Louise Fletcher, the sweet actress from Alabama who won an Academy Award for her turn as the heartless Nurse Ratched — one of the most reviled characters in movie history — in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, has died. She was 88.
Fletcher died Friday of natural causes at her home in Montdurausse, France, her son Andrew Bick told The Hollywood Reporter. She had survived two bouts with breast cancer.
A daughter of deaf parents — she made one of the most touching acceptance speeches in Oscar history — Fletcher also starred as a psychiatrist in Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and played opposite Peter Falk amid the star-studded ensemble in The Cheap Detective (1978).
On television, she portrayed the religious leader Kai Winn Adami on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and received Emmy nominations in 1996 and 2004 for her guest-starring stints on Picket Fences and Joan of Arcadia, respectively.
After spending more than a decade away from show business to raise her two sons, Fletcher returned to Hollywood and appeared opposite Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall in the Robert Altman film Thieves Like Us (1974).
Director Milos Forman, then casting 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — based on Ken Kesey’s 1962 book about life in an Oregon psychiatric hospital — spotted her in that movie.
“He was watching it to look at Shelley Duvall to play one of the girls who comes on the ward on the party night, and there I was,” Fletcher recalled in a 2016 interview. “He said, ‘Who is that?’ “
A year later, after Anne Bancroft, Angela Lansbury, Geraldine Page, Colleen Dewhurst and Ellen Burstyn all rejected the chance to play Nurse Ratched — many believing that the character was too impossibly wicked — Forman finally gave Fletcher the part.
“I tried out for it many, many times,” she said. “I didn’t realize that lots of other women were turning it down. They offered it to many movie stars who declined, luckily for me. To think, what if somebody else had said yes?”
In the film, the icy Ratched humiliates her patients and revokes their privileges on a whim. When she can’t control a new arrival, Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), she administers shock therapy on him, then has him lobotomized.
Fletcher knew her life had changed forever when she watched Cuckoo’s Nest with an audience for the first time and saw how people reacted to a scene in which McMurphy tries to kill her character.
“It was in Chicago, and it was a packed house,” she recalled. “When he strangles her, the audience stood up and yelled and cheered. Stood up. It was unbelievable. I was thrilled.”
On its 2003 list of the 100 greatest villains in the annals of motion pictures, the American Film Institute placed Nurse Ratched at No. 5, behind only Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Darth Vader and the Wicked Witch of the West. (Sarah Paulson recently revived the character in a Ryan Murphy prequel series for Netflix.)
After Fletcher heard her name called by presenter Charles Bronson and came to the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to accept her Oscar, she said: “Well, it looks like you all hated me so much that you’ve given me this award for it, and I’m loving every minute of it. And all I can say is, I’ve loved being hated by you.”
She then paid tribute to her parents: “And if you’ll excuse me [using sign language]: for my mother and my father, I want to say thank you for teaching me to have a dream. You are seeing my dream come true.”
The second of four children, she was born on July 22, 1934, in Birmingham, Alabama, to an Episcopal minister, Rev. Robert C. Fletcher, and his wife, Estelle. They had both lost their hearing when they were children, he when he was struck by lightning, she to illness.
”If I fell down and hurt myself, I never cried,” Fletcher told The New York Times in 1975. “There was no one to hear me.”
She was extremely shy, and her parents sent her to an aunt in Texas, where she lived for parts of several years before attending Ramsay High School in Birmingham and then graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1957.
She took a trip to Los Angeles with friends and decided to stay, working as a receptionist while taking acting classes at night with the acclaimed teacher Jeff Corey. (Robert Blake was a fellow student.)
After getting steady work on such television shows as Bat Masterson, Lawman, 77 Sunset Strip, Wagon Train and Perry Mason, the 5-foot-10 actress made her big-screen debut in the war film A Gathering of Eagles (1963), starring Rock Hudson.
She had son John in 1961, and while pregnant with Andrew a year later, she decided to step away from the business. She was married to Jerry Bick, a literary agent who would produce such films as Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Thieves Like Us.
Fletcher said she did not want to appear in Thieves Like Us because of her husband’s involvement, but Altman insisted.
To prepare for her role in Cuckoo’s Nest, Fletcher observed group therapy sessions at Oregon State Hospital in Salem, where the movie was shot. She spent 11 weeks at the facility during the making of the film.
In her New York Times interview, she described Mildred Ratched: “She was so out of touch with her feelings that she had no joy in her life and no concept of the fact that she could be wrong. She delivered her care of her insane patients in a killing manner, but she was convinced she was right.”
Pauline Kael of The New Yorker called her performance “masterful,” and the film also won Oscars for best director, picture, actor and screenplay, a sweep matched only by It Happened One Night (1934) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
Fletcher never approached such acting greatness again.
The role of Linnea, the gospel-singing mother of two deaf children in Nashville (1975), was created with her in mind, but she and her husband had a falling-out with Altman, and Lily Tomlin got the part (and an eventual supporting actress Oscar nom).
Fletcher did appear in other movies including The Lady in Red (1979), Brainstorm (1983), Firestarter (1984), Invaders From Mars (1986), Flowers in the Attic (1987), Two Moon Junction (1988), Blue Steel (1989), The Player (1992) — back in good graces with Altman — Virtuosity (1995), High School High (1996), Mulholland Falls (1996), Cruel Intentions (1999) and A Map of the World (1999).
After she and Bick divorced, she made tabloid headlines by being romantically involved with the much-younger Morgan Mason. (The son of British actor James Mason, he went on to marry singer Belinda Carlisle.)
In addition to her sons, survivors include her sister, Roberta.
Forever known for playing Nurse Ratched, Fletcher noted in 2012 that she could no longer bear to watch herself in Cuckoo’s Nest. “I was really shocked in those scenes where I was actually so cruel,” she said.