Born: June 20, 1931;

Died: May 1, 2021.

THERE is a certain temptation to think that Olympia Dukakis was born aged 50. Was there ever a time when we did not associate the distinctive Greek-American actor with silver hair, a raspy voice and a world-weary smile on her face?

Perhaps it’s because Dukakis had made her way into our consciousness via a series of roles as fully-grown moms – and grandmas – roles, such as the small part in Made For Each Other (1971), in which she played the stereotypical Jewish mama for whom no-one will ever be good enough for her son.

We never saw Dukakis as the ingenue; she was always the maker of chicken soup, or else played older character roles that required splashes of devilment and lots of concealed tenderness. “I always played older,” she told the New York Times in 2004. “I think it was the voice.”

Dukakis, who has died aged 89, never become one of the Hollywood greats, even though she did pick up an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck in 1987.

It takes an actor of some standing to deliver one-liners in a manner dryer than talcum powder. In Moonstruck, for example, she played Cher’s mother while exuding both warmth and cynicism, and her character Rose stole scene after scene.

“Do you love him, Loretta?” she asks her daughter, referring to the dull fiancé. When Loretta says no, Rose replies: “Good. When you love them, they drive you crazy, because they know they can.”

Dukakis, whose first cousin was the one-time US presidential nominee Michael Dukakis (he lost to the incumbent, George HW Bush, in 1988), became an overnight success at the age of 56.

Prior to Moonstruck, however, she had had a distinguished theatre career over more than three decades, taking roles in many classic dramas while landing occasional film roles, such as the one in John and Mary (1969), in which she played Dustin Hoffman’s mother in flashback.

But if major success was a long time in coming, it was in part due to the circumstances of Dukakis’ s early life. The daughter of Greek immigrants, she grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, where she revealed her hugely competitive streak and became a state fencing champion.

“I had to prove that I was better than all those Americans around me,” she once recalled with a wry grin. “But I had no friends. At high school I had a chip on my shoulder the size of a tree. I fought a lot of physical battles on the streets with anyone who wanted to take a pot-shot at me or my name.”

Her natural toughness did not help her achieve her dream of becoming an actor. She simply couldn’t afford to go to drama school and become an actress. “My mother sat me down and said that there was no money, and that I’d have to go and get a job. So I worked out that the best-paid job for a woman at that time was as a physical therapist.”

She worked for several years as a physio and worked with polio victims all over the United States. Eventually she quit and returned to Boston University in the late Fifties to study acting.

In the early 1960s she landed small TV and film roles such as Dr Kildare (1962) but most of her work was in theatre in New York and across the provinces, with prominent roles in productions of such classics as Orpheus Descending, The House of Bernarda Alba, Uncle Vanya and, later, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Meantime, she married Louis Zorich, an actor, and they would go on to have three children together. Times, however, were desperate, with the family struggling to pay the mortgage. Meantime, Dukakis ran an acclaimed regional theatre for almost 20 years on a shoestring. “My daughter had been going to college on credit cards,” she recalled.

The small roles in films confirmed her talent but the major breakthrough didn’t emerge until the writer Nora Ephron saw her in the play The Marriage of Bette and Boo and thought she would be good for a role in Heartburn (1986), which was based on Ephron’s novel.

Mike Nichols, who directed Heartburn, then cast Dukakis in a Broadway play, Social Security, which was seen by Norman Jewison – which led him to cast her in Moonstruck.

Suddenly, Dukakis was in great demand for mom roles and great parts followed, such as Steel Magnolias (1989) in which she co-starred with Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton and Daryl Hannah. She also appeared in three Look Who’s Talking movies, as the mother of Kirstie Alley’s character, and was Ted Danson’s mother in Dad.

One writer suggested: “It was not just a coincidence that she has played a lot of mothers. Dukakis was a woman in search of some kind of sense.”

Perhaps the part that Dukakis, a well-known LGBT activist, loved most was that of a transgender landlady, Anna Madrigal, in four TV mini-series based on Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.

In 2020, Olympia, a feature-length documentary about her life was released in the United States. It was a signal honour, and the producers had plenty of biographical material to call upon, Dukakis having performed in over 130 stage productions, 60 films and 50 television series.

Though she took a long time to become a star, she never regretted the difficult journey. “Maybe good fortune comes to you for the same reason as bad,” she once reflected. “It’s all about understanding more: you learn a lot of things when you’re struggling, and other things when you’re what the world calls successful.

“Or perhaps it’s just something that happens. Some days it’s cold, and some days it’s hot.”

She was pre-deceased in 2018 by her husband. She is survived by their three children, Christina, Stefan and Peter, four grandchildren and her brother, Apollo.