Olympia Dukakis: Olympian ambition

Cousin Michael ran for President, but he's not the only Dukakis with drive. Take Olympia: raised a family, ran a theatre and won an Oscar. And, at 70, she tells Brian Viner, she's not finished yet
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The Independent Online

Her father Constantine was a poor Greek immigrant who settled in the Massachussetts town of Lowell and found work in a First World War munitions factory. After the war, he got a job in a textile mill, to which he would walk each morning with a group of other Greeks, to fend off attacks by resentful Irish and French immigrants, who had been there longer and thought that the newcomers, prepared to work for peanuts, were driving wages down. Later, Constantine found a bride within the Greek community – Alexandra, Olympia's mother.

Constantine Dukakis was fiercely pro-American. "He was," says his daughter, "very fired by the possibilities and potential of the United States. He was a socialist with a strong social conscience. He and my mother thought the world of Franklin Roosevelt. And when I was first old enough to vote, he accompanied me to the town hall where I had to swear the Oath of Allegiance; he was very moved by that. It was also very important to him that I had a library card, although he was always bothered by the fact that the libraries closed at night. He thought they should stay open for those who worked all day.

"For my father, it really was the land of opportunity, the opportunity to break out of the class structure that he'd known in Greece. It was very hard for him to tolerate severe criticism of the United States, which I was prone to, being the next generation. The Vietnam War, civil rights, for him that was very disturbing."

At family get-togethers, political and social issues were always hotly debated, sometimes with Constantine's brother Panos, and his son Michael joining in. At which point, we should fast-forward the story of Olympia Dukakis (and America) to April, 1988.

Olympia was then 56, and Constantine had died (like many New Deal socialists, he died a Republican). He had desperately wanted her to become a teacher, but she had instead become an actress, albeit an actress who taught acting, at New York University, to supplement her meagre stage income.

With her actor husband, Louis Zorich, Olympia (I am using her first name throughout, because I like writing it) ran a busy but non-profit-making theatre company in Montclair, New Jersey. Occasionally, she would land a fleeting role in a television soap, "always as the crazy ethnic neighbour, screaming and yelling and carrying on". But she was considered too "ethnic", in looks and name, for a mainstream television role. "They wanted me to change my name, but that was impossible for me," she says.

Occasionally, too, she would win a tiny part in a Hollywood film. But working in Hollywood filled her with gloom. "Even now, what I do on stage is irrelevant there. It's not as if it's dismissed, it's not even part of the equation. It's not in the mix. It never makes it to the table. So you begin to feel disorientated. I'm used to it now. But it used to fill me with a strange malaise, because there, youth, fashion and money are what identify you as relevant."

And money she did not have. Louis was a bigger earner, but when he was almost killed in a car crash, and could not work for five years, Olympia became the sole breadwinner. They had three children, and a credit-card strategy for getting their daughter through college. Times were tough. They did not know that in Olympia's talent, they had huge untapped capital.

One night, the writer Nora Ephron saw her in a play, and decided she would fit the part of Meryl Streep's mother in the forthcoming film version of her book Heartburn. As it turned out, Olympia's scenes were cut, but Mike Nichols, who directed Heartburn, then cast her in a play called Social Security, which the film director Norman Jewison happened to see. This little-known fiftysomething with the aristocratic nose would be perfect, reckoned Jewison, to play Cher's mother in his romantic comedy Moonstruck.

And so to the Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, on 11 April 1988, where Michael Douglas presented the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. How did she respond, I wonder, when he read out the name Olympia Dukakis? "I can't remember. But I can remember what happened to Louis. He put his head down and started to cry."

Similarly moved, watching the ceremony on television, was Olympia's cousin Michael, who had seen Moonstruck only the night before. He was, after all, a busy guy, the governor of Massachussetts, well on his way to becoming Democratic candidate in the 1988 presidential election.

"As I walked to the stage," recalls Olympia, "I remember wishing that my father could have been there, just as Michael wished his late father could be at the Atlanta convention (where he was confirmed as presidential candidate). I remember being in a limo with Michael, and we agreed that if our fathers could see us, they would both be crying. It would have been so incredible to them that within one generation he was running for president, and I received an Academy Award. At least both our mothers were alive to see it."

After the ceremony, Olympia called her mother. "Now the whole world can see what a wonderful actress you are," she said.

Perhaps more importantly, so could the industry. The following year, in Steel Magnolias, she was cast alongside Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Daryl Hannah and Julia Roberts. And in 1992, when Armistead Maupin was looking for someone to play Mrs Madrigal, the transsexual earth mother in the TV adaptation of his book Tales of the City, he described waking up one night and seeing the face of Olympia Dukakis.

Mrs Madrigal remains her favourite role – "I loved hanging out in her world, and I envied her self-confidence," she says.

But when I meet Olympia, it is in her original habitat, a theatre dressing-room, during the run at London's Royal Court of her friend Timberlake Wertenbaker's play, Credible Witness.

This interview, however, is to publicise an ITV drama called My Beautiful Son. She plays the wealthy, adoptive mother of a New York psychiatrist (Paul Reiser), who finds that only a bone-marrow transplant can save him from dying of leukemia. When she tells him that he was adopted, and so might have siblings who could offer him compatible bone marrow, he tracks down his birth mother (Julie Walters) to a grim council estate in Toxteth, Liverpool. It is beautifully done, poignant but funny, and Olympia, although she has only a small part, is, as ever, quite wonderful.

She is a captivating actress, and scarcely less captivating in real life – indeed The Independent's photographer, David Sandison, seems downright besotted. "Steel Magnolias has to be my favourite movie," he tells her. "Really!" she exclaims, her voice rising an octave, although still magnificently deep. "It was certainly affirming for lots of women. At first you think, 'these silly bats, all they care about is their hair', and then you realise that they are capable of really profound friendships."

Olympia is 70 now, but remains, she says, full of ambition. "I want to play parts that really scare me. Complicated women, whose lives are not resolved."

Her own life, I fancy, is thoroughly resolved. "Yes, although I lived so long with an anxiety about money that it takes a while to let go. My husband was on the phone to me today. 'OLYMPIA (she shouts), YOU DON'T HAVE TO DO THAT! OLYMPIA, DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH MONEY WE HAVE?' But you see, with that accident... I was so nailed to the wall, acting, teaching, bringing up the kids..."

She wipes away a tear, and to change the subject I ask her what became of her cousin Michael. "He teaches public policy at UCLA. I've sat in on one of his classes, he's a wonderful teacher. And he's very happy. Happier than if... Dick Gregory, a black, very political comedian, told me that if Michael had been elected president, he would have been killed, because of what he stood for."

In which unhappy case, the story of Olympia Dukakis, and her family, would still have been the story of America.

'My Beautiful Son' is on ITV1 on Wednesday 7 November at 9.10pm