Louise Fletcher, actress who won an Oscar as the ruthless Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – obituary

Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched - Silver Screen Collection
Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched - Silver Screen Collection

Louise Fletcher, who has died aged 88, gained cinematic immortality through her portrayal of the terrifyingly cold and manipulative Nurse Ratched in Milos Forman’s 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which she was memorably opposed by Jack Nicholson as RP McMurphy, a small-time crook incarcerated in a mental hospital who attempts to lead a rebellion against her authority.

While the film proved an enormous success – it became only the second film to make a clean sweep of the five most prestigious prizes at the 1976 Academy Awards, including that of Best Actress for Louise Fletcher – it also proved the sole high point in a career which saw her talents sadly wasted by an industry that seemed to have no place for her.

Estelle Louise Fletcher was born on July 22 1934 in Birmingham, Alabama, the daughter of an Episcopalian minister and his wife, both of whom were deaf; Louise was taught to speak by an aunt who also encouraged her interest in acting. On graduating from the University of North Carolina, she travelled in the late 1950s to Los Angeles, where she took an office job while studying acting at night.

With Jack Nicholson after their Best Actress and Best Actor wins at the Academy Awards in 1976 - Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
With Jack Nicholson after their Best Actress and Best Actor wins at the Academy Awards in 1976 - Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Due to her height (5ft 10in), she initially found herself cast primarily in Western television series such as Lawman, Maverick, Wagon Train and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, leavened on occasion by appearances in such popular shows as The Untouchables and Perry Mason.

On her marriage in 1959 to the agent Jerry Bick (whose clients included the crime writer, Jim Thompson) and the subsequent birth of their two sons, Louise Fletcher retired from acting following her one feature film role of this period, as an air force wife in the turgid Rock Hudson vehicle A Gathering of Eagles (1963).

Ten years later, Louise Fletcher returned to television work before being cast in Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974), a remake of Nicholas Ray’s 1948 crime film, They Live by Night, produced by Bick following his collaboration with Altman the previous year on The Long Goodbye. Her supporting performance, as a tired, no-nonsense housewife in Depression-era Mississippi who betrays Keith Carradine’s bank robber to the law, made a strong impression, leading Altman to devise a character based on Louise Fletcher for his next film, Nashville (1975).

“Nashville was in development,” she recalled, “and my parents came from Birmingham to visit the set. He [Altman] witnessed Jerry not being able to communicate with them, and I was sort of the go-between, the interpreter for them with everybody. He got this idea to write a character who has a deaf child … and that was going to be my part.”

But following a falling-out with United Artists, Altman took the picture elsewhere, jettisoning both Fletcher and Bick in the process, and handing the part to Lily Tomlin. “He took my family identity, then to treat me in that way. I stopped speaking to him, because he hurt me so bad,” Louise Fletcher said, although she would later make a cameo appearance as herself in the director’s The Player (1992).

Following a secondary role in Russian Roulette (1975), a lame espionage thriller co-produced by Bick with Sir Lew Grade’s ITC and starring George Segal, she put herself in contention for the part for which she will always be remembered.

With Mimi Sarkisian and Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - United Artists/Fantasy Films/Kobal/Shutterstock
With Mimi Sarkisian and Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - United Artists/Fantasy Films/Kobal/Shutterstock

As Milos Forman later recounted, “We were all convinced that we had to have somebody who is really [the] personification of evil. We offered the part to about four actresses who would fill this image. They all turned it down. Then one day I met Louise Fletcher [having seen her performance in Thieves Like Us]... I slowly started to realise that it will be much more powerful if it’s not this visible evil, that she is only an instrument of evil, she doesn’t know that she is evil.”

Interviewed on set, Louise Fletcher remarked of Nurse Ratched, “I see her as a human being who – she’s not a medieval witch. I see her as a woman who believes totally in what she’s doing. She believes that what’s she’s doing is absolutely right and best for all the patients.”

Adapted from the 1962 novel by Kesey and co-produced by Michael Douglas, whose father Kirk had played McMurphy on stage in 1963, the film was shot at the Oregon State Hospital, with Forman encouraging his cast to improvise, a luxury denied to Louise Fletcher by the nature of her part: “I was so jealous of all those actors being able to cavort and laugh and do all the crazy things they did, that one day it just got too much for me, and I just stood up and unbuttoned my dress and ripped it off and threw it down on the floor, and I thought I’ll show them I’m a real woman under here. I think that must’ve been what I was thinking, you know – I’m not this monster!”

Her success at the 1976 Academy Awards, during which she thanked her parents in sign language, proved remarkably short-lived. Her next film was Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), directed by John Boorman and starring Richard Burton. The former’s intention was to make “an experimental metaphysical thriller” on the nature of goodness, a notion decidedly at odds with Warner Brothers’ desire for more of the same crude shock tactics which had distinguished the 1974 original.

On casting Louise Fletcher as a psychiatrist, Boorman recalled that “She had an air of authority. She was tall and regal. Burton said to her, ‘I’m a Welsh dwarf and it’s always my fate to be cast with tall leading ladies.’ ”

While the resultant film was an artistic and financial failure, it was at least a notorious failure, which is more than can be said for Louise Fletcher’s subsequent films. The Cheap Detective (1978) saw her impersonating Ingrid Bergman in a puerile Neil Simon parody of various Humphrey Bogart films, after which she provided solid support to Hal Holbrook in the underrated Natural Enemies (1979).

In her long-running role as Kai Wynn in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - CBS Photo Archive
In her long-running role as Kai Wynn in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - CBS Photo Archive

In 1980, however, her appearance in the title role of an obscure Belgian comedy led one commentator to refer to Mama Dracula as “just the latest in a wide variety of oddball parts she has played since winning her 1975 Oscar.”

Her fortunes fared no better in the 1980s, her small role in the Stephen King adaptation Firestarter (1984) being followed by a part as a cemetery director in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America that same year which was cut from the American-release print (though subsequently restored in the “extended” version). Nonetheless, by this stage, and with, as she said, bills to pay, she continued to work busily in television, enjoying some success as Kai Wynn in the series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), while all too often being required to play pale imitations of her most celebrated character.

Louise Fletcher was divorced from Jerry Bick in 1978. She died at her home in the south of France, having previously survived two bouts of breast cancer. She is survived by her two sons.

Louise Fletcher, born July 22 1934, died September 23 2022