age before she came into her own in the cinema.
After Moonstruck she was in demand as a succession of tough old broads, including Jack Lemmon’s overbearing wife in Dad (1989), Frank Sinatra’s formidable mother Dolly in the TV miniseries Sinatra (1992) and the grandmother of the baby voiced by Bruce Willis in the Look Who’s Talking comedies.
She was particularly good in Steel Magnolias (1989), holding her own against Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts in a slice of Southern small-town life, and helping to leaven the weepie storyline with another fine comic performance, delivering lines such as: “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.”
“It was certainly affirming for lots of women,” she later recalled. “At first you think, ‘these silly bats, all they care about is their hair’, and then you realise that they are capable of really profound friendships.”
Otherwise, however, she was not generally impressed with the quality of the film parts she was offered after her Oscar win, and was prouder of her enduring role in the television series Tales of the City, which began in 1993.
Based on Armistead Maupin’s novels of gay life in San Francisco in the 1970s, the series earned Olympia Dukakis a Bafta nomination as Anna Madrigal, the pot-smoking, transgender landlady of an apartment building at 28 Barbary Lane, where she lends a sympathetic ear to her lovelorn tenants and protects them fiercely: “Listen dear, when you get this old lady, you get her for life.” This ethereal but savvy earth mother was casting against type, but friends attested it was the role closest to the real Olympia Dukakis.
Despite the controversy generated by its celebratory approach to recreational drug-use and casual gay sex in the pre-Aids era – it was taken off air in the US after protests by religious groups – Tales of the City was revived many times, most recently by Netflix in 2019, with Mrs Madrigal being asked in one episode whether San Francisco had changed since the 1960s. “Not much actually. We’re still people, aren’t we? Flawed, narcissistic and doing our best.”
One oddity of Olympia Dukakis’s screen career was that she rarely played Greek roles, apart from the pastiche Greek Chorus in Woody Allen’s comedy Mighty Aphrodite (1995). The reason was that she was intensely proud of her heritage and found the Greek characters she was offered were too inauthentic: she turned down the role of the matriarch in the 2002 comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a part that seemed tailor-made for her, because the film did not chime with her own background.
She did consent, however, to allow her son to found a successful salad dressing line in her name, using her mother’s recipe.
Olympia Mary Dukakis was born into a Greek immigrant family in Lowell, Massachusetts, on June 20 1931. Her father, Costa, was an enthusiast for amateur theatricals and the young Olympia made her stage debut as the Spirit of Greece, releasing a pair of white doves; the birds fouled her spotless robes. “That should have been my first clue about what show business was like,” she said many years later.
As a scholarship girl at Arlington High School she was a star athlete and was New England fencing champion three years running. Her parents dissuaded her from pursuing an acting career and she studied physical therapy at Boston University, going on to work with polio victims all over the US.
When she was 27, however, she returned to Boston University to study acting, in defiance of her parents. She regarded her difficult relationship with them (she once described herself as “the poster child for the bad Greek daughter”) as a factor contributing to her success: “My anger [was] a motor that gave me strength and gave me confidence.”
She made her New York stage debut in The Breaking Wall (St Mark’s Playhouse, 1960) and won an Obie award for Brecht’s A Man’s a Man in 1963. Appearing in Anouilh’s Medea, she was asked to recommend a last-minute replacement for a male co-star and chose an actor she had briefly met called Louis Zorich, on the grounds that she found him extremely attractive; they married in 1962.
She made her television debut in Dr Kildare in 1962 and had a small part in the film Lilith (1964), but was mainly devoted to the theatre. She and Zorich set up two theatrical companies, the Actors’ Company in Boston and the Whole Theater Co in New Jersey; as well as acting and directing she did the laundry, mended the props and worked aggressively on fundraising.
It was rewarding work but far from lucrative, and after her husband was seriously injured in a car accident in 1977 she became the sole breadwinner for several years, teaching drama at New York University and becoming a regular in the soap opera Search for Tomorrow while keeping the Whole Theater going. “We sent our daughter through college on credit cards,” she recalled.
A role as Meryl Streep’s mother in Mike Nichols’s Heartburn (1986) looked set finally to turn her fortunes, only for all her scenes to be cut. Happily, however, Nichols cast her in a play on Broadway, where she caught the eye of Moonstruck’s director, Norman Jewison.
Her most acclaimed role in later life was that of a Holocaust survivor in Rose, a two-hour monologue written for her by Martin Sherman, which she performed in London and on Broadway. She also struck up a fruitful partnership with the writer Timberlake Wertenbaker, appearing in several of her stage plays in London and radio plays for the BBC.
She starred with Judi Dench in Alan Plater’s BBC television play The Last of the Blonde Bombshells (2000) and with Julie Walters in My Beautiful Son (ITV, 2001). In 2016 she was Bryan Cranston’s Aunt Vicky in the thriller The Infiltrator.
Olympia Dukakis’s autobiography, Ask Me Again Tomorrow, was published in 2003. In 2018 she was the subject of a documentary film, Olympia, in which she reflected movingly on her battles with drug use and suicidal impulses.
Her husband died in 2018 and she is survived by their daughter and two sons.
Olympia Dukakis, born June 20 1931, died May 1 2021