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In Appreciation: Melinda Dillon

Earlier this week, news broke of the passing of actress Melinda Dillon (although the reports also indicate that she died a month ago, on January 9), one of the great character actresses of her era.

Massive success came quickly for Dillon – perhaps too quickly for the talented actress. Born in Arkansas, Dillon moved around a bit when her mother remarried an Amry veteran, and at an early job in coat check at Chicago’s Second City, she filled in for an ill Barbara Harris and opened the door to her performing career. After studying acting at DePaul University, she came to New York, where she was part of the original cast of Edward Albee’s seminal play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and received both a Tony nomination for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play and a Theatre World Award for her Broadway debut performance. After nine months in the production, however, she left the play and sought out psychiatric treatment.

“I think it was the way I was living,” she said of this time later on. “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.” (Eventually, all four roles were recast when Mike Nichols’ directed the movie adaptation; Sandy Dennis would win Best Supporting Actress for playing Honey, the role created onstage by Dillon.)

Still, in time her film career kicked into high gear through the 1970s and into the 1980s. In Hal Ashby’s Oscar-nominated Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory, she played two roles: Guthrie’s first wife, Mary, and a folk singer named Memphis Sue. Other roles included Slap Shot, The Muppet Movie, Songwriter, Harry and the Hendersons, The Prince of Tides, How to Make an American Quilt, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, and Magnolia, all rendered with her signature combination of gravitas and vulnerability.

In 1977, she stepped into Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) at the last minute as Jillian Guiler, a single mother who frantically searches for her 3-year-old son who has been abducted by aliens. She got the part thanks to a recommendation from Ashby to Spielberg, and got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress – a rarity for anyone in a genre film, to be sure, but more significantly, she holds the distinction of being the first performer ever directed by Spielberg to receive an acting nomination. After reteaming with Slap Shot co-star Paul Newman in Sydney Pollack’s Absence of Malice (1981), Dillon received a second Oscar nomination.

But over time, it was a different role that would prove to be her signature one. She’s the frazzled Depression-era mother in Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story. That movie is proof that while now gone, she will never be forgotten. In fact, thanks to this holiday classic, you can catch her round the clock towards the end of every year.

Thank goodness.

5 essential (non-A Christmas Story) Melinda Dillon performances

Slap Shot

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Absence of Malice

The Prince of Tides