LOS ANGELES – Louise Fletcher, a late-rising star 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 earned her an Oscar, has died at the age of 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 reason was given.
After years of putting her career on hold 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 completed her work the year before in Director Robert admired Altman’s Thieves Like Us. Little did she know at the time that many other prominent stars, including Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn and Angela Lansbury, had turned down.
“I was the last cast,” she recalled in a 2004 interview. “It wasn’t until we were in the middle of filming that I realized the role had been offered to other actresses who didn’t want to appear so terrifying on screen.”
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.
At the 1976 ceremony, Fletcher clutched her Oscar and told the audience, “It seems like you all hated me.”
Then she turned to her deaf parents in Birmingham, Alabama, using sign language: “I want to thank you for teaching me to have a dream. You see my dream come true.”
A minute’s silence was followed by thunderous applause.
Later that night, Forman made the wry comment to Fletcher and her co-star Jack Nicholson, “Now we’re all going to have massive flops.”
At least in the short term, he was right.
Next, Forman directed “Hair,” the film version of the hit Broadway musical, which failed to capture the appeal of the stage version. Nicholson directed and starred in Goin’ South, which is widely considered one of his worst films. Fletcher has signed on for Exorcist II: The Heretic, a misunderstood sequel to the seminal original.
Far more so than her male peers, Fletcher’s age prevented her from landing major roles in Hollywood. Despite this, she worked non-stop for most of her life. Her post-Cuckoo’s Nest films have included Mama Dracula, Dead Kids, and The Boy Who Could Fly.
She was nominated for Emmys for her guest starring 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 the musical duo Carpenters in 1989’s The Karen Carpenter Story.
Fletcher’s career was also hampered by her size. At 5-foot-10, she was often fired outright from an audition because she was taller than her leading man.
Fletcher had moved to Los Angeles shortly after graduating from North Carolina State University to start her acting career.
She worked as a doctor’s assistant by day and studied by night with noted actor and teacher Jeff Corey. She began getting day jobs on television shows like 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 housewife and did not work for eleven years.
“I made the decision to stop working, but I didn’t see it as a choice,” she said in the 2004 interview. “I felt compelled to stay home.”
She divorced Bick in 1977 and he died in 2004.
In Cuckoo’s Nest, based on the novel written by Ken Kesey while on an experimental LSD program, Nicholson’s character RP McMurphy is a cocky petty criminal who feigns insanity in order to get transferred from prison to a mental institution don’t have to work that hard.
After being institutionalized, McMurphy discovers that his mental institution is run by Fletcher’s cold, imposing nurse, Mildred Ratched, who keeps her patients firmly under her thumb. When the two clash, McMurphy’s bravery takes over the station, leading to severe punishment from Ratched and the asylum, where she restores order.
The character was so memorable that 45 years later he would become the basis for the Netflix series Ratched.
Estelle Louise Fletcher was born in Birmingham on July 22, 1934, the second of four children. Her mother was born deaf and her father was a traveling episcopal minister who lost his hearing when he was four years old when he was struck by lightning.
“It was like having immigrant parents who didn’t speak your language,” she said in 1982.
The Fletcher children were supported by their aunt, with whom they lived in Bryant, Texas for a year. She taught them to read, write and speak, as well as sing and dance.
It was these latter studies that convinced Fletcher that she wanted to act. She was further inspired, she once said after seeing the film “Lady in the Dark” with Ginger Rogers.
This and other films, Fletcher said, taught her “that your dream can come true if you want it badly enough.”
“I knew from the movies,” she said, “that I didn’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 contributed biographical material to this report.
Follow AP Entertainment writer Andrew Dalton on Twitter: https://twitter.com/andyjamesdalton
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https://www.local10.com/entertainment/2022/09/24/oscar-winning-cuckoos-nest-actor-louise-fletcher-dies/ Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher from ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ has died