Life after Mrs. Madrigal

Olympia Dukakis returns to SF for LGBT Pride
by Richard Dodds  Published 6/23/2011

Olympia Dukakis is an old pro at grand marshaling. A celebrity grand marshal in this Sunday’s Pride parade, the Oscar-winning actress previously presided over a Columbus Day parade in Bloomfield, NJ, in the late 1980s.

“It was after Moonstruck came out, and they asked me to do the parade. I said, ‘But I’m not Italian,’ and they said, ‘It doesn’t matter, because everyone thinks you’re Italian.’ So I did the parade, and they took me to a great bakery afterwards, and I came home loaded down with stuff.”

Dukakis won her Oscar for playing Cher’s tart-tongued Italian-American mother in Moonstruck, which was good enough reason for Bloomfield to extend an invitation – Dukakis, husband Louis Zorich, and their three children then lived in a nearby Jersey suburb – despite her unmistakably Greek given and family names. But Dukakis’ ties to San Francisco, and to its gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, are long, rich, and deep.

Through serendipity, and the astute assistance of Brandon Miller and Joanne Jordan of Jordan, Miller & Associates, Dukakis’ Pride appearance will dovetail into events tied into ACT’s musical version of Tales of the City, which means she can also host a benefit evening for the theater where she has so often worked and for the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation. And she’ll get to see for the first time how someone else is playing the role that first brought so many San Franciscans into her bosom.

That, of course, would be the sexually mysterious Anna Madrigal, the landlady at 28 Barbary Lane, the nexus of a straight-meets-LGBT world that Armistead Maupin created in his series of stories of San Francisco in the 1970s. What began as a newspaper serial became a collection of novels that, in turn, inspired three TV mini-series in the 1990s. In the musical adaptation at ACT, Broadway veteran Judy Kaye is playing Mrs. Madrigal, a performance that Dukakis will see on June 24 as part of the evening of fund-raising events that include tickets to the musical with Dukakis joining the cast at the curtain call, followed by a cocktail party at the Clift Hotel with the actress and the cast of the show. (Info at

“I scared the shit out of Armistead,” Dukakis said. “When the idea of the musical was starting, I said, ‘You know, I can sing.’ I saw his eyes widen in panic. I can sing, but eight times a week? Give me a break. Besides, I’m too old for the role. But I’m very interested to see what Judy Kaye does with it.”

And then there’s the matter of riding up Market Street as a grand marshal in the Pride parade. Dukakis had a lot of questions. “What do you do as a grand marshal?” “Will people know it’s me?” “What should I wear?”

If she has questions about details of her duties, despite the Columbus Day antecedent, she is approaching it with one certainty. “My whole attitude is that I’m going to have a great time,” she said. “And putting it all together with the show at ACT, which is a theater I love, how much better could it be?”

There is also a serious side to her involvement. “Like many people, I have friends who have gone through the difficulty of trying to adopt children or get married or getting the other legal protections most of us have,” she said. “These are not just issues to me, they all have faces.”

Dukakis recently completed a film that speaks specifically to many of these very issues. In Cloudburst, she plays half of a long-term lesbian couple who loses her home when her partner’s daughter has her mother declared incompetent and takes over the property. “So my character goes to the hospital and kidnaps Brenda Fricker’s character, and we drive to Canada and get married.”

Dukakis was back in the studio a few weeks ago for post-production dubbing for a version that can be shown on airlines. “You have to change ‘ass’ to ‘arse.’ Why if you say it like the Brits you can get away with it, don’t ask me. And I’m hard-pressed to see how they’re going to show it on planes anyway. There are romantic scenes, and in one scene I go after her with a dildo, and our characters laugh and carry on about it.”

That a movie like Cloudburst is being readied as in-flight entertainment is a long journey from the time when the first season of Tales of the City so rankled people like Senator Jesse Helms that PBS let one of its most popular programs pass to Showtime for its two subsequent seasons.

Sen. Helms probably didn’t watch long enough to learn Mrs. Madrigal’s big secret, and if you don’t know what it is and plan to see the musical, you should stop reading at the end of this sentence. But by now, both through the popularity of the books and the television adaptations, most people know that Anna Madrigal is a transsexual who previously had fathered a child. It was a twist that only made Dukakis want the role more.

“Anything that stymies me or scares me is always of real interest to me,” she said. She had not read Maupin’s books, and was advised by the director not to do so until finishing the series. “But I read everything I could about transsexuals, about the operations, and the psychiatric involvement,” Dukakis said. “I needed to find out what made it possible, even necessary, for a person to go through such a painful process. I told one of the producers I needed to talk to someone who has gone through this, and he introduced me to this woman, 6-foot-2 but with a very soft voice, and I asked her what was it that made it matter so much. And the first thing she said was, ‘All my life I yearned for the friendship of women,’ and I tell you, I started to cry. I didn’t know what the hell she was going to say, but this was such a human thing.”

The meeting, which went on to cover other aspects of the decision to transition, convinced Dukakis that she needed to avoid any sensational or stereotypical spins on the role. “What I had was the option at any given time to come from a more masculine or more feminine place in myself,” she said. “It was a very special time in my life.”

On Dukakis’ upcoming agenda, she has a three-episode run as Zach Galifianakis’ much older paramour in the HBO series Bored to Death, an appearance at the Festival of the Aegean on the Greek isle of Syros in the one-woman play Rose, and a return to her sly but mostly mute role in Morris Paynch’s Vigil at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Her co-star again is Marco Barricelli, with whom she first performed the play at ACT in 2010. It was her sixth ACT appearance; they date back to 1995.

She first met ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff in New York, when Perloff was still running the Classic Stage Company. “She asked me to do Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, and at the time I thought it was politically disgusting to be in a play that said women should give up trying to be more valued in society and go back to being wives. I said I’d try to find a play for us.”

It turned out to be Hecuba, by which point Perloff had moved to San Francisco to take over ACT’s top artistic slot, and Dukakis performed the Greek tragedy while the theater was still in temporary quarters following the 1989 earthquake. The roles that Dukakis takes on are never the easy ones, even with her 80th birthday now in the rearview mirror.

“I do theater because you know who you are when you’re on that stage,” Dukakis said. “You know you’re alive.”

This entry was posted in Olympia Dukakis. Bookmark the permalink.