Louise Fletcher was the American actor best known for her portrayal of the cruel and sadistic Nurse Mildred Ratched in the psychological drama One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Fletcher, who has died aged 88, took on a wide range of roles during her long and varied acting career, spanning six decades.
Estelle Louise Fletcher was born in 1934 in Birmingham, Alabama, the second of four children to Estelle (nee Caldwell) and Robert Capers Fletcher, an Episcopal preacher. She recalled of her childhood: “My mother loved the movies and we’d go together, and because she was deaf I had to explain a lot of things to her about what was happening. And I sort of got the fever and the need for her approval ... I knew I wanted to be an actress from, let’s say, age 11 and I never changed my mind.”
Her debut acting role was in the television series Flight, in the episode “Red China Rescue”, where a cargo plane disappears off the south China coast. She subsequently took on a variety of minor parts in television and film.
However, on having children with her husband, Jerry Bick, Fletcher opted to put her acting career on hold for 11 years, explaining later: “I could not handle going away day after day ... The thought of going away before they got up and coming back after they were in bed was intolerable.”
The blockbuster film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), based on the 1962 novel by Ken Kasey, was directed by Miloš Forman and starred Jack Nicholson. Set in a psychiatric hospital in Oregon, it is a disturbing, yet in parts amusing, take on life inside a mental institution. Fletcher’s role as Nurse Ratched pitches her against Randle Patrick McMurphy (Nicholson), a new and rebellious patient, in a battle of wills.
Forman auditioned and cast Fletcher, who had recently appeared in Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974). She later spoke about her decision to take on the role, saying: “It wasn’t until we were halfway through shooting that I realised the part had been offered to other actresses who didn’t want to appear so horrible on the screen.”
Aljean Harmetz, writing in the New York Times, said of her performance: “It is Louise Fletcher’s achievement that her Nurse Ratched is so close to being a human being that she is totally oblivious of the fact that she is a monster. She is not the physically overpowering Big Nurse of the Kesey novel; she does not wrestle with the mental patients on her ward or shout them into submission.” The film’s critical success was matched by tremendous commercial success, grossing over $100m from its North America release alone.
The role won Fletcher an Oscar for Best Actress at the following year’s Academy Awards ceremony. She gave a broad smile during her acceptance speech, saying: “I’ve loved being hated by you.” She concluded with an emotional segment in American sign language, for the sake of her deaf parents. Further awards for her performance included a Bafta, a Golden Globe and a place among the top five villainous characters in film history, together with Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates, according to the American Film Institute.
Fletcher went on to play the memorable Kai Winn Adami, a religious leader and devious villain, in the science-fiction television series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999). Robert Hewitt Wolfe, a writer for the series, said in tribute: “It was an honour and a pleasure to write for Louise Fletcher, one of the absolute greats. A blazing talent and a complete class act."
Her last role was as Rosie, an elderly woman, in the Netflix television series Girlboss (2017).
She had latterly lived in a converted barn on a farm in Montdurausse, a village in the Tarn département of France, where she died.
She was married to Jerry Bick, a literary agent and film producer, from 1960 to 1978. They had two sons, John and Andrew.
Louise Fletcher, actor, born 22 July 1934, died 23 September 2022