Olympia Dukakis was attending Boston University’s Sargent College, heading for a career in physical therapy, when she was asked to direct a college show and, she said later, “it was the first time I really became 100 percent alive. I was so committed to what we were doing, it changed my life.”
A few years later, after taking time to treat polio patients, she was back at BU studying theater. She then helped form an actors’ company on Cape Cod and later headed to New York City for what would become a highly praised acting career.
Ms. Dukakis, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Cher’s Italian-American mother in the 1987 film “Moonstruck,” was 89 when she died Saturday in her Manhattan home. Her family has not specified a cause, though her health “was beginning to fail a bit,” said her cousin Michael S. Dukakis, a former Massachusetts governor.
“Her story is just a remarkable one,” he said Saturday afternoon, “and we were very close as cousins.”
Close enough that when Ms. Dukakis, who campaigned for him during his bid for president in 1988, accepted the Oscar for “Moonstruck” at the awards ceremony that year, she first calmly thanked her family and those associated with the movie, speaking in an even voice.
Then she lifted the statuette over her head and shouted: “OK, Michael, let’s go!”
He went on to secure the Democratic nomination before George H.W. Bush won the general election.
“I loved her, and she was wonderful,” Michael Dukakis said.
Ms. Dukakis also won a Golden Globe for portraying Rose Castorini in “Moonstruck” — a triumph that opened the door to more screen roles.
Among her notable roles, Ms. Dukakis played a widow in “Steel Magnolias” (1989); Jack Lemmon’s wife in “Dad” (1989); Rosie, the mother of Kirstie Alley’s character in the three “Look Who’s Talking” movies; Anna Madrigal, a San Francisco landlady in four TV mini-series adapted from Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” stories, which were broadcast from 1993 to 2019; and Dolly, Frank Sinatra’s mother, in the 1992 TV miniseries “Sinatra.”
Not long after “Moonstruck,” she knew that one role had changed her career and the rest of her life as well. Up until then, she and her actor husband, Louis Zorich, had worked steadily though their talent often wasn’t richly rewarded. “It was a never-ending struggle,” she said, to find the money to pay for college for their three children, Christina, Peter, and Stefan.
“Now I go to bed at night knowing that my kids can get their education, knowing we can pay the bills,” Ms. Dukakis told the Globe in 1989. “There were a lot of times Louis and I weren’t sure of that. Let me tell you, a lotta, lotta times.”
The older of two siblings, Olympia Dukakis was born in Lowell on June 20, 1931, the daughter of Constantine Dukakis and Alexandra Christos, both of whom were Greek immigrants.
During the Great Depression, her father worked “at anything he could find, then during World War II at odd jobs around the clock, just to get on his feet,” she said in the 1989 interview.
Though her family “wasn’t poor, we certainly weren’t well-off either.”
Among the six cousins on the Dukakis side of the family, “five guys and one girl, so we gave her a hard time,” Michael said.
He recalled that “she was not only a good student, she was a very good athlete at a time when girls didn’t spend a lot of time as athletes,” and became a regional fencing champion.
She had considered becoming a veterinarian, then chose instead to study physical therapy at BU’s Sargent College and was chosen to direct the show when she was a sophomore.
“I have no idea why they chose me to direct that play! None! But I’m so grateful,” she told the Globe.
There was theater in her family, however. Her father had helped form the Demosthenes Club, an amateur theater group in Lowell that put on classic plays in ancient Greek.
“He and my mother did shows during the Second World War for the Red Cross and the Greek war relief,” Ms. Dukakis said. “My father acted, my mother danced.”
While taking graduate courses at BU, from which she would receive a master of fine arts in theater, she and some actor friends put together a company on Cape Cod that formed the foundation for what would later become the Charles Playhouse.
Before leaving for New York City, she took a non-theater job stuffing chocolates for six months at a candy business.
“It was one of those belt lines, the workers all lined up, the chocolates riding off being stuffed. Just like in ‘I Love Lucy,’ ” she told the Globe. “That scene really happened to me, with me running down the line trying to stuff a baby I’d missed.”
Heading to New York with $60 in savings, she eventually began landing roles as a character actress, sometimes on Broadway.
She married Louis Zorich in 1962 and for a time ran a company in New Jersey called the Whole Theater, for which she “acted, directed, answered the phone, button-holed people for money, pleaded, begged,” she told the Globe in 1991.
Even after her success with “Moonstruck,” she kept acting in theater, including at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
In movies, meanwhile, “I’m frequently cast as an Italian. I guess I have that ethnic look,” she told the Globe in 1988. “But they did have a dialect coach on ‘Moonstruck,’ and I worked with her. I had to watch out for my Boston ‘a.’ ”
She added in the interview that she also felt a kinship with Michael Dukakis that went beyond being cousins and sharing a last name.
“I know that there is in Michael a tremendous desire to better the lives of the people around him,” Ms. Dukakis said. “I have a similar desire, but I’ve expressed it through the work I’ve done in theater, and my sense of the theater as being a cultural resource for the entire community.”
A complete list of survivors and plans for a memorial service were not immediately available.
Her husband, whose roles included portraying Paul Reiser’s father on the NBC series “Mad About You,” died in 2018. Her daughter Christina Zorich is an actor, as is Ms. Dukakis’s brother, Apollo Dukakis.
Ms. Dukakis published a memoir, “Ask Me Again Tomorrow: A Life in Progress,” in 2003.
“She had an incredible life and we were very proud of her, needless to say,” her cousin Michael said.
Ms. Dukakis had returned to Lowell in 1990 for “An Evening with Olympia Dukakis,” when officials honored her accomplishments and her roots in the city.
“I didn’t get little fairy stories when I was growing up. I had the adventures of Greek gods and heroes,” she told the Globe then.
The visit, she said, allowed her to embrace again the spirit of her family, which had helped her to succeed in a business where few do.
“My father believed it,” she said, “and my mother lived it: You should try everything; you should let yourself experience things; be adventuresome.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.