Louise Fletcher has died. A veteran actor with more than 100 credits to her name, Fletcher was best known for her Oscar-wining performance as the calmly monstrous Nurse Ratched in 1975's One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, giving a turn as one of cinema’s great unlikely villains. In addition to that star-making performance, Fletcher appeared in a vast number of film and TV projects, including staking out a place for herself as one of the best antagonists in the entire Star Trek franchise as the manipulative and conniving Kai Winn in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Per Variety, Fletcher died at her home in France earlier today. She was 88.
Born the child of two deaf adults, Fletcher was introduced to the theater by a hearing aunt who also helped her learn to speak. Post-college, she migrated to Los Angeles, where she began picking up roles in TV, often in Westerns like Bat Masterson and Lawman. (In an interview in the New York Times in 1975, Fletcher noted that she had an easier time getting cast in Westerns because the leads were taller, and, at 5'10", she was often deemed too tall to play a love interest for Hollywood’s leading men.) In 1960, she married film producer Jerry Bick; the birth of their two children saw Fletcher retire from acting for 11 years to raise them.
When she came back, one of her first projects was a film from one of Bick’s long-time associates: Robert Altman, who cast Fletcher in a small part in 1973's Thieves Like Us. Plans to cast Fletcher in Altman’s Nashville apparently fell through after the director and Bick had a falling out; Fletcher and Bick would themselves divorce in 1977.
But Nashville’s loss was another movie’s gain: Director Miloš Forman noticed Fletcher’s performance in Thieves, and added her to his list of potential Nurse Ratcheds for his upcoming adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Although many actors were considered for (and declined) the part, it was Fletcher who ended up securing it—and the Best Actress Oscar in the process.
Nearly 50 years later, Fletcher’s performance in the part remains chilling: A surface-sweet portrait of institutional evil, she carefully watches the patients in her charge, holds herself snake-still at key moments, and then strikes perfectly at their vulnerabilities. And, in Fletcher’s hands, she never gives anything less than the total impression that she believes that she’s doing what’s right, and what’s best for all involved. The film—which became a massive box office success, in addition to its critical reception—simply wouldn’t work without her.
After accepting her Oscar in 1975—taking a moment during her acceptance speech to sign a thank you message to her parents—Fletcher’s career continued much as it had before, working steadily right up through her final roles in 2017. Along the way, she appeared in everything from The Exorcist II (in a part that had at least a whiff of Ratched about it, as many of her latter-day roles did) to Shameless, where she played the tough-as-nails and profane mother to William H. Macy’s Frank. (Fletcher in 2012: “My granddaughter cannot, ever, watch this show.”) Among the nerdier types, though, she was especially well-remembered for her multi-season role on Deep Space Nine, where she once again wielded “sweetness” and condescension as a weapon, creating a villain who couldn’t be so easily phasered or torpedoed, in the form of Bajoran spiritual leader Kai Winn.
Fletcher is survived by her two sons.