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Melinda Dillon, who received supporting Oscar nominations for her turns in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Absence of Malice and portrayed the doting mom in the holiday perennial A Christmas Story, died Jan. 9, her family announced. She was 83.
Right out of the gate, Dillon earned a Tony nomination and Theatre World award in 1963 for her debut performance on Broadway as the childlike wife Honey in the original production of Edward Albee‘s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Later, the Arkansas native played two characters opposite David Carradine — Woody Guthrie’s first wife, Mary, and a dark-haired folk singer named Memphis Sue — in the biopic Bound for Glory (1976), directed by Hal Ashby; was a lesbian hockey wife in George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot (1977); and portrayed John Lithgow’s wife in the family film Harry and the Hendersons (1987).
Her big-screen résumé also included Norman Jewison’s F.I.S.T. (1978), as the girlfriend/wife of a Teamster played by Sylvester Stallone; Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides (1991), as the suicidal sister of Nick Nolte’s character; and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), as the wife of a philandering quiz show host (Philip Baker Hall).
She was married to late actor Richard Libertini from 1963 until their 1978 divorce, and they had a son.
In Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Dillon portrayed Jillian Guiler, the single mother who heads to Devils Tower with utility worker Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) in search of her 3-year-old son, who’s been abducted by aliens through the kitchen doggy door.
Ashby had recommended her to Spielberg for the part, and she was hired just days before filming began.
Sydney Pollack’s Absence of Malice (1981) had her back with Slap Shot co-star Paul Newman, this time playing a Catholic woman who takes her own life after a reporter (Sally Field) writes a story about her abortion.
At the Oscars, Dillon lost out to Vanessa Redgrave of Julia in 1978 and to Maureen Stapleton of Reds in 1982.
Still, unlike those two, Dillon shows up every holiday season on TV rebroadcasts as the sweet mother of Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and Randy (Ian Petrella) and wife of Darren McGavin’s Old Man Parker in A Christmas Story (1983), directed by Bob Clark.
In the film, Sam Kashner noted in a 2016 article for Vanity Fair, “Dillon has a sweetly comedic presence that threatens to dissolve into creative anarchy. She’s a vigilant mom but is still a child at heart, apparent when she encourages her youngest, Randy, a fussy eater, to pretend he’s a pig at a trough. Randy really gets into it, snorting and plunging his face into his meat loaf and mashed potatoes, while he and his mom dissolve into fits of laughter.”
As The New York Times recalled, the poor woman “hadn’t had a hot meal for herself in 15 years.”
Melinda Ruth Dillon was born on Oct. 13, 1939, in Hope, Arkansas. Her mother divorced and remarried an Army veteran, and she lived on several military bases, including one in Nuremberg, Germany, before graduating from high school in Chicago.
While working as the coat check girl for The Second City, she stepped in for an ill Barbara Harris and performed in a skit, setting her acting career in motion. (Second City also is where she met Libertini, who was a member of the improvisational comedy troupe.)
After studying acting at DePaul University, she came to New York and was cast opposite Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill and George Grizzard in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? However, she left the intense play after nine months and spent time in a psychiatric hospital.
“I was in Virginia Woolf, and I just went crazy; it was really that simple,” she said in a 1976 interview with The New York Times.
“I think it was the way I was living; the play was so long and the actors’ union wouldn’t let us play the matinee. We had to have a whole different cast for that, but I was called in to do it many, many times because the gal would get sick. I would do it three hours in the afternoon, then study with Lee Strasberg for two hours, and do the play three hours at night. Then, George Grizzard left to do Hamlet, and a strange thing happened. I had learned to lean on George hard, and I just crumbled inside. I don’t know why.
“I had had the American dream — to go to New York and study with Lee Strasberg. I guess I just wasn’t prepared for it all to happen so quickly in New York. I’m not sophisticated; I hadn’t had any kind of cultural education, at all, so when it came to meeting people, and presenting any kind of ideas I might have to offer, I would be terrified.”
Meanwhile, Sandy Dennis went on to play Honey in Mike Nichols’ 1966 film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and won an Oscar.
Dillon returned to Broadway in 1967, spending two seasons in the hit You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running, and in 1970 for a Second City reunion via Paul Sills’ Story Theatre. In between, she made her big-screen debut in The April Fools (1969), starring Jack Lemmon.
Dillon went on to appear in other films including The Muppet Movie (1979), Songwriter (1984), Sioux City (1994), To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), How to Make an American Quilt (1995) and Reign Over Me (2007). She also guest-starred on such TV shows as The Jeffersons, Picket Fences and Heartland.
Matthew Creith of the website Giant Freakin Robot was the first to report Dillon’s death.
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