For Olympia Dukakis, life as a busy and hardworking character actress was pretty good. Becoming a star, however, made things a whole lot easier.
“You can pay your college loans, get a credit card, and you can go home at night and go to sleep and not worry about paying the bills,” said Dukakis, an Oscar-winning actress who will play the role of Prospera in the Shakespeare & Company production of “The Tempest,” tonight through Aug. 19 at the Tina Packer Playhouse in Lenox, Mass. “That’s what ‘Moonstruck’ did for me. It was wonderful.”
By 1987, Dukakis had been doing plenty of stage and television work for more than 20 years when Hollywood director Norman Jewison cast her as Rose Castorini in “Moonstruck” with Cher and Nicolas Cage. Dukakis played Cher’s mother, and both women earned Oscars for their work along with screenwriter John Patrick Shanley.
“When I was younger, I never thought about movies, only the stage,” said Dukakis, who turned 81 last month. “But Norman Jewison just happened to see me do a play on Broadway, cast me as the mother in his new film and the rest, as they say, is kismet.”
“Moonstruck” led to another juicy role in 1989’s “Steel Magnolias” with Julia Roberts, Sally Field and Shirley MacLaine, helping Dukakis cement her celebrity. Along with her Oscar, she has been nominated three times for Emmys, and her vast stage work includes five Broadway credits.
WHERE: Shakespeare & Company, Tina Packer Theatre, Lenox, Mass.
WHEN: Opens 7:30 p.m. tonight and runs through Aug. 19; check schedule for performance times
HOW MUCH: $95-$15
MORE INFO: (413) 637-3353, www.shakespeare.org
“I really enjoy doing both film and the stage,” she said, “but I don’t really compare them. I like the movies a lot, but for me it’s a whole different experience. One has much more intimacy, and the other is live and in front of an audience. They are both very wonderful and valid. I was fortunate to get so many great movie roles, and I still am, but these big films don’t have a lot of parts for little old ladies, so now I’m doing more independent films.”
Dukakis was born in 1931 in Lowell, Mass., the daughter of Greek immigrants. She went to Boston University and studied physical therapy, but her career path soon changed.
“I got the acting bug at Boston University, and that’s when I decided I wanted to do something in that field,” she remembered. “I got my degree in physical therapy, and started working in that profession, but only to get the money to go back to graduate school and get my MFA. I knew I wanted to act.”
After school she spent some time acting and managing a theater in the Boston area, but then soon moved to New York City, where in 1962 she met and married Louis Zorich. Like Dukakis, Zorich is a character actor whose resume, while not quite as celebrated as his wife’s, is every bit as vast and varied. The marriage produced three children and the couple continue to live in New York City.
No stranger to Shakespeare
Dukakis visits the Boston area occasionally, where she still has relatives, and always looks forward to a summertime trip to the Berkshires, where she has worked previously at Shakespeare & Company and the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
She says she is not a Shakespeare aficionado, but she is certainly no novice, either.
“I’ve done Prospera and ‘The Tempest’ once before, and over the years I’ve done ‘Taming of the Shrew’ and ‘Othello’ and others,” said Dukakis, who has taught drama at New York University in between her acting gigs. “I’m actually a bit more comfortable with Chekhov and the Greeks, but this is a great opportunity to do ‘The Tempest’ again with some really talented people.
“There are a lot of things I find interesting about this play,” she continued. “It’s about vengeance and power, and moving away from that toward forgiveness. I find that very compelling, and there’s also wonderful humor in the play.”
“The Tempest” is being directed by Tony Simotes, and included in the cast are Dennis Krausnick, Kevin Coleman and Rocco Sisto. All four men studied with Dukakis when she was teaching at NYU. Also in the cast is Dukakis’ brother Apollo.
“Tony is all about creating extraordinary experiences, whether on stage as an actor or as a director,” Dukakis said of Simotes.
“That will never change, and it is my pleasure to work with him this season, not only as an artist, but also as a dear friend. Shakespeare & Company is a place to come and celebrate all that is good in our world, and to be inspired to change what isn’t. To ‘hold, as ’twere, a mirror up to nature.’ ”
Simotes has set this production of “The Tempest” in the 1940s, and has changed the gender of the lead to accommodate Dukakis. Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, is now Prospera, the exiled Duchess.
“In a way, directing Olympia is a culmination of my life’s journey,” said Simotes, who is also the producing artistic director at Shakespeare & Company.
“She taught me at NYU, as well as Dennis, Kevin and Rocco, and she has been a critical part of our lives ever since. Olympia’s magnetism heightens our work as directors and actors. Her influence in the rehearsal room makes every actor’s work richer and deeper. She taught us to go deep inside ourselves as artists; to find that unique creative spark that we all carry.”
Dukakis, a vigorous supporter of her cousin Michael Dukakis when he ran for president in 1988, doesn’t take as active a role in politics as she used to. She does, however, keep herself informed and well-read.
“I don’t do so much anymore with politics,” she said. “I just kind of sit and watch TV and moan a little bit, maybe curse out the television. But I am still involved. How can you not be involved? What a thing the politicians are doing to America. How can you not care and not be involved?”
How would the country have fared if her cousin had won the 1988 election instead of George H.W. Bush?
“Well, we wouldn’t have had the Bushes for a decade,” she said. “That might have been helpful.”