Louise Fletcher, Oscar-winning actor who played Nurse Ratched in 'Cuckoo's Nest,' dies

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In this March 29, 1976 file photo, Louise Fletcher holds the Oscar she won for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
In this March 29, 1976, file photo, Louise Fletcher holds the Oscar she won for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." (Associated Press)

For the record:
9:09 a.m. Sept. 26, 2022: A previous version of this article reported that Jack Nicholson won his fifth Academy Award for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Nicholson won his first Oscar for that film. It also reported that Lily Tomlin won an Oscar for “Nashville.” Tomlin was nominated for the role.

Actor Louise Fletcher, who gave an Oscar-winning performance as the villainous Nurse Ratched in 1975's “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and won hearts when she signed to her deaf parents during her Academy Awards speech, died Friday.

Fletcher, who had battled breast cancer twice by the time she was 80, died at her home in France, according to agent David Shaul, who confirmed the news to Deadline. No cause of death was given, but Shaul said Fletcher died in her sleep surrounded by family. She was 88.

While the role as the icy, unlovable nurse in Milos Forman's acclaimed adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel made Fletcher famous, she struggled to find meaty roles and discovered that, as someone who rose to fame in her 40s, she was often overlooked in favor of younger actors. But she thrived in small fare, such as religious leader Kai Winn Adami on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and the foul-mouthed matriarch Peg on “Shameless.”

“If a part interests me, I don’t mind how small it is,” she told The Times in 1982. “People are always telling me: ‘You’ll ruin your career doing things like that.’ But I like to work. And you can’t just sit at home and call yourself an actress. The only way to be an actress is to act.”

Born Estelle Louise Fletcher in Birmingham, Ala., on July 22, 1934, she was the second of four children of deaf parents. Her father, Robert, was an Episcopal minister who lost his hearing when he was struck by lightning at age 4. Her mother, Estelle, was born deaf. Her father spent much of his time away from home while founding churches for the hearing impaired.

Fletcher was intensely shy, and her teachers initially believed that she too was deaf and recommended that her parents send her to a specialized school in Talladega. Instead, they sent her to Texas to live with a wealthy aunt who said she had the time and resources to encourage the young girl to speak. Fletcher credited her aunt with sparking her interest in acting.

A woman with a gray bob, wearing a white turtleneck and a black jacket smiles
Louise Fletcher at the Los Angeles premiere of the second season of "Shameless" on Jan. 5, 2012. (Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)

“She had no children, so she doted on us all," Fletcher said in a 2016 interview with the Independent. "She was very theatrical and musical, and she would dress us up and we'd sing and dance and do plays and get a lot of attention, a lot of approval. She taught me how to show off. I just loved getting applause.”

Fletcher attended the University of North Carolina, graduating in 1957 with plans to work in theater. She set out for Los Angeles and had to beg just to audition for screen roles when she ran out of money. She booked bit parts in several TV shows in the late 1950s and 1960s, including “Lawman,” “Maverick,” “The Untouchables,” “Wagon Train” and “Perry Mason,” but had a tough time landing roles because, at 5 feet 11, she often towered over her male counterparts.

"No television producer thought a tall woman could be sexually attractive to anybody. I was able to get jobs on westerns because the actors were even taller than I was,” she told the New York Times in 1975.

And the few parts she did get lacked depth.

“I saw myself on an old episode of ‘Perry Mason’ the other day, and I’m like a child. So innocent,” Fletcher recalled in a 2016 Washington Times interview. “I had no life experience to call on, but I played that very well.”

She married literary agent-turned-producer Jerry Bick in 1960 and soon after had her first child, Andrew She gave up acting in 1962 when she was pregnant with her second child, John. Recalling how her father left home for weeks at a time, Fletcher said she was unwilling to do the same to her own children.

“I could not handle going away day after day,” she told the New York Times. “The thought of going away before they got up and coming back after they were in bed was intolerable.”

Fletcher said she was happy that she married, had children, raised them and traveled with her family before her breakthrough roles in “Thieves Like Us” and “Cuckoo’s Nest.”

After living in London for six years, the couple returned to Hollywood so that Bick could produce Robert Altman’s 1974 film “Thieves Like Us.” Altman insisted that Bick cast Fletcher in a prime supporting role. Altman turned to Fletcher again for his next project, "Nashville," but then pulled the offer and gave the role to Lily Tomlin after he and Bick had a falling-out. The character had been written for Fletcher, and she reportedly fumed when Tomlin was nominated for an Oscar for the role.

So bleak were her prospects that she said she was rejected by 15 agents as she tried to find work in Hollywood.

"I was already past the age of being a romantic lead,” she told the Independent. “Pretty soon I’d be to too old to play young and too young to play old.”

Louise Fletcher holds the Academy Award she won
Louise Fletcher holds the Academy Award she won for her role in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" on March 30, 1976. (Associated Press)

It all changed when Forman came along. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” his award-winning masterpiece, provided Fletcher with a career-defining role as Nurse Ratched, a chilly, emotionally detached nurse at an Oregon psychiatric hospital and the counterweight to Jack Nicholson’s rascally rule-breaker, Randle McMurphy. She was the last actor cast for the film after 40 other women were offered auditions. Filming began just days after she got the role.

“It’s a miracle I survived the first day. I was so scared. It was only later that I realized that everybody was scared,” she told The Times in 1976.

Fletcher lived separately from the cast, which included Nicholson, Michael Berryman, Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd, so it wouldn’t interfere with the domineering personality she was honing for the role.

The role earned her an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. The film won the Oscar for best picture and earned Nicholson his first Academy Award. While Nicholson's salary was “enormous,” Fletcher joked, “the rest of us were working for scale, or a little above that. I worked for 11 weeks and made $10,000 — before taxes.”

Fletcher let some of her frustration seep into her Oscar acceptance speech: “Well, it looks like you hated me so much that you have given me this award. And all I can say is — I've loved being hated by you.” During the broadcast, she also thanked her parents using sign language.

However, the Oscars curse — the career and personal misfortunes actors sometimes suffer after victories — appeared to strike Fletcher. She and Bick divorced in 1977 and she lost two siblings. And the few parts she was offered were often for villains, a hangover from playing Nurse Ratched.

She made occasional films such as “The Cheap Detective” and "Brainstorm,” actress Natalie Wood’s final movie. The latter was delayed by Wood’s drowning death in 1981, but Fletcher was eager for audiences to see the film. She said it was her most substantial role since “Cuckoo’s Nest.”

“I took it because it was a great part,” she told The Times in 1983, “because I wanted to work with Douglas Trumbull and because Natalie was a friend, I like working with people who laugh, and she had the most wonderful sense of humor.”

She appeared in 1987’s “Flowers in the Attic,” “Strange Invaders,” Predator” and “Once Upon a Time in America,” which she did just so she could work with Robert De Niro. She also took on TV roles, playing the religious leader in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” a part she said earned her the most fan mail she'd ever received. She also appeared in “7th Heaven,” “ER,” “Private Practice,” “Heroes” and “Shameless,” picking up Emmy nominations for “Picket Fences” and “Joan of Arcadia” along the way.

She received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Birmingham’s Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in 1999 and the International Press Academy’s Mary Pickford Award in 2016.

“It’s the ‘we can’t believe you’re still here’ kind of award,” Fletcher joked.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.