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Actress Won Oscar in 'Year of the Dukakii'

Olympia Dukakis triumphed in 1988, when her cousin ran for president
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 1, 2021 4:15 PM CDT

(Newser) – Olympia Dukakis, the stage and screen actress whose flair for maternal roles helped her win an Oscar as Cher's mother in the romantic comedy Moonstruck, has died. She was 89. Dukakis died Saturday at her home in New York City; the cause of death was not released, the AP reports. Dukakis won her Oscar through a series of twists, beginning with Nora Ephron's recommendation that she play Meryl Streep's mother in the film version of Ephron's book Heartburn. Dukakis got the role, but her scenes were cut from the film. To make it up to her, director Mike Nichols cast her in his hit play Social Security. Director Norman Jewison saw her and cast her in Moonstruck. Dukakis won the Oscar for best supporting actress, and Cher took the trophy for best actress. She referred to her 1988 win as "the year of the Dukakii" because it was also the year Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, her cousin, was the Democratic Party's presidential nominee. At the ceremony, she held her Oscar high and called out: "OK, Michael, let's go!"

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Dukakis had yearned to act from an early age and hoped to study drama in college. Her Greek immigrant parents insisted she pursue a more practical education, so she studied physical therapy at Boston University on a scholarship from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. After earning her bachelor's degree, she worked in hospitals. But the lure of the theater led her to study drama at Boston University. It was a shocking change, she later said, noting that she went from the calm world of science to one where students screamed at teachers. "I thought they were all nuts," she said. "It was wonderful." Her first graduate school performance was a disaster, however, as she sat wordless onstage. After a teacher helped cure her stage fright, she began working in summer stock theaters. Her Oscar victory later kept the motherly film roles coming. She was Kirstie Alley's mom in Look Who’s Talking, the sardonic widow in Steel Magnolias, and the overbearing wife of Jack Lemmon (and mother of Ted Danson) in Dad. But the stage was her first love. "My ambition wasn't to win the Oscar," she once said. "It was to play the great parts."

(Read more obituary stories.)

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