LOS ANGELES (AP) — Louise Fletcher, a belated star whose gripping performance as the cruel, calculating nurse Ratched in “Flight Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” set a new standard for on-screen villains and won her an Oscar, died at 88.
Fletcher died in her sleep surrounded by her family at her home in Montdurausse, France, her agent David Shaul told The Associated Press on Friday. No cause 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 the 1975 film by director Milos Forman, who had admired her work the previous year in director Robert Altman’s “Thieves Like Us.” At the time, she was unaware that many other top 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. “It wasn’t until halfway through filming that I realized the role had been offered to other actresses who didn’t want to appear so horrible on screen.”
Clutching his Oscar at the 1976 ceremony, Fletcher told the audience, “Looks like you all hate me.”
She then addressed her deaf parents in Birmingham, Alabama, speaking and using sign language: “I want to thank you for teaching me to dream. You see my dream come true.
A minute of silence was followed by thunderous applause.
Later that night, Forman made the wry comment to Fletcher and his co-star, Jack Nicholson, “Now we’re all going to have huge flops.”
In the short term, at least, he was right.
Forman 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,” widely regarded as one of his worst films. Fletcher signed on for “Exorcist II: The Heretic,” an ill-conceived sequel to the historic original.
Far more than her male peers, Fletcher was hampered by her age from finding major roles in Hollywood. Yet she worked continuously for most of the rest of her life. His post-“Cuckoo’s Nest” movies included “Mama Dracula,” “Dead Kids,” and “The Boy Who Could Fly.”
She was nominated for Emmys for her guest roles on the television series “Joan of Arcadia” and “Picket Fences,” and had a recurring role as Bajoran religious leader Kai Winn Adami on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. “. She played the mother of musical duo Carpenters in “The Karen Carpenter Story” in 1989.
Fletcher’s career was also hampered by his height. At 5ft 10in, she was often fired from an audition immediately because she was taller than her leading man.
Fletcher had moved to Los Angeles to launch her acting career shortly after graduating from North Carolina State University.
Working as a doctor’s receptionist by day and studying by night with famed actor and teacher Jeff Corey, she began getting day jobs on such TV shows 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 become a stay-at-home mom and did not work for 11 years.
“I made the choice to quit working, but I didn’t see it as a choice,” she said during the 2004 interview. home.”
She divorced Bick in 1977 and he died in 2004.
In “Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on the novel Ken Kesey wrote while on an experimental LSD program, Nicholson’s character, RP McMurphy, is a swaggering petty criminal who feigns insanity to be transferred from prison. to a mental institution where he won’t have to work so hard.
Once institutionalized, McMurphy finds that his psychiatric ward is run by Fletcher’s towering and cold nurse, Mildred Ratched, who keeps her patients under her control. As the two face off, McMurphy virtually takes over the room with her bravado, resulting in severe 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 July 22, 1934 in Birmingham. His mother was born deaf and his father was a traveling Episcopal minister who lost his hearing when he was struck by lightning when he was 4 years old.
“It was like having immigrant parents who don’t speak your language,” she said in 1982.
The Fletcher children were helped by their aunt, with whom they lived in Bryant, Texas, for a year. She taught them to read, write and speak, as well as to sing and dance.
It was these latest studies that convinced Fletcher she wanted to act. She was even more inspired, she once said, when she saw the movie “Lady in the Dark” starring Ginger Rogers.
This film and others, Fletcher said, taught him “your dream could come true if you wanted it 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.
The late AP Entertainment Writer Bob Thomas provided biographical material for this report.
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