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

Nardine Saad, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

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 Los Angeles 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, Alabama, on July 22, 1934, she was the second of four children of deaf parents. Her father, Robert, was an Episcopalian minster who lost his hearing when we 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.

 

"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.

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