LOS ANGELES – Louise Fletcher, a late-flowering star whose thrilling role as cruel and calculating Sister Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest set a new standard for screen villains and won an Oscar, 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 suspending her career for years to raise her children, Fletcher was in her forties and little known when she was selected to star opposite Jack Nicholson in the 1975 film by Milos Forman, who had admired her work directed by Robert the year before. 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 cast,” she recalled in a 2004 interview. “It wasn’t until halfway through shooting that I realized the role was offered to other actresses who didn’t want to look so horrible 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.
Shaking her Oscar at a ceremony in 1976, Fletcher told the audience, “It looks like you all hated me.”
She then turned to her deaf parents in Birmingham, Alabama, talking and using sign language, “I want to thank you for teaching me how to sleep. You see how my dream comes true. “
After a moment of silence, there was a thunderous applause.
Later that evening, Forman wryly commented to Fletcher and her partner, Jack Nicholson, “Now we’re all going to do huge flaps.”
At least in the short term, he was right.
Forman then directed “Hair,” a film version of the popular Broadway musical that failed to convey the charm of the stage version. Nicholson directed and starred in Goin ‘South, widely regarded as one of his worst films. Fletcher signed a contract with “Exorcist II: The Heretic”, the erroneous continuation of the groundbreaking original.
Much more than her male peers, Fletcher was hampered by his age to find major roles in Hollywood. Even so, she worked continuously for most of her life. Her films after “Cuckoo’s Nest” included “Mama Dracula,” “Dead Children,” and “The Boy Who Could Fly.”
She was nominated for an Emmy for guest roles on the television 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 the musical duo Carpenters in 1989’s The Karen Carpenter Story.
Fletcher’s career was also hampered by her growth. At 5 feet 10, she was often thrown out of questioning immediately because she was taller than her host.
Fletcher moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career shortly after graduating from North Carolina State University.
Working as a doctor’s receptionist during the day and studying at night with famous actor and teacher Jeff Corey, she started getting day jobs on TV series such as “The Wagon Train”, “77 Sunset Strip” and “The Untouchables.”
Fletcher married producer Jerry Bick in the early 1960s and quickly gave birth to two sons. She decided to put her career on hold to become a home mother and she has not worked for 11 years.
“I made the decision to quit my job, but I didn’t see it as a choice,” she said in a 2004 interview. “I felt compelled to stay home.”
She divorced Bikek in 1977, and he died in 2004.
In “Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on a novel Ken Kesey wrote while participating in an experimental LSD program, Nicholson’s character, RP McMurphy, is a conceited petty criminal who pretends to be insane to be transferred from prison to a mental hospital where he will not have to work so hard.
After being transferred to the hospital, McMurphy discovers that his psychiatric ward is run by a cold, overbearing nurse, Mildred Ratched, who keeps her patients under her thumb. As the two clash, McMurphy almost takes over the ward with his bravado leading to severe punishment from Ratched and the institution where he restores order.
The character was so unforgettable that 45 years later it became a staple of Netflix’s “Ratched” series.
Estelle Louise Fletcher was born the second of four children on July 22, 1934 in Birmingham. Her mother was born deaf and her father was a traveling bishop who lost his hearing after a lightning strike at the age of 4.
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“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 sing and dance.
It was the latter research that convinced Fletcher that he wanted to act. She was even more inspired, she once said when she saw the movie “Lady in the Dark” with Ginger Rogers.
This and other movies, Fletcher said, taught her that “your dream can become real life if you want it hard enough.”
“I knew from the movies,” she said, “I wouldn’t have to stay in Birmingham and be like everyone else.”
Fletcher’s d*ath was first reported by Deadline.
She was left behind by her two sons, John and Andrew Bick.
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