Daughter of Greek immigrants and beloved theater and film actress Olympia Dukakis passed away on Saturday, May 1, less than two months shy of her 90th birthday.
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts to Alexandra and Constantine Dukakis, Olympia shared many stories of growing up under the pressures of a patriarchal family and Greek community, coupled with the added pressure of living in a neighborhood where ethnic discrimination, particularly against Greeks, was routine.
From an early age, she excelled in sports and was a three-time New England fencing champion. She majored in Physical Therapy and received a BA from Boston University, later returning to the same school for a Master of Fine Arts.
She moved to New York City in the early 1960s and began a decades-long career in stage and screen. It was there where she would meet and eventually marry the love of her life— fellow New York theater actor Louis Zorich.
Planning for a family, the couple moved out of the city in 1970 to settle in Montclair, NJ, where they raised their three children: Christina, Peter, and Stefan and also co-founded the Whole Theater Company, which staged five productions every season over almost two decades.
Olympia’s prolific stage career included hundreds of on and off-Broadway roles that won her theater’s top awards and accolades and solidifying her role as one of the greatest theater actors of the 20th century.
She was just as prolific on screen, performing in dozens of critically-acclaimed performances and earning Hollywood’s top awards in the process, including Steel Magnolias, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Jane Austen’s Mafia!, The Thing About My Folks, and Moonstruck, for which she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1987. She also played the role of Anna Madrigal in the Tales of the City television mini-series, which garnered her an Emmy Award nomination.
It wasn’t only the roles she accepted that brought her fame, but those she turned down.
She was approached to play the matriarch in Nia Vardalos’ 2002 film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” but declined, telling the Chicago Tribune in an interview that she “wasn’t that enthusiastic about the part.”
“I’m happy it’s had success. I know some Greeks feel conflicted about it. I didn’t grow up with those kind of people.” she said. “That wasn’t my Greek experience.”
When she wasn’t acting, she was protesting. Olympia was a strong advocate for anyone who had been betrayed by the system. She was a particularly strong advocate for Women’s Rights and LGBTQ Rights, including same-sex marriage.
She famously advocated for her first cousin and then-Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis from the stage at the Oscars, lifting the award over her head and crying out “OK Michael let’s go.”
In 2018 a documentary film about her life and career was released, featuring a host of colleagues and friends including Whoopi Goldberg, Laura Linney, Ed Asner and others with whom she’s shared stage and screen.
In the film, she returns to her parents’ ancestral homeland of Greece and speaks to villagers and townsfolk, before having her own emotional moment in the country and heritage she spoke often about as giving her much of the inspiration to pursue a career in the arts.
She was a founding member of the board of directors of the New York City-based Greek America Foundation, which has started a fund in honor of her life and will inaugurate an annual prize in her name and memory, according to a statement from the organization.
On stage and in film, as well as in her life, Olympia Dukakis was defined by the choices she made— never going with what was commercially viable, safe or or popular, always doing what she believed was right and just.
Whether it was playing a trans woman on a controversial television series in the 1990s, marching in numerous Gay Rights Parades and protesting the war in Iraq, or even turning down roles that many believed were written for her, Olympia always followed her beliefs and remained true to them until the end.