LOS ANGELES — Louise Fletcher, a late bloomer whose riveting performance as the cruel and calculating nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” set a new standard for screen villains and won her an Academy Award, has died at 88.
Fletcher died in her sleep surrounded by her family at her home in Monduras, France, her agent, David Shaul, told The Associated Press on Friday. No reason was given.
After putting her career on hold for years to raise her children, Fletcher was in her early 40s and little known when she was cast opposite Jack Nicholson in director Milos Forman’s 1975 film, which admired her work a year earlier in director Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us. Little did she know at the time that many other famous stars, including Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn and Angela Lansbury, had turned it down.
“I was the last person cast,” she recalled in a 2004 interview.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest became the first film since 1934’s It Happened One Night to win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay.
Clutching his Oscar at the 1976 ceremony, Fletcher told the audience: “It seems you all hated me.”
She then addressed her deaf parents in Birmingham, Alabama, speaking and using sign language: “I want to thank you for teaching me to have a dream. You see my dream come true.”
A moment of silence was followed by thunderous applause.
Later that night, Foreman made the tongue-in-cheek comment to Fletcher and her co-star Jack Nicholson: “Now we’re all going to make great failures.”
At least in the short term, he was right.
Foreman then directed Hair, the film version of the hit Broadway musical that failed to capture the appeal of the stage version. Nicholson directed and starred in Goin’ South, generally considered one of his worst films. Fletcher signed on for Exorcist II: The Heretic, a misguided sequel to the landmark original.
Much more than her male peers, Fletcher was hindered by her age in finding leading roles in Hollywood. However, she worked continuously for most of the rest of her life. Her post-Cuckoo’s Nest films include Mama Dracula, Dead Children and The Boy Who Could Fly.
She was nominated for an Emmy for her guest roles on the TV series Joan of Arcadia and Picket Fences, and had a recurring role as Bajoran religious leader Kai Winn Adami on Star Trek: Deep Space 9. She played the mother of musical duo the Carpenters in 1989’s The Karen Carpenter Story.
Fletcher’s career was also hampered by her height. At 5-foot-10, she was often immediately rejected from an audition because she was taller than her leading man.
Fletcher moved to Los Angeles to begin his acting career soon after graduating from North Carolina State University.
Working as a doctor’s receptionist by day and studying at night with famous actor and teacher Jeff Corey, she began getting day jobs on such television series as “Wagon Train,” “77 Sunset Strip” and “The Untouchables.”
Fletcher married producer Jerry Bick in the early 1960s and gave birth to two sons in quick succession. She decided to put her career on hold to be a stay-at-home mom and didn’t work for 11 years.
“I made the choice to stop working, but I didn’t see it as a choice,” she said in the 2004 interview. “I felt compelled to stay at home.”
She divorced Bick in 1977 and he died in 2004.
In The Cuckoo’s Nest, based on the novel that Ken Kesey wrote while in an experimental LSD program, Nicholson’s character, RP McMurphy, is a cocky petty criminal who pretends to be crazy to get transferred from prison in a mental institution where he wouldn’t have to work so hard.
Once institutionalized, McMurphy discovers that his psychiatric ward is run by Fletcher’s cold, imposing sister Mildred Ratched, who has her patients under her thumb. As the two clash, McMurphy nearly takes over the ward with his bravado, leading to harsh punishment from Ratched and the institution where she restores order.
The character was so memorable that she would become the basis for a Netflix series, Ratched, 45 years later.
Estelle Louise Fletcher was born the second of four children on 22 July 1934 in Birmingham. Her mother was born deaf and her father was an itinerant Episcopal priest who lost his hearing when he was struck by lightning at the age of 4.
“It was like having immigrant parents who didn’t speak your language,” she said in 1982.
The Fletcher children were assisted by their aunt, with whom they lived in Bryant, Texas, for a year. She taught them to read, write and speak, as well as how to sing and dance.
It was these latter studies that convinced Fletcher that he wanted to play. She was further inspired, she once said, when she saw the movie Lady in the Dark with Ginger Rogers.
That and other films, Fletcher said, taught her that “your dream can become a real life if you want it bad enough.”
“I knew from the movies,” she said, “that I wouldn’t have to stay in Birmingham and be like everyone else.”
Fletcher’s death was first reported by Deadline.
She is survived by her two sons, John and Andrew Bick.
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