Los Angeles — Louise Fletcher, the late star whose brilliant performance as the ruthless and calculating nurse in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” set a new standard for screen villains and won her an Oscar, has died at the age of 88.
Fletcher died in her sleep amidst her family at her home in Montdoraus, France, her agent David Shaul told The Associated Press on Friday. No reason was given.
After putting her career on hold for years to raise her children, Fletcher was in her early forties and unknown when she was cast for the opposite role of Jack Nicholson in the 1975 film by Milos Forman, who had been impressed with her work the previous year as director Robert. Thieves Like Us by Altman. At the time, she didn’t know that many other superstars, including Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn and Angela Lansbury, had turned it down.
“I was the last person to throw it,” she recalls in a 2004 interview. “It wasn’t until we were halfway there that I realized that the part had been offered to other actresses who didn’t want to be so awful on 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.
“It seems you all disliked me,” Fletcher, holding an Oscar at the 1976 gala, told the audience.
Then she 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 moment of silence followed by thunderous applause.
Later that night, Foreman made a sarcastic comment to Fletcher and her co-star, Jack Nicholson: “Now we’re all going to fail massively.”
In the short term, at least, he was right.
Foreman then directed “Poetry,” the film version of the Broadway musical that failed to attract the appeal of the theatrical version. Nicholson directed and starred in Goin’ South, which is generally considered one of his worst films. Fletcher signed “Exorcist II: The Heretic,” a false sequel to the original film.
Far more than her male peers, Fletcher held her back in finding major roles in Hollywood. However, she worked continuously for most of the rest of her life. Her subsequent films “Cuckoo’s Nest” included “Mama Dracula”, “Dead Kids” and “The Boy Who Can Fly”.
She was nominated for an Emmys for her guest roles in the TV series “Joan of Arcadia” and “Picket Fences,” and had a recurring role as Bajoran Kai Winn Adami’s religious leader in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” She played the mother of the musical duo Carpenters in 1989’s “The Karen Carpenter Story”.
Her height also hampered Fletcher’s career. At 5ft 10, she was often fired from an audition on the spot because she was taller than her leading man.
Fletcher moved to Los Angeles to start her acting career shortly after graduating from North Carolina State University.
She worked as a female doctor’s receptionist by day and taught by night with famous actor and educator Jeff Corey, and started getting one-day jobs on TV series such as “Wagon Train”, “77 Sunset Strip” and “The Untouchables”.
Fletcher married producer Jerry Peck in the early 1960s and had two sons in quick succession. She decided to postpone her career to be a housewife mother and did not work for 11 years.
“I made a decision to stop working, but I didn’t see it as an option,” she said in a 2004 interview. “I felt compelled to stay at home.”
Beck divorced in 1977 and he died in 2004.
In “Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on the novel Ken Casey wrote while participating in an LSD drug pilot program, Nicholson’s character, RP Mac Murphy, is a cocky and petty criminal who pretends to be insane to be transported from prison to a mental institution where you won’t have to work as hard .
Once institutionalized, McMurphy discovers his mental ward is being run by Cold Fletcher, and enforces nurse Mildred Ratched, who keeps her patients under her thumb. With their clash, McMurphy takes over the ward with his bravery, resulting in a severe punishment for Ratched and the establishment, as she restores order.
The character was so memorable that she became the basis for the Netflix series, “Ratched,” after 45 years.
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 an itinerant Episcopal priest who lost his hearing when he was struck by lightning at the age of four.
“It was like having immigrant parents who don’t speak your language,” she said in 1982.
Fletcher’s children were helped by their aunt, with whom they lived for a year in Bryant, Texas. She taught them to read, write and speak, as well as how to sing and dance.
It was those recent studies that convinced Fletcher she wanted to work. She once said it was her biggest inspiration when she watched “Lady in the Dark” with Ginger Rogers.
Fletcher said that this and other films taught her that “your dream can come true if you want it badly enough”.
She would say, “I knew from the movies 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 Beck.
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