After decades worth of distinguished work, the death of Olympia Dukakis, 89, struck at the core of the entertainment industry where she will be remembered for her talent. Greeks around the world, however, will also remember the great actress as a promoter of Greek culture and heritage.
Gregory Pappas, founder of the Pappas Post and Greek America Foundation, shared his insight into the psyche of the extraordinary woman he was proud to call a friend, and he announced the creation of the Olympia Dukakis prize being held in perpetuity to honour her memory.
Like many people across the world, I was overcome with sadness and grief at the passing of “Our Olympia.” To so many of us who had the chance to know and work with her, the words I keep hearing over and over again are how lucky we were to receive just a little bit of her energy and wisdom over the years.
We did receive a lot from her. We learned, we laughed. We were entertained by her film and theater productions. And somehow, we all grabbed a part of her spirit and made it a bit our own.
I was lucky to have spent a lot of time with her, even in the end. A week prior to her passing, I was at her bedside reminiscing with her about some of the things we did together.
I reminded her of the films we made together and the movies we went to see. I reminded her that my dog, Duke, was named after her at her recommendation that I don’t give him a “cheesy Greek name like Zeus or Apollo.”
I reminded her of all of the Greek America Foundation events she attended over the years in cities across the continent. We laughed together when I reminded her about the near-catastrophe at the 2017 Gabby Awards at Carnegie Hall when– are you ready? She forgot about the event and minutes before we were busy preparing for the show’s opening number, we realized she hadn’t yet arrived.
Thank god for Anthoula Katsimatides who literally got into an Uber, told the driver to wait, got Olympia made up and dressed, and headed right back uptown again, just in time to walk on stage together. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone but Olympia was wearing yoga pants on stage at Carnegie Hall.
I also reminded her of the very special year when the Foundation sponsored her Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Fun fact: Olympia hated the Star on the Walk of Fame that I worked so hard to secure and she wasn’t afraid to tell me that.
She once told me that it was a waste of $30,000 (the cost associated with the star that was fronted by the Greek America Foundation) and that in the end, “homeless people on Hollywood Boulevard would just piss all over it.” (Classic Olympia).
I then told her that the star would help people remember her.
“It will take more than a stupid star on the sidewalk for people to remember me,” she told me.
I saw her beginning to lose consciousness again and asked her if she wanted me to sing her a Greek song. Barely alert, she whispered in typical Olympia honesty– “No. Please. Don’t. You have an awful voice.” And she pointed to my iPhone. “Play some Glykeria,” she whispered.
We sang together, with Glykeria playing in the background and then we agreed that it was time for her to sleep again, but not before she asked me to return on Easter Sunday. She asked me to bring some Tsoureki and Koulourakia and not to forget the red eggs.
“I’ll crack it over your head.” She told me. “Now let me sleep.”
As I walked out of her bedroom, I whispered to her that I’d never let the world forget her, while thinking that this could very well be the last time I’d see her. Like my own mother who was in hospice care at the end of her life, I knew that it was only a matter of time.
I never made it back to Olympia’s apartment for Easter. I got that fateful call from her daughter Christina on Saturday morning – the day before Easter – that Olympia had passed.
I was shattered. Gutted. I immediately transformed my grief into action and started thinking about how I would fulfill my promise to honor Olympia’s legacy, in perpetuity.
To me, and to so many people, Olympia wasn’t just an actor. In fact, her acting was the least of what defined her. And I wanted to let people know. She wasn’t about an Oscar, or playing Cher’s mom. No. There was so much more.
First and foremost, Olympia was a champion for the down-trodden. She believed fervently in the very Greek principles of justice and she worked hard all her life to support those whom she believed had been mistreated by society, or the system.
She was a champion for women’s equality and became an icon in the gay community for her outspoken belief that gays and lesbians should be treated just like everyone else.
What struck me about Olympia the most was her sense of principle. She never did what society, or Hollywood, or her community, or her peers expected her to do, instead opting to do what she believed was right.
Her relationship with the Greek American community was the perfect example. In her best-selling autobiography “Ask Me Again Tomorrow,” she wrote of her struggles of being a hyphenated American and the pressure on her to be a “good Greek” from everyone around her.
From an early age, Olympia protested what she believed was a diminished role that women played in the life of the Greek Orthodox Church. A rebellious teen, she told her father how she felt and said she didn’t want to go back. She never did. Throughout her life, she protested openly and often about “men-only Church councils and women in the kitchen baking.”
But none of this meant that Olympia wasn’t a proud Greek. She wore her Greekness on her lapel and described herself wherever she went as a “Greek American actress.” To her, Greekness wasn’t about labels like religion, or association with one club or another– it was about ideals.
She was also ferociously proud of other Greeks and often spoke with zeal and enthusiasm when she learned of more Greeks becoming successful in Hollywood.
“Melina Kanakaredes could have very easily become Melinda Kane and Jim Gianopulos at Fox could have become Johnson in order to get ahead, but they insisted. They persisted. And in the end, they got where they are with the names their mothers and fathers intended them to have. This makes me proud for them,” she told me in an interview several years ago.
Speaking of Melina Kanakaredes, she was particularly fond of her and appreciated her talent. “She can dance, she can sing, she can act and boy, what a looker she is. When I sing the birds fly away,” Olympia once joked.
Immediately after her Academy Award, everyone expected her to “cash in” as they say in Hollywood and start pumping out role after role, just to make a quick buck while their star still was bright.
No. Olympia used her Oscar as an opportunity to portray obscure roles and share non-commercially viable themes that she wanted to bring more exposure to, particularly on stage.
“My ambition wasn’t to become famous after the Oscar,” she said after her Moonstruck win. “It was to give me the freedom to play the great parts.”
She accomplished that in several New York productions as Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo.
She also turned down several high paying roles in order to devote more time to a lower-paying teaching job at New York University. Paraphrasing Pericles whom she recited to me often, she told me that it wasn’t only about the film credits, the statuettes and the awards, but the impact we could have on young kids’ hearts and minds.
She also famously turned down a part that many thought was written for her – that of Nia Vardalos’ mother in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. After playing Cher’s Italian-American mother in her Oscar-winning role in Moonstruck, who better than Olympia to play a quintessential Greek American mother?
But Olympia said no. She shared her thoughts in an interview she gave me for Greek America Magazine back in 2008. “My experiences were not that way at all,” she revealed, adding that “That wasn’t the Greek community I was raised in. That wasn’t my Greek family.”
She said much of the same in numerous interviews, including in the Chicago Tribune in 2003 at the peak of the film’s success. “I wasn’t that enthusiastic about the part. But I’m happy it’s had success. I know some Greeks feel conflicted about it. I didn’t grow up with those kind of people. That wasn’t my Greek experience,” Olympia said in the interview, fearless of any backlash it may cause from within her own community.
Olympia was also a mentor to many young actors and directors, lending her name to numerous non-commercially viable projects– just to help young filmmakers, including two projects I was involved in.
Irene and Marie was a short that was written and directed by Alex Thompson– who was barely out of film school– that Olympia embraced, giving him the chance to add to his credits early on in his young career, a film with an Oscar winner. “All my life people said ‘no’ to me,” Olympia said to me when discussing Alex’s project. “Let’s be this young man’s ‘yes.’”
Eleftheromania was another short film that I produced that Olympia embraced. It was a story from the Holocaust that I was passionate to share and she welcomed the entire crew into her home in New York City to shoot. She believed in the young writer, Joanna Tsanis, identifying her as a great talent from the script she had written.
What I recall the most from this project was Olympia’s desire to impart her own wisdom on Joanna by pausing the shoot a number of times and suggesting extemporaneous edits to the dialogue. It was the way she did it. Part maternal, part educator, part mentor– explaining to Joanna why she wanted to change the words she had written and why she thought it would make a better story.
While Olympia’s thousands of theatre performances will pass along with those who carry the memories, her films will live on forever.
Harry Mavromichalis and Anthoula Katsimatides’ documentary, too, will be a great remembrance of Olympia and perhaps, the best “living” imprint of her awesome presence on earth for the 89 years she was here. The filmmakers did a masterful job of capturing her wit, wisdom and character.
I’m hoping to add my small part, as well. The Greek America Foundation, an organization that Olympia supported with all her heart – will launch an annual prize that will award a $5000 cash grant to a female-led initiative in film or theatrical arts.
I felt that this would be a great way to honour Olympia’s legacy, and although we are still working out the details on how the prize will work, we are keeping the guiding principles simple– to honor the life and legacy of Olympia Dukakis by awarding an annual prize that is consistent with two of the things she cherished and fought for– women and the arts.
We have set a goal to raise and endow $100,000, which will fund the annual prize in perpetuity. We’re calling it the Olympia Dukakis Prize.
I have made the initial gift of $1000 to launch the fund and I hope that you can pitch in any amount, big or small, to honor this amazing lady and everything she gave us, and the world.
Gregory Pappas is the founder of the Pappas Post and creator of The Greek America Foundation. This article was reprinted with the permission of The Pappas Post.