Olympia Dukakis, left, co-founded the Whole Theatre in 1971, and served as its producing artistic director. She was a resident of Montclair for three decades. (COURTESY OFFICE OF OLYMPIA DUKAKIS)

By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

Olympia Dukakis didn’t care much for awards and accolades, her son, Peter Zorich said.

But Montclair rallied around one of its own when Dukakis’ 1988 performance in “Moonstruck” won her an Academy Award for best supporting actress — praise for a performance that captured the world’s attention, as Rose Castorini, the sensitive Italian mother of Cher’s Loretta Castorini. Then-Gov. Thomas Kean gave her a sendoff when she flew to Hollywood for the ceremony; Montclair gave her a parade when she returned.

It was a point of pride for a community Dukakis and husband Louis Zorich had come to call home, having moved in 1970 into a house on Upper Mountain Avenue to raise their children. It was a recognition of an artistic spirit Montclair knew well — one that drove the Whole Theatre Company she and her husband co-founded in 1971. Dukakis and Zorich lived in Montclair for three decades before moving to New York.

Dukakis died Saturday, May 1, at the age of 89.

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Dukakis, her son said, “was consumed with meaningful pursuits, both professionally and personally, and gravitated towards people who shared the same commitment.” He described her as “unrelenting” and “a fierce advocate for the people and causes she cared about.”

Dukakis’ legacy spans more than five decades of work in firm, television and theater — sometimes on the stage of the Whole Theatre itself, where she was producing artistic director. She’d been an actress, a director, a producer and a teacher.

Born on June 20, 1931, in Lowell, Massachusetts, Dukakis graduated from Boston University with a B.A. in physical therapy and practiced as a physical therapist during the polio epidemic. She later returned to Boston University and earned a master of fine arts. 

Olympia Dukakis and husband Louis Zorich co-founded the Whole Threatre Company in Montclair in 1971. Both returned to Montclair often. Zorich predeceased Dukakis in 2018. (COURTESY PETER ZORICH)

At age 30 she made her Broadway debut as an understudy in “The Aspern Papers,” one of several Broadway appearances. She’d ultimately have roles in more than 130 off-Broadway and regional stage productions at venues including the Roundabout Theatre, Public Theatre, A.C.T., Shakespeare in the Park and Shakespeare & Co. 

Her one-woman play “Rose” premiered at the National Theater in London and on Broadway in 2000. She was a master instructor at New York University for 14 years. She has more than 120 film credits, including a role as a judge in the yet-to-be-released independent film “Not to Forget.”

She’d also been an early board member and occasional director for Luna Stage, at the time located in Montclair.

Dukakis’ life had been portrayed in the biographical documentary “Olympia,” shown at the Montclair Film Festival in 2019. In a Q&A session, Dukakis recounted her time with the Whole Theatre Company, which closed in 1990 after cutbacks to federal funding.

“Subscribers came from New York, and actors came from New York. We had some good times. It meant a lot to me, that theater, that company, that audience, and to make me feel wanted.”

Olympia Dukakis was an actress, director, producer and teacher. She’s seen here with students. (COURTESY HARRY MAVROMICHALIS)

Memories of Olympia

The Whole Theatre, Montclair resident Rafael Rodriguez remembers, produced rarely staged classics by Chekov, O’Neill, Beckett, Williams, Ionesco and Molière, the latter an “excellent translation and superbly acted by [Olympia Dukakis’ brother] Apollo Dukakis.” 

Rodriguez, 69, remembered the time he met Dukakis. 

“My sister had just graduated from U.C. Santa Barbara and became their assistant manager,” Rodriguez said. “Their first production was a play by Federico García Lorca, and when Olympia heard that my mother had met him and that he had made a portrait of her in Cuba, she quickly came to our house to meet her.” 

Rodriguez said his parents let Dukakis borrow a lamp she fell in love with as well as other props for the production, which he said took place in a downtown church with no more than 30 seats. 

He remembers the lawn parties Dukakis and her husband used to hold at their colonial, and how even after Dukakis’ career took off and she left Montclair, she would travel back to New Jersey to perform in small venues. 

Judith Dorphley, 77, was one of the founding members of the Whole Theatre Company.  Dorphley, who worked sewing costumes, said Dukakis was a warm and strong person — and someone who would hold onto an idea and follow it through. People were drawn to Dukakis because of her honesty, she said. “I considered it a privilege and a pleasure to have known her because she was a special person,” she said.

Olympia Dukakis, seen here in a photo provided by the director of the biographical documentary “Olympia,” lived in Montclair for 30 years before moving to New York. (COURTESY HARRY MAVROMICHALIS )

Gerard Fierst, 74, met Dukakis in 1969. Another founding member of the Whole Theatre Company, he’d been a young actor working in a New York City theater company when he met Dukakis. She became his acting teacher as well as one his closest friends.

“She was very interesting,” Fierst said. “Her attention was so fully on you. It makes you feel special.” 

Fierst remembered that the presence she had onstage made her the celebrity she’d become. It left a mark on whoever met her, he said.

Warren Ross, 79, was working in commercial insurance when he met Dukakis, who called him out of the blue to help start the theater company. His love of theater drew him to the project, where he became a board member and helped raise money.

“We’d go out and go for a walk in Anderson Park together,” Ross said. “And we used to just have these wonderful talks.”

In Dukakis’ autobiography, “Ask Me Again Tomorrow,” she described how she’d show up at the back of Ross’ building without a call or appointment: “Warren would always step out and talk to me as if nothing were more important than the crisis that I was facing.”

They shared great memories together — like the time Dukakis won the Oscar. Ross was watching the award show with Dukakis’ mother, Lithia, along with another board member. He remembers how the whole house screamed when she won. When Dukakis called, she was cursing because she had to make a collect call from backstage. 

Olympia Dukakis is seen at the Wholte Theatre Company, which she co-founded in 1971 (COURTESY OFFICE OF OLYMPIA DUKAKIS)

Another time, Ross’ son-in-law, who is a writer, spoke with Dukakis for two hours to go over a script he was working on. 

“And he was blown away,” Ross said. “She took all this time to counsel him and teach him about making movies.” 

Ross said Dukakis helped teach him to be true to himself — “not to be a follower, but to be a leader.”

Bob Russo, now a Township Council member, watched the parade held for Dukakis when she won the academy award for “Moonstruck” in 1988, his wife’s favorite movie.

“We will miss Olympia’s awesome talent and dedication to live theater, carried on from Whole Theatre through Luna Stage.”

Harry Mavromichalis, the director of “Olympia,” mourned his friend in a message posted to Facebook. He recalled how she’d become beloved by many in the LGBTQ community for several roles, including as a trans woman in the drama miniseries “Tales of the City.”

In his documentary, he quotes Dukakis discussing death as a transformation.

“Just as the seasons change and just as we age and everything else is happening constantly to us,” Dukakis said. “And that’s what it is. We die and we fall to the earth and we are part of the earth that nurtures new life and comes forward.”

In 2001, Olympia Dukakis’ husband, Louis Zorich, gave then-Mayor Bob Russo a Luna Stage T-shirt. In 2016, Dukakis signed her memoir for Russo’s wife, Christine.
(COURTESY OF BOB RUSSO)