Some performers leave their mark with their art. Others with their commitment to social justice. Others still by educating younger artists to follow their passions. The rare few accomplish all of these over the course of a lifetime. Olympia Dukakis was one such legendary figure of the stage and screen. In a career that started in stage productions Dukakis eventually graduated to television and film amassing over 60 movies and 50 television series to her credit along with over 130 stage productions in an award-winning career defined by excellence and a love and respect for the art of performing and for justice in a judgmental world. A Golden Globe and Oscar winner and gay-rights and feminist advocate, Dukakis was among the most respected actresses of her time and one of the most vocal Hollywood figures of the last three decades. The world said goodbye to Dukakis on May 1, 2021 at the age of 89, but her legacy has left behind an undeniable mark on the industry she embraced so fully and the world in which she lived. Today, in honor of her greatness, let’s take a look back at the career of one of the greats of her craft and remember the life of Olympia Dukakis.
Olympia Dukakis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1931 to Greek emigrant parents. She faced discrimination for her Greek roots which would likely play a role in her life as an activist. She graduated from Arlington High School in Arlington, Massachusetts before earning a BA in physical therapy from Boston University which she used to help treat polio patients before returning to the university and earning a Master of Fine Arts in performing arts officially beginning her legendary career. Performing arts was a natural passion for Dukakis. By the time she was thirty she was working productions at the Williamstown Summer Theater in Massachusetts and eventually took her talent to Broadway. She made her small-screen debut in 1962 in episodes of “The Nurses” and “Sr. Kildare” and that same year married her husband Louis Zorich who she would remain with until his death in 2018. By 1963 a performance in the Off-Broadway production of “A Man’s A Man” earned her an Obie Award for Distinguished Performance. A year later she transitioned to film appearing in “Twice a Man” and in an uncredited role in “Lilith”. In 1969 she appeared in two more films, an uncredited role in “Stiletto” and in “John and Mary”. With her reputation as a capable performer now on solid ground, the following decades would solidify Dukakis as a true star on the big and small screen.
Throughout the 1970s Dukakis took smaller roles in several Hollywood films including “Made for Each Other”, “Death Wish”, “The Wanderers” and “Rich Kids”. She also expanded her television credits with episodes of “Nicky’s World”, “Great Performances”, and “The Andros Targets”. Possibly her biggest contribution to the decade was on the stage, however. She and husband Louis joined other acting couples to found the Whole Theater Company which debuted in 1973 and would continue to provide numerous yearly productions for over two decades. The 80s was when Dukakis was officially thrust into cinema stardom. After appearing in “The Idolmaker”, “National Lampoon Goes to the Movies” and “Walls of Glass”, Dukakis would appear in the 1987 film “Moonstruck” which earned her numerous industry awards including her only career Golden Globe and Academy Award wins as a supporting actress. She followed up that movie with hits like “Working Girl”, “Look Who’s Talking”, “Dad”, and one of her most famous movies “Steel Magnolias”. She also continued to appear in numerous TV shows on single-episode guest spots including “One of the Boys”, “American Playhouse” and “The Equalizer”. The 80s also brought Dukakis her second Obie award in 1985 as part of an ensemble performance award for the cast of “The Marriage of Bette and Boo”.
The 90s was Dukakis’s busiest decade on the big screen with 19 films throughout that span appearing in a movie every year of the decade except 1991 and 1999. Among her notable contributions were appearing in two “Look Who’s Talking” sequels, “Mafia!”, “Mr. Holland’s Opus”, and the “Naked Gun” franchise. She also added 14 television productions to her credit over the decade and received numerous award nominations for her small screen work. Her performances in “Lucky Day” in 1991, the 1998 miniseries “More Tales of the City”, and in “Joan of Arc” in 1999 all earned her Primetime Emmy nominations while her appearance in the 1992 miniseries “Sinatra”, exploring the life of Frank Sinatra, earned her a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe nomination for television. The 2000s were also busy with 13 movies and 15 small screen credits including films like “The Event”, “3 Needles”, “In the Land of Women” and “Away From Her” and guest spots on shows like “The Simpsons” and “Frasier”. She also continued her work on stage including ending her decades-long run at the Williamstown Summer Theatre with her final bow at the venue in 2003. Olympia also released an autobiography that same year, “Ask Me Again Tomorrow: A Life in Progress”, chronicling the prejudice she experienced as a Greek-American and other challenges she faced in her life.
Dukakis’s final decade of work saw her act in ten movies including “Cloudburst”, “Montana Amazon”, “7 Chinese Brothers”, “Emily & Tim” and “The Infiltrator”. In 2019 she also starred as herself in the documentary movie “Olympia”. Directed by Harry Mavromichalis, the movie explored the actress’s career and was critically praised upon its release. With a 2020 debut, this would be the final film appearance of the actress before her passing. Dukakis’s final role will be in the yet-to-be-released “Not to Forget” . She closed out her television career with appearances in numerous popular programs throughout the 2010s including “Bored to Death”, “Law and Order: SVU”, “Mike & Molly”, and her final small screen role in the Netflix miniseries “Tales of the City” in 2019.
Outside of acting Dukakis proved to be one of the most outspoken and influential celebrity women of her time. In addition to using her platform and her autobiography to raise awareness of the racial discrimination she faced as a Greek-American in her youth, Dukakis was a longtime ally of the LGBTQ community and advocated for same-sex marriage as well as women’s rights in general. When she wasn’t acting, Dukakis was exploring Hindu philosophy and often lectured about numerous topics including chronic illness, theater life, and feminism. She shared her love of acting as an educator teaching at New York University for 15 years and providing master classes for schools across the United States. Her contributions to art and art education earned her the National Art Club Medal of Honor.
Olympia Dukakis was often called a woman who danced to the beat of her own drum and her life and legacy show just that, a talented individual who wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she believed and put her all into her art. She was an incredible award-winning talent and few people can claim to have made as much of a difference as Dukakis who, even when she wasn’t performing, dedicated her life to making the world a better place. She was a fantastic actress, a dedicated professional, a leader in her art as an educator, and a model human being. She will be sorely missed, but will forever be remembered for her undeniably great contributions to an art she loved so much.