Michael Dukakis' Cousin Olympia Proves a Strong Bet in the Oscar Race as Cher's Moonstruck Mom

updated 03/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Candidate Dukakis is doing great in the primaries. No, not that candidate. While Michael Dukakis, Massachusetts Governor and Democratic presidential hopeful, led the pack on Super Tuesday and placed third in the Illinois primary last week, his first cousin Olympia is emerging as the front-runner in an election of her own. Olympia Dukakis, the 50ish, Greek-American actress, is running for the title of Best Supporting Actress in this year's Oscar race on the basis of her performance as Cher's earthy-elegant mother in the hit comedy Moonstruck. The final vote will be announced on April 11. Is Olympia excited? You bet. "I'm so worldly and sophisticated," she says. "When I heard I'd been nominated, I jumped up and down 50 times, like a child." Still, she calls this newfound acclaim a "double-edged sword. Maybe I should enjoy it," says Dukakis, a no-nonsense woman with a rich, raw laugh. "But it's a lot easier to suffer."

She's not kidding. Like cousin Mike, Olympia has been active on the local level for decades. She's a star in Montclair, N. J., where she acts and helps run a regional theater; she opened there on March 8 in The Rose Tattoo. But her work in film (Death Wish) and TV (FDR: The Last Year) has been on the periphery; she's probably best known for her "Aunt Millie" spaghetti sauce commercials. Though Olympia is gratified by her triumph in Moonstruck—more movie parts and money will help support her theater-she's suspicious of her new prominence: "I'm not convinced this being a celebrity is going to be long-lived."

Not so, cry Olympia's campaign boosters. "Her timing is astounding," says Norman Jewison, Moonstruck's director. After watching Dukakis play Mario Thomas' dotty mother on Broadway two years ago in Social Security, Jewison cast her as Cher's mother without so much as a screen test. Olympia remembers Jewison's two backstage visits: "Norman didn't say much to me both times," she says. "He just leaned against the door of my dressing room, nodded his head and smiled."

Cher was equally impressed. Even though Dukakis recently dyed her dark hair blond, it's amazing how much she looks like her screen daughter. "We have the same demeanor," says Cher. "We laughed a lot. It was easy to step into our mother-daughter relationship. She even ad-libbed pinching me."

Words of praise also pour in from Olympia's noncelebrity constituents. Friends cite Dukakis' professionalism and loyalty. In the mid-'70s she nixed the chance to do a TV pilot because of a schedule conflict—if she were to leave the off-Broadway play she was doing, the director told her that he'd close it, tossing 22 actors out of work.

Sure, sure. But what if Dukakis wins that Oscar? Naysayers predict she'll be just like many local candidates who get a shot at fame. In Olympia's case, they say, it will be bye-bye New Jersey, hello Hollywood. "I can't imagine giving up theater for movies," says the candidate. Her record bears her out. In 1972 Olympia and her husband, actor Louis (Fiddler on the Roof) Zorich, her brother, Apollo Dukakis, and a group of actor friends moved from Manhattan to the bedroom community of Montclair, where they founded the Whole Theatre, a small, nonprofit company. They kicked off their first season in a church basement with Thornton Wilder's Our Town: "I decided that when I got to be 65,1 wanted to be able to say I'd done a substantial body of work, that I wasn't on the fringe waiting for somebody to give me the opportunity to act."

Do these sound like the words of a powder puff easily lured by movieland glitz? Olympia, Louis and Apollo stuck with the job, staying on to oversee the theater's growth and to raise families. Eleven years ago the company moved into a converted bank building on Montclair's main drag, where Olympia usually acts in at least one company production a year.

But there's more than just talent at work here; there's a business head on her shoulders. One of Dukakis' biggest responsibilities as producing artistic director is raising nearly half a million dollars a year from state and federal grants and local businesses. "There were times when I felt this was swallowing me up. Eating me alive," she says. Things were made even more difficult in 1977 when Louis was nearly killed in a car accident that left him unable to work for two years. Until recently, Dukakis, who has an M.F.A. from Boston University, kept her theater and family going by teaching drama at New York University. She even tripled her work load in 1983 by playing a therapist on TV's Search for Tomorrow. "I felt like Mother Courage pulling the wagon," says Olympia.

Okay, she's got guts. But the true test of any campaign—Mike's or Olympia's—is the human side. People want to know their candidates before they cast a vote. They want to see the private person behind the public facade. Olympia describes Louis as her role model. "He's incredibly disciplined, able to do anything," she says. They met while auditioning for a play and have been married 25 years, the only marriage for both of them. "Everybody loves Louis," says Olympia. "He's a great gossip, which is something I have no interest in." Being local celebrities affects them differently. "You should see Louis in the A&P," says Olympia. "He doesn't stop performing for all the women." Louis doesn't deny the charge. "I parade all my characters for them. I'm always onstage auditioning," he says. "Not me," counters Olympia. "When I go to the bank or the store, I look so bedraggled and hopeless that nobody bothers me."

Except for that, never mind digging up any dirt from her past. You'll find only ambition. Dukakis knew she was going to be an actress from the time she was a girl. When Olympia was a teenager her brother, Apollo, her only sibling, sent her picture off to MGM. "Ninety years later they open their mail," says Olympia, in wry reference to Moonstruck, an MGM production.

Born in Lowell, Mass., Olympia was the daughter of a Greek-born, American-educated lawyer named Constantine, who died in 1975. Her mother, Alexandra, was also born in Greece and worked in cotton mills in Massachusetts. Most holidays were spent in the Boston area with Olympia's cousin Michael, her father's nephew and the future Massachusetts Governor. "Everybody argued politics," she says. The cousins are big fans of each other. "My wife, Kitty, and I have seen Olympia act in a one-room theater on Christopher Street [in Greenwich Village] and under a tent in Cape Cod. I mean, she's dedicated," says the Governor.

Family remains a big plank in Olympia's platform. Although neither of her parents had formal training as actors, they participated in small theater and Greek War benefits, dressing Olympia up as the Spirit of Greece. Speaking of her daughter's success, mama Alexandra, 87, clasps her bosom. "When I see these girls on TV who receive Oscars, I feel so good that they're getting such an honor. If my daughter were to get one too, why, I don't know what I'd do. I think I'd faint." "Me, too, Mama," says Olympia, squeezing her mother's hand.

The nominee's children give their mom high marks as well, but they're not much impressed with all the hoopla. The two eldest, Christina, 22, and Peter, 19, are in college; son Stefan, 16, is in high school. Only Christina shows interest in acting. "It took my mother 30 years to get recognized. That's too long for me," says Peter.

Olympia has the patience necessary for a long-distance front-runner. Consider the 100-year-old house that she and Louis bought and began restoring 15 years ago. Showing a visitor around her home, Olympia points out its architectural highlights. Although it's a grand house, reminiscent of a lodge, with dark wood paneling and beamed ceilings, it's not pretentious. "It's not a complicated place," she explains. "It's very straightforward and always there for you." Just like the lady of the house—who can be forgiven these days for a little light-headedness. Election Day is coming up, and Olympia thinks it's good luck that cousin Mike won New Hampshire in the same week she received her Oscar nomination. "There's something going on," she says, "up in the stars."

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