Dukakis on art and attitude

Posted: Friday, July 26, 2002

Academy Award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis grew up with a chip on her shoulder, determined to prove that the daughter of Greek immigrants could be a success.

Dukakis, 71, spoke to about 200 people Thursday night at the 20th Century Theater downtown. She spent several days in Anchorage and Juneau this week, part of an Alaska trip sponsored by the AARP, a nonprofit organization that advocates for Americans 50 and older.

Dukakis talked about the craft of acting and the crisis that befell her when she finally proved to herself she was a success.

Dukakis' Greek parents fled war in Europe early in the 20th century, and she and her brother Apollo grew up in Lowell, Mass., during the Great Depression. Her parents encouraged education and involvement in theater and the community, but she spent a great deal of time scrapping with the Armenian, Irish and "American" kids in the neighborhood who made fun of her name and heritage.

"I had a chip on my shoulder as big as a tree," she said. "I had to prove that I was not only as good as the Americans, but better."

She was drawn to theater, but pursued a more practical profession. She became a physical therapist and worked with polio victims in the early 1950s. She contracted a mild form of polio and after a few years the work drained her and she returned to school, committed to becoming an actress. She never aspired to be a star, she said, she simply wanted to be very, very good at her craft.

She moved to New York in her mid-20s and made $15 a week at her first theater job.

"That was raised to $25 a week when I agreed to clean up and look after the props," she said. "I moved eight times my first year in New York, trying to find better or cheaper accommodations, with fewer roommates."

She waitressed, sold dance lessons and acted in a series of small parts. Her refusal to change her Greek name to something more American-sounding doomed her to ethnic roles, she said, mainly Jewish or Italian characters - usually the part of the wacky neighbor.

"I just couldn't change my name, after all that time I'd spent defending my name as a child," she said.

She got good reviews, better roles, and gradually built a solid reputation. She started a theater company, began directing as well as acting, and landed her first film roles in the early 1960s.

By her mid-30s, she realized she had made it. She won an Obie award - the Village Voice off-Broadway theater award - she was in love, married, had an established career and gave birth to the first of her three children. She realized the intensely competitive, aggressive attitude that had taken her so far was limiting her ability to connect and fully enjoy working with other actors.

"I needed to address that," she said. Overcome with emotion, she paused to collect herself before continuing. "But when I let go of trying to prove myself, then what? I needed to go on stage for other reasons."

She found that being an artist and sharing her craft with her community was a powerful motivation. Art can be educational and make money, she said, but it is enough for artists simply to do art for their own sake and for audiences to enjoy art because it gives them pleasure.

"The arts help put our lives in front of us so we can see them," Dukakis said. "Camus said, 'If the world was clear, we wouldn't need art.' We need to share what we make and do, and audiences want to know."

Art can inspire a tremendous appetite for life in the artist and in the audience, she said, and that is one of the most rewarding aspects for her about acting.

In making movies, she said, the actor is part of an assembly process. She does her part in front of a camera, perhaps over and over, then the director and the editor take it into a room somewhere and piece it all together.

Theater is different.

"I make it every night, and there's a connection with the audience."

Dukakis and her husband of 40 years, actor and director Louis Zorich, founded and directed several regional theater companies while raising a family and pursuing careers in film, television and theater.

In 1987, Dukakis won an Oscar for her part in "Moonstruck." Shortly afterward her cousin Michael Dukakis won the Democratic presidential primary.

"We were riding in a limousine to a fund-raiser and we said, 'If our fathers were here - our fathers were brothers - what would they think? They'd be crying," she said. "Here we were, one generation in America, and I won an Oscar and my cousin was running for president."

Riley Woodford can be reached at rileyw@juneauempire.com.

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