Blame it on the moon; after Olympia Dukakis won the Oscar as Cher’s tough, sardonic mother in the 1987 romantic comedy “Moonstruck,” she became both a household name and Hollywood’s go-to actress for similar maternal roles — at an age (56) when many of her peers were contemplating forced retirement.
“I got offered all these parts playing mothers because of ‘Moonstruck,’” notes Dukakis, who gets a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on May 24. “In fact, (director) Norman Jewison cast me after seeing me in the Mike Nichols production of Social Security, where I played Marlo Thomas’ mother, even though we were very close in age. But I guess I was able to pull it off.”
Two decades earlier, Dukakis had pulled off a similar trick in the 1969 drama John and Mary, where she was cast as Dustin Hoffman’s mother, despite being a mere six years older than him in real life — the same separation in years that she has with Thomas. “It is a little strange,” she admits, “but then in movies, especially big ones, it’s always been very hard to find roles for women my age, especially once you’re over 60. You’re usually playing mothers and grandmothers.”
But not always. The Lowell, Mass., native and longtime New York resident cites her character Clairee in “Steel Magnolias,” who was not a mother. “And then there’s Anna from ‘Tales of the City,’ who just yearned to be a mother and have all her maternal instincts come alive. They’re both pretty offbeat characters, and I’ve always loved those types, whatever medium it’s in,” Dukakis says.
Unlike most of her Hollywood contemporaries, Dukakis has largely focused on theater yet managed to juggle movies and TV work. “The problem isn’t the scheduling, it’s finding projects I really want to do,” she reports.
To this end, she has always been proactive in theater, adapting and directing plays, and mixing up the classics (Orpheus Descending, Uncle Vanya) with more contemporary fare (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Kennedy’s Children”). She also co-founded — with actor-husband Louis Zorich — two theater companies, including the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, N.J., “which we ran for nearly 20 years until 1990, and which allowed me to play the parts I always wanted to play.”
With a resume comprising more than 100 film and TV credits (“Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “Mighty Aphrodite,” “The Simpsons”) and close to 150 Broadway and Off Broadway productions, the prolific actress has enjoyed a longevity and “a career full of interesting roles,” thanks to being a character actor.
“That allows you so much more freedom,” says the daughter of Greek immigrants, who adds that, “I was typecast ethnically when I began on the stage in my 20s — as Greek, Italian, Jewish, and so on — and that stood me in good stead, and it made me industry-friendly when I got older.”
Unlike athletes who have short career spans, “actors can just keep going,” says Dukakis, who has no intention of retiring and who this summer will make her fifth appearance in the title role in Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” at Shakespeare & Co. in Lennox, Mass.
“After doing Brecht or Chekhov and all the other plays so often over the years, along with the films and TV, I really have found that acting gets far easier,” she says. “When I began, I was so concerned about the craft and the process, and being intimidated by the great parts. And I naturally tend to be a bit of a loose cannon. Now, I finally have some discipline, and it’s wonderful not to agonize over everything.”