Melinda Dillon, mom in movie classics 'Christmas Story,' 'Close Encounters,' dies at 83

Melinda Dillon is snapped by the paparazzi in December 1988 in Hollywood, Calif. (Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
Melinda Dillon is snapped by the paparazzi in December 1988 in Hollywood, Calif. (Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Melinda Dillon, who earned Oscar nominations for her dramatic roles in Steven Spielberg's 1977 sci-fi classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind and in the Paul Newman journalism drama Absence of Malice, but was perhaps best known for playing Ralphie's mom in the original A Christmas Story, has died at 83.

According to a public obituary, she died Jan. 9, although no further details were given.

Throughout her five-decade career in Hollywood, Dillon also played roles in the movies Harry and the Hendersons; Slap Shot; The Prince of Tides; To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar; How to Make an American Quilt; and Magnolia. On TV, she appeared in Tracy Takes On..., Judging Amy, The Twilight Zone; The Jeffersons; and Bonanza.

The future movie mom was born in Hope, Ark., though she spent her early years in Alabama, Germany and, as an October 1962 story in New York's Daily News put it, "wherever the Army sent her stepfather." She went on to work at the famous Second City improv group, during its early years, before making a go of it on the stage in a more dramatic project. She played the part of Honey in the 1962, original Broadway production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for which she received a Ton Award nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play. She was just 23.

Fourteen years later, she played two different roles in the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory, for which she received a Golden Globe nomination in the category of Best Female Debut. Spielberg came calling after that for Close Encounters, where Dillon earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for playing single mother Jillian Guiler whose son is abducted by aliens. She earned a second supporting-actress nomination four years later, in 1981, for Malice, which also co-starred Sally Field.

The beloved A Christmas Story came out in 1983. In it, Dillon was a tough but loving mother, who both made her son put a bar of soap in his mouth when he swore and, when he beat up his bully, helped smooth things over with his intimidating father. The movie continues to be a holiday favorite and airs 24 hours straight on cable beginning Christmas Eve.

Dillon stopped acting in 2007 —she last appeared in the Canadian family drama Heartland — so she did not reprise her role in last year's A Christmas Story sequel, A Christmas Story Christmas. Her role was played by Julie Hagerty. Billingsley revealed to Entertainment Weekly in December that "Melinda, as you say, has retired from acting and wished us the best in our pursuits. I had spoken to her about this."

The "A Christmas Story" cast — including Scott Schwartz, Melinda Dillon, Mary E. McLeod, Peter Billingsley and Reuben Freed — attend a screening of "A Christmas Story" on the film's 35th anniversary in 2018. (Photo: Morgan Lieberman/Getty Images)

Off-screen, Dillon was married to Richard Libertini for 15 years, before they divorced in the late '70s. They shared a son.

After news of her death broke on Friday, she was mourned by some famous peers.