Melinda Dillon, who portrayed the devoted mother in the holiday classic A Christmas Story and received supporting Oscar nominations for her work in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Absence of Malice, died on January 9, per her family. She had 83 years on earth.
She received a Tony nomination and a Theatre World award in 1963 for Dillon’s Broadway debut performance as the innocent Honey in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Later, the native of Arkansas portrayed Mary, Woody Guthrie’s first wife, and Memphis Sue, a dark-haired folk singer, in the Hal Ashby biopic Bound for Glory (1976), opposite David Carradine; a lesbian hockey wife in George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot (1977); and John Lithgow’s wife in the family film Harry and the Hendersons (1977). (1987).
She also appeared in Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides (1991), Norman Jewison’s F.I.S.T. (1978), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) as the spouse of a philandering game show host. In The Prince of Tides, she played Nick Nolte’s suicidal sister (Philip Baker Hall).
Her relationship with the late actor Richard Libertini, which lasted from 1963 until their divorce in 1978, resulted in the birth of a son.
Dillon portrayed Jillian Guiler in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the single mother who ventures to Devils Tower with her neighbour (Richard Dreyfuss) in search of her 3-year-old son who had been abducted by aliens via the kitchen doggy door (1977).
A few days before filming began, Spielberg hired her after Ashby recommended her for the part.
She later appeared with Paul Newman in Sydney Pollack’s Absence of Malice (1981), playing a Catholic woman who commits herself when a reporter (Sally Field) writes an article about her abortion.
In 1982’s Reds and 1978’s Julia, Vanessa Redgrave and Maureen Stapleton respectively beat Dillon in the Oscars.
Bob Clark’s 1983 film A Christmas Story stars Dillon as the lovely mother of Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and Randy (Ian Petrella) and the wife of Old Man Parker (Darren McGavin). Dillon, in contrast to the two, makes an appearance on TV reruns throughout every Christmas season.
Throughout a 2016 article for Vanity Fair, Sam Kashner observed that Dillon “has a tremendously comic presence that threatens to burst into creative anarchy” in the film. She is a vigilant mother, but at her core she is still a child, as seen by the way she coaxes Randy, her pickiest eater and youngest child, into thinking he is a pig at a trough. With his mother at his side, Randy really gets into it as he snorts and buryes his face in his meat loaf and mashed potatoes.
According to The New York Times, the sad woman “hadn’t had a cooked supper for herself in 15 years.”
Melinda Ruth Dillon was born on October 13, 1939, in Hope, Arkansas. Before her mother graduated from high school in Chicago, she lived on many military bases, including one in Nuremberg, Germany, and remarried an Army veteran.
She stepped in for a sick Barbara Harris and took part in a skit while working as The Second City’s coat check clerk, beginning her acting career. (She also met Libertini, a member of the improv comedy troupe, at Second City.)
After finishing her acting education at DePaul University, she relocated to New York. There, she was cast with Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, and George Grizzard in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. However, after nine months, she did stop the demanding play and spent time in a mental health institution.
In a 1976 interview with The New York Times, she said, “I just went insane when I was in Virginia Woolf; it was that simple.
Because the play was so long and the actors’ union wouldn’t let us perform the matinee, I think that was how I was living. We required a brand-new cast for that, but I frequently had to step in since the girl kept getting unwell. After spending two hours studying with Lee Strasberg in the morning, I would perform the play for three hours in the evening.
George Grizzard left to play Hamlet, and then something strange happened. I just broke down because I had come to depend so completely on George.” I had the typical American dream of visiting New York and studying acting with Lee Strasberg. I’m not sure why. It’s possible that I was just unprepared for everything to happen in New York so quickly. I wouldn’t be able to meet new people or express any ideas I may have because of my lack of sophistication and total lack of cultural awareness.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, adapted by Mike Nichols in 1966, earned Sandy Dennis an Oscar for her portrayal of Honey.
When he played for two seasons in the popular You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running in 1967, Dillon found his way back to Broadway. He then came back in 1970 to attend a Second City reunion at Paul Sills’ Story Theatre. She then appeared on a large screen for the first time in Jack Lemmon’s The April Fools (1969).
Dillon subsequently had cameos in 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 (1996), among other films (2007). Additionally, she had cameo appearances on the TV shows Heartland, Picket Fences, and The Jeffersons.