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David Krumholtz

Olympia Dukakis Biography


Home > Actresses > D > Dukakis, Olympia > Biography


Birth Name: Olympia Dukakis
Born: 06/20/1931
Birth Place: Lowell, Massachusetts, USA


The child of Greek immigrants, Olympia was born on June 20, 1931 in Lowell, MA to Alexandra and Constantine S. Dukakis. Although her immediate family was small, consisting only of her parents, herself, and a brother, Apollo, her extended family included future Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who would run for President of the United States in 1988. As a youngster, Dukakis was encouraged by her father to perform with his amateur theater group, although her focus was on physical rehabilitation studies upon entering college at Boston University's Sargent College, from which he earned her BA in 1953. However, her parents were, above all, pragmatists, and when Dukakis announced that she was abandoning a potentially well-paying career as a physical therapist for the unpredictable life of an actress, they were less than thrilled. Undeterred, she picked up an MFA in Acting from B.U. in 1957 and went on to become a founding member of the Charles Playhouse in Boston for a period before its eventual closure. Dukakis next made the move to New York City, where she made her off-Broadway debut in a production of "The Breaking Wall" in 1960.

Possessed of a New England work ethic and unassailable talent, Dukakis began a fruitful affiliation with the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1961, followed by her debut on Broadway in "The Aspern Papers" the following year. While none of the work would necessarily be considered "star-making" the young actress was gaining notice, with her television debut on the first season of the medical drama "The Doctors and the Nurses" (CBS, 1962-65), and an Obie Award win for Distinguished Performance in a 1963 production of "A Man's a Man." Dukakis made her feature film debut in Robert Rossen's "Lilith" (1964), in which the versatile performer was cast as a patient in a mental institution. It was also around this time that she began teaching acting at New York University, in addition to founding The Whole Theater Company in Montclair, NJ. Dukakis would remain active in both roles over the next two decades. As more feature film work came her way, Dukakis began what would become a lengthy career portraying mothers, such as that of Dustin Hoffman in the romantic drama "John and Mary" (1969) and Joseph Bologna in the cult comedy "Made for Each Other" (1971).

Still known more for her lauded work on the stage than on the big or small screen, Dukakis continued to pick up small, often uncredited roles in projects that included the psychological thriller "Sisters" (1973), directed by Brian De Palma, and "Death Wish" (1974), starring Charles Bronson as a pacifist-turned-vigilante. Having already made several series guest appearances, she made her TV movie debut as a member of a close-knit Greek family in the failed television pilot "Nicky's World" (CBS, 1974). In what was becoming a career staple, Dukakis played more mothers in a pair of period pieces including the comedy-drama "The Wanderers" (1979), starring Ken Wahl, then in the 1950s pop music melodrama "The Idolmaker" (1980), opposite Ray Sharkey. Never far from her theatrical roots, Dukakis returned to the stage when famed director Mike Nichols hired her to co-star as an elderly woman with a penchant for literally chewing the scenery in the Broadway mounting of the comedy "Social Security" in 1986. It was that performance that caught the attention of filmmaker Norman Jewison who cast her in the hit romantic comedy "Moonstruck" (1987), starring Cher and Nicholas Cage. For her complex role as the mother of the lovelorn Loretta (Cher) and wife of philandering husband Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia), Dukakis won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.

Suddenly, the 56-year-old actress was an "overnight success," and Dukakis' film career shifted into high gear with an impressive streak that included roles as a personnel director opposite Melanie Griffith in Mike Nichol's "Working Girl" (1988), as Kirstie Alley's mom in "Look Who's Talking" (1989), and as Jack Lemmon's humorless wife in "Dad" (1989). On a roll, that same year she joined an impressive female ensemble cast as Shirley MacLaine's friendly rival in the tear-jerking dramedy "Steel Magnolias" (1989). Other notable roles included that of an aging actress desirous of a comeback in "The Last Act is a Solo" (A&E, 1991), for which she won a CableACE Award, as well as the mother of actor-singer Frank Sinatra in the miniseries "Sinatra" (CBS, 1992). Also on television, Dukakis played the eccentric landlady with a secret, Mrs. Madrigal, in the adaptation of "Armistead Maupin's 'Tales of the City'" (PBS, 1993). That same year, she had a rare lead in "The Cemetery Club" (1993), a comedy drama co-starring Ellen Burstyn and Diane Ladd as three women who all lose their husbands within a short period of time. She was busier than ever two years later, taking on roles as varied as the proud mother of a pre-operative transsexual son in "Jeffrey" (1995), to a member of the Greek chorus in Woody Allen's "Mighty Aphrodite" (1995), to the disapproving high school principal in "Mr. Holland's Opus" (1995).

Dukakis reprised her earlier role on cable in the miniseries sequel, "Armistead Maupin's 'More Tales of the City'" (Showtime, 1998), and for a third time in "Armistead Maupin's 'Further Tales of the City'" (Showtime, 2001). She later appeared with Parker Posey in writer-director Thom Fitzgerald's mystery drama "The Event" (2003) and with fellow cinematic "grand dames" Lynn Redgrave and Diane Ladd in the psychological thriller "Charlie's War" (2003). Dukakis appeared briefly as bookish adventurer Noah Wyle's mother in the TV adventure "The Librarian: Quest for the Spear" (TNT, 2004), as Peter Falk's wife in the Paul Reiser comedy "The Thing about My Folks" (2005), and as a missionary in South Africa in the HIV drama "3 Needles" (2005). The following year she reprised her earlier role in "The Librarian: Return to King Solomon's Mines" (TNT, 2006), which had become a successful TV movie franchise for the cable network. Continuing to work steadily well into her seventies, Dukakis appeared with Meg Ryan and Kristen Stewart in actor-writer Jon Kasdan's directorial debut "In the Land of Women" (2007), in addition to numerous other film projects. On television, she took on guest turn roles on the noir comedy series "Bored to Death" (HBO, 2009- ) in 2010, followed by a 2011 appearance on the long-running police procedural "Law & Order" Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 1999- ).

By Bryce Coleman