Louise Fletcher, a late 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 Academy Award, 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 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 prominent stars, including Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, and Angela Lansbury, had turned him 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 hideous 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.
Clutching his Oscar at the 1976 ceremony, Fletcher told the audience, “It seems like everyone 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 are seeing my dream come true.”
A moment of silence was followed by thunderous applause.
Later that night, Forman made the tongue-in-cheek comment to Fletcher and his co-star, Jack Nicholson: “Now we’re all going to achieve tremendous failures.”
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,” generally regarded as one of his worst films. Fletcher signed on for “Exorcist II: The Heretic,” an ill-conceived sequel to the landmark original.
Much more so than her male peers, Fletcher was hampered by her age from finding major roles in Hollywood. Still, she worked continuously for most of the rest of her life. Her post-“Cuckoo’s Nest” movies included “Mama Dracula,” “Dead Kids,” and “The Boy Who Could Fly.”
She was nominated for Emmy Awards 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 the musical duo Carpenters in 1989’s “The Karen Carpenter Story.”
Fletcher’s career was also hampered by his height. At 5ft 10, she was often ruled out of an audition right away because she was taller than her leading lady.
Fletcher had moved to Los Angeles to launch her acting career shortly after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Working as a doctor’s receptionist during the day and studying at night with noted actor and teacher Jeff Corey, she began landing 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 had two children in quick succession. She decided to put her career on hold to be a homemaker and didn’t work for 11 years.
“I made the decision to stop working, but I didn’t see it as an option,” he 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 Ken Kesey wrote while on an experimental LSD program, Nicholson’s character, RP McMurphy, is a braggart petty criminal who feigns insanity to get transferred from prison to an institution. where you won’t have to work as hard.
Once institutionalized, McMurphy discovers that his psychiatric ward is run by Fletcher’s cold and imposing nurse Mildred Ratched, who keeps her patients under her thumb. As the two clash, McMurphy nearly takes over the room with her bravado, leading to her being harshly punished by Ratched and the institution where she restores order.
The character was so memorable that it would become the basis for a Netflix series, “Ratched,” 45 years later.
Estelle Louise Fletcher was born as the second of four children on July 22, 1934, in Birmingham. Her mother was born deaf and her father was an itinerant Episcopal minister who lost his hearing when struck by lightning at age 4.
“It was like having immigrant parents who don’t speak your language,” he 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 sing and dance.
It was those last studies that convinced Fletcher that he wanted to act. She was further inspired, he told her once, when he saw the movie “Lady in the Dark” with Ginger Rogers.
That and other movies, Fletcher said, taught him that “your dream could become real life if you wanted it bad enough.”
“I knew from the movies,” he said, “that I wouldn’t have to stay in Birmingham and be like everyone else.”
He is survived by his two sons, John and Andrew Bick.