MONTCLAIR, N.J. -- There's a limo waiting outside. What a hoot. Getting driven around in a long black car provided by MGM, Olympia Dukakis confides, snickering, is one of the more amusing perks of being discovered (again!) after a quarter-century in show business.
"The limos come and get me," she says airily, as though there were always chauffeurs dozing outside this 199-seat theater she founded in the shady suburban town where she lives. "And they take me where I have to go.
"Tomorrow, I'm taking the limo to go shopping." She needs clothes appropriate for accepting the best supporting actress awards she's already won for her performance in the whimsical romance "Moonstruck." She's been hearing about this discount place, next to a home hardware center out on Rte. 46. "Maybe I'll pull up to Daffy Dan's in the limo!" Dukakis howls, doubling up in the battered backstage armchair. There's nothing more delightfully ridiculous than being a fresh face when you're 50 or so and you've been a working actress half your life.
Playing Cher's Brooklyn mama, Rose Castorini -- she of the lively eyebrows, wagging forefinger and deadpan delivery -- Dukakis is getting waves of attention and dreamy reviews and having a swell time.
She attended the premiere in New York. "Oh God! We went to Elaine's afterwards. And there were a bunch of rock stars -- some friends of Cher's, I dunno ... All these little girls with their faces pressed against the window." She came home to Jersey and thoroughly impressed her three children, aged 16 through 22, with tales of the rockers, though now she can't remember their names.
Then there was her appearance on "Entertainment Tonight." The crew shot 45 minutes of videotape. The resulting item ran for two minutes, "not bad for someone you've never heard of."
She's flying to Utah for the U.S. Film Festival; the L.A. film critics will present her with an award this week; then come -- "I can't even say this without laughing" -- the Golden Globe awards, for which she's a nominee. "It's gonna be on TV and I'm gonna be sitting in a box," Dukakis announces. "I'm gonna be a box person!"
It's been suggested that the academy, as in award, may follow suit. "From your mouth to God's ears," Dukakis amens.
She is hovering somewhere between giddy and philosophical. She figures she's played in about 100 regional theater productions, helped found companies in Boston (the Charles Playhouse) and Montclair (the 15-year-old Whole Theatre, of which she is producing artistic director), won Obies for off-Broadway performances, recently played Marlo Thomas' mother on Broadway in "Social Security," had "itty-bitty parts" in various movies. One of them was "Heartburn," in which she played Meryl Streep's mother (she's played lots of mothers), but her single scene was cut before the film's release.
"I've been 'discovered' about six times, y'know," Dukakis says.
Her first role was in a Greek war relief fundraiser when she was 12 or 13. "I played the spirit of Greece," she snorts. "I came out and took two pigeons and threw them up in the air. Eleftheria! Freedom!" Since then, at regular intervals, she's had supposed breakthrough roles.
Stardom was supposed to strike after her first New York play in the early '60s. It was supposed to happen after she did "Peer Gynt" with Stacy Keach with the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park. After she won the first of her two Obies for Brecht's "Mann Ish Mann," she remembers, "everyone said, 'Oh, this is it.' Then when I did 'Made for Each Other' " -- she was another celluloid mother, Joseph Bologna's this time -- "that was 'wonderful, wonderful, there's no stopping you ... '
"I'm having a good year," she shrugs. "It doesn't mean the rest of your life is a shoo-in. Great and wonderful reviews don't necessarily alter the course of events ... I've spent years on the brink, as 'twere. The first couple of times I kinda waited for it."
But "it" kept getting delayed, somehow. Partly, she was typecast by her ethnicity. "Look at me," Dukakis demands. "Say my name is Marjorie Campbell." Hmm, yes, that (recently) ash blond hair, those cheekbones and deep-sunk eyes. Call "Masterpiece Theatre."
"But if your name is Olympia Dukakis, that's it, bang. The doors close, the shades come down. You play Italians."
She placed limits on herself as well, she admits. She and her husband, actor Louis Zorich, moved out of the city and acquired a mortgage. They had children. In need of a steady income, she taught drama at New York University for 15 years. She pursued only movies shooting in New York, which were not abundant. She turned down parts that would have required traveling, not that casting directors were dogging her footsteps anyhow. "For a long time, I just felt like I couldn't get in. Like there was a door and I was shut out."
Launching Whole Theatre with a bunch of actor friends was something of an antidote. It started in a church, a sort of encounter group devoted to expressing anger, confronting fear and the like. "It didn't seem wild at the time; now I tell people about it and their eyes roll in their heads."
It has evolved into an Equity company with a building, a season, subscribers and Dukakis as the town's resident theatrical diva. She not only gets to select plays, hire directors and approve casting, she gets to introduce each production from the stage on opening night.
Every spring, she and Zorich elbow-twist a number of New York actors into appearing at a Whole Theatre benefit, resulting in many photos in the local weekly of Dukakis embracing Blythe Danner and mugging with Frank Langella. In 1983 Whole Theatre sent one of its productions, "Alone Together," to Broadway (it flopped). In 1986 it was nominated for a Tony award as best regional theater.
"You're always looking for a way to get someone to take you to the beach," says the producing artistic director, somewhat elliptically. As a child, going to the beach from the working-class Boston suburbs where Dukakis grew up meant taking three buses, a journey she was not allowed to make unaccompanied. "I wanted to go to the beach whenever I wanted, but I always had to wait for the grown-ups," she explains. For an actress, running a theater company means "I don't have to wait for the grown-ups."
Coming of age in a somewhat tonier Boston suburb, her cousin Michael took a different tack, becoming Massachusetts' governor and now one of the leading Democratic presidential contenders. Their Greek immigrant fathers were brothers, their families close. Olympia's parents stuffed envelopes for Michael's campaigns. Recently, while Olympia promoted "Moonstruck" on a morning television show in Boston, Michael walked on, a surprise guest.
"The two of us started to blubber," Olympia says, now growing a trifle teary again. "It has to do with ... I don't know, I don't know how you say this without sounding silly ... the sense of first-generation people recognizing the journey we've taken ... Realizing we had come a distance. And feeling very good for each other."
Olympia is a Dukakis supporter, of course, but she doubts her cousin needs her on the campaign trail. "He's doing just fine without me."
But then, Olympia Dukakis is doing pretty well herself. She doesn't quite know what she's doing next. (Beyond hosting the "New Jersey premiere" of "Moonstruck," a benefit for Whole Theatre, naturally. And playing Serafina in Tennessee Williams' "The Rose Tattoo" there in March.) Maybe she'll get a juicy Broadway role. Maybe she'll do a movie. "I'd love to go on some marvelous exotic location, that would be romantic," she fantasizes. "When I go on location, I go to Culver City. Or Athens, Georgia. I went to a nice place in New Hampshire once, but I'm talking Katmandu. Africa. I'm talking exotic."
Or maybe there won't be another movie with grown-ups in it for a while. "It's nice to have this experience," Dukakis says, shoulders shrugging, eyebrows working. But she's been thinking.
"Coming out in the limo" -- she snickers briefly -- "I was thinking about Chekhov. Nina in 'The Seagull.' " Nina is a disillusioned actress who at the end of the play tells her lover (Dukakis can quote the speech verbatim), " 'It's not what we thought of in our youth, Kostya; it's not fame and fortune; it's to have faith and to endure.'
"I understand that," she says. "It's not what I thought of, in my youth."