LOS ANGELES — Louise Fletcher, a late-blooming 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 won her an Academy Award, has died at age 88.
Fletcher, her agent David Shaul, told The Associated Press that she died peacefully, surrounded by her loved ones, at her Montdurausse home, France. There was no cause of death.
After putting her career on hold for years to raise her children, Fletcher was in her early 40s and little known when chosen for the role opposite Jack Nicholson in the 1975 film by director Milos Forman, who had admired her work the year before in director Robert Altman’s “Thieves Like Us.” At the time, she didn’t know that many other prominent 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 we were halfway through shooting that I realized the part had been offered to other actresses who didn’t want to appear so horrible on the screen.”
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” went on to become the first film since 1934′s “It Happened One Night” to win best picture, best director, best actor, best actress and best screenplay.
Clutching her Oscar at the 1976 ceremony, Fletcher told the audience, “It looks as though you all hated me.”
She then addressed her deaf parents in Birmingham, Alabama, talking and using sign language: “I want to thank you for teaching me to have a dream. You are seeing my dream come true.”
The thunderous applause was immediately followed by a moment in silence.
Later that night, Forman made the wry comment to Fletcher and her co-star, Jack Nicholson: “Now we all will make tremendous flops.”
He was correct in the short-term at most.
Forman next directed “Hair,” the movie version of the hit Broadway musical that failed to capture the appeal of the stage version. Nicholson directed and starred in “Goin’ South,” generally regarded as one of his worst films. Fletcher signed on for “Exorcist II: The Heretic,” a misconceived sequel to the landmark original.
Fletcher’s age made it difficult for her to get major Hollywood roles. She worked tirelessly for the majority of her adult life. Her post-“Cuckoo’s Nest” films included “Mama Dracula,” “Dead Kids” and “The Boy Who Could Fly.”
She was nominated for Emmys 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 in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” She played the mother of musical duo Carpenters in 1989’s “The Karen Carpenter Story.”
Fletcher’s career was also hampered by her height. She was 5’10” tall and would be often dismissed immediately from auditions because of her height.
Fletcher moved to Los Angeles shortly after she graduated from North Carolina State University to begin her acting career.
Working as a doctor’s receptionist by day and studying at night with noted actor and teacher Jeff Corey, she began getting one-day jobs on such TV series as “Wagon Train,” “77 Sunset Strip” and “The Untouchables.”
Fletcher was married to Jerry Bick, a producer in the 1960s. She gave birth quickly to two boys. She decided to put her career on hold to be a stay-at-home mother 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.”
Bick died in 2004, after she had divorced her.
In “Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on the novel Ken Kesey wrote while taking part in an experimental LSD program, Nicholson’s character, R.P. McMurphy, is a swaggering, small-time criminal who feigns insanity to get transferred from prison to a mental institution where he won’t have to work so hard.
Once institutionalized, McMurphy discovers his mental ward is run by Fletcher’s cold, imposing Nurse Mildred Ratched, who keeps her patients tightly under her thumb. McMurphy’s bravado leads him to take over the ward, prompting stiff punishment by Ratched. She then returns to the institution where she restored order.
The character was so memorable she would become the basis for a Netflix series, “Ratched,” 45 years later.
Estelle Louise was the second child of four, and she was born in Birmingham on July 22, 1934. Her mother was deaf, and her father was an Episcopal traveler minister. He was struck by lightning in age 4 and lost all his hearing.
“It was like having parents who are immigrants who don’t speak your language,” she said in 1982.
They were supported by their aunt who lived in Bryant Texas with them for over a year. They learned to read, write, and speak, and how to sing, dance, and she also taught writing.
Fletcher became inspired after those studies. 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 “your dream could become real life if you wanted it bad enough.”
“I knew from the movies,” she would say, “that I wouldn’t have to stay in Birmingham and be like everyone else.”
Fletcher’s death was first reported by Deadline.
John and Andrew Bick, her sons, are still with her.
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