Olympia Dukakis dies at 89; acclaimed actress co-founded Whole Theater in Montclair

olympia dukakis dead

Olympia Dukakis, left, with Shirley MacLaine in the movie “Steel Magnolias.”

Olympia Dukakis has died at the age of 89, at her home in New York. The Oscar-winning (for “Moonstruck”) actor, director, author and teacher and former Montclair resident “passed away this morning in New York City,” wrote her brother Apollo on Facebook, May 1. “After many months of failing health she is finally at peace and with her (husband) Louis (Zorich).” Zorich, also an actor, died in 2018.

“Olympia Dukakis was a great actress who loved the work and loved the theatre,” said actor Michael McKean said via Twitter. “She was the acting teacher who spoke to me (and many, many others) with clarity and humor and NO censor. She would tell us: don’t forget that the reason you wanted to do this was that it looked like fun. And it is. Amid the sweat and the angst, don’t forget the fun. Rest in peace, Olympia.”

The Academy, the organization that presents the Oscars, put out the following statement: “Olympia Dukakis brought warmth, humor and wit to the stage and screen for almost 60 years, including a stellar run of unforgettable roles in ‘Steel Magnolias,’ ‘Tales of the City’ and ‘Moonstruck,’ for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She will be missed.”

“Tales of the City” was a TV mini-series based on Armistead Maupin’s book series of the same name. Some of of Dukakis’ other notable film credits include “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “Look Who’s Talking” and “Mighty Aprhodite.”

According to Wikipedia, Dukakis — a native of Lowell, Mass., and a cousin of the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis — acted in more than 130 stage productions, more than 60 films, and in 50 television series. She also co-founded, with Zorich, the Whole Theater in Montclair, soon after they moved to the town in the early ’70s.

With Dukakis serving as producing artistic director, the theater produced plays by writers including Eugene O’Neill, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson and others, with Jose Ferrer, Colleen Dewhurst, Blythe Danner and Samuel L. Jackson among the cast members. Dukakis and Zorich frequently acted in the plays as well, and/or directed them.

The theater closed around the time that Dukakis and Zorich moved away from Montclair, in the early ’90s.

The cover of Olympia Dukakis’ book, “Ask Me Again Tomorrow: A Life in Progress.”

In 2003, Dukakis published a memoir, “Ask Me Again Tomorrow: A Life in Progress.”

“Women still stop me in the street to yell, ‘I know who I am,’ which is the line Rose Castorini says in my breakout role in ‘Moonstruck,’ when rebuffing a pass from a younger man,” she wrote in the book. “I love the strength of character it took for her to say that. I love that she believes that to be true, and that it’s the thing that keeps her true to herself. But I am not Rose Castorini. When I finally agreed to write this book, my editor suggested that should be the title. ‘But I don’t know who I am,’ I told her, ‘that’s just the point.’ Because the ‘who I am’ keeps changing, evolving — it’s inevitable.”

Dukakis’ last stage performance was as the title character in Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage” at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., in 2013.

In 2019, a documentary about her colorful life, “Olympia,” was screened at the Montclair Film Festival.

“Montclair really embraced the Whole Theater for about 25 years,” Dukakis told Montclair Local at the time. “Subscribers came from New York, and actors came from New York. We had some good times. It meant a lot to me, that theater, that company, that audience, and to make me feel wanted.”

Whoopi Goldberg was one of Dukakis’ admirers who was interviewed for the documentary. In it, she said: “Olympia, the actress, is superb. Her range is frightening, and wonderful to watch. It’s what every actor wants.”

Here is the trailer for “Olympia”:

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