Louise Fletcher, whose Oscar-winning performance as the sadistic Nurse Ratched in the 1975s Flight over a cuckoo’s nest gave Hollywood one of its greatest villains of all time and provided culture with a portrait of bureaucratic evil so indelible the character’s last name could carry a TV series 45 years later, died Friday at her in Montdurausse, France. She was 88 years old.
His death was announced to Deadline by his family through agent David Shaul. Although no cause was specified, Shaul said she died in her sleep in the house she built from a 300-year-old farmhouse, surrounded by her family. Earlier today, she told her family about her beloved home, “I can’t believe I’ve created something so meaningful for my well-being.”
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Although forever linked to her most famous character, Fletcher enjoyed an acting career that spanned more than 60 years and included numerous television and film performances. She had a recurring role in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as Bajoran religious leader Kai Winn Adami, and guest roles in Palisades and Joan of Arcadia earned Emmy Award nominations in 1996 and 2004, respectively.
Born July 22, 1934, in Birmingham, AL, to deaf parents — she used sign language in her Oscars acceptance speech, one of Oscar’s most memorable moments (watch it below) — Fletcher began her acting career in the late 1950s on such episodic television series as Lawman, Bat Masterson, Maverick, Les Intouchables and 77 Sunset Strip.
Similar roles followed at a steady pace throughout the 1960s, with appearances on Sugarfoot, Perry Mason and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. She appeared in the cinema in 1963 A gathering of eagles and, more fortuitously, in 1974 Thieves like us, directed by Robert Altman. It was her performance in the latter film that sparked the interest of director Miloš Forman, who was in the process of launching his film adaptation of Fly over a cuckoo’s nest, Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel is set in a mental institution and focuses on the conflict between a man feigning madness to avoid prison and the overbearing head nurse who demands compliance and obedience at all costs.
With Jack Nicholson set to play the role of headstrong anti-hero patient Randle McMurphy, Forman spent most of the year looking for a potential co-star who could hold his own against the actor, then cashing in on the success of Chinese district. The director reportedly made offers to, among others, Colleen Dewhurst, Ellen Burstyn, Anne Bancroft and Geraldine Page before deciding he had found his tyrannical Mildred Ratched in Fletcher.
Flight over a cuckoo’s nest was an immediate critical and box office success, and would go on to sweep the year’s Oscars winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Lead Actor, Best Lead Actress and, for the work of Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, for Best Screenplay.
By winning her Oscar, Fletcher became just the third woman to win the Oscar, BAFTA Award and Golden Globe Award for a single performance. His portrayal was so indelible that in 2020 the Ryan Murphy-Evan Romansky Netflix series Pawl — a sort of prequel to the novel and film, starring Sarah Paulson in the lead role — would only need the one-word title to evoke the sense of dread and cruelty conveyed by Fletcher decades earlier.
The impact of winning the Oscars was, she later recalled, exhilarating but fleeting. In a 1995 interview with The New York Times, she advised this year’s winners to “just enjoy it; it will make you wonderfully happy for one night. But don’t expect it to do anything for your career.
“I got the Oscar at 41,” said Fletcher, then 60. “If I was 23 it would have been hard to deal with. Hell, at my age it was hard to deal with. It was like throwing an explosive.
In the same interview, she recalled a prophetic comment made backstage on Oscar night by Czech-born Forman. “Milos said, ‘Now we’re all going to flops.’ It was true. I did The Heretic – the second Exorcist – and it was a huge flop. Milos did Ragtime. And Jack did [The] Stays in Missouri. This is the Czech prophecy.
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) ushered in a series of highly publicized but less than successful films for Fletcher: The Cheap Detective (1978), The lady in red (1979), genius idea (1983), blue steel (1990) and cruel intentions (1999), among others. In a more memorable role, she played Karen and Richard Carpenter’s Ratched-esque mother in the 1989 TV movie Karen Carpenter’s Story.
A career revival began a few years later when, in 1993, she landed the recurring role of devious Bajoran religious leader Kai Winn Adami on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In 1996, she guest on Palisades as another character as cold as ice, playing the estranged mother of the town mayor (played by deaf actor Marlee Matlin). As the woman who rejected her deaf daughter, Fletcher earned an Emmy nomination.
Fletcher was nominated for another Emmy for her 2004 appearance as an elderly music teacher on Joan of Arcadia.
Later television roles included appearances on 7th Heaven, Private Practice and, from 2011-12, Shameless, in which she memorably returned as the meth-cooking prison mother of William H. Macy’s Frank Gallagher. Her last TV credit was in the 2017 Netflix comedy Friend.
Fletcher was married to film producer Jerry Bick from 1959 until their divorce in 1977. She is survived by her sons John and Andrew Bick; granddaughter Emilee Kaya Bick; sister Roberta Ray and brother-in-law Edward Ray; and 10 nieces and nephews.