- Born: October 13, 1939
- Died: January 9, 2023
- Birthplace: Arkansas
- Best Movie: A Christmas Story
Melinda Dillon, who established herself as one of the most recognizable actors in America in the 1970s through the mid-2000s for performances in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and A Christmas Story, has died. She was 83.
Dillon died on January 9, 2023, according to The Neptune Society of San Pedro, California. GIANT FREAKIN ROBOT spoke to several family members of Dillon’s who confirmed that the actor requested to be cremated and her ashes spread in the Pacific Ocean. No funeral has been planned.
For decades, American actor Melinda Dillon had been delighting audiences with performances on the stage and the screen. Starring in some of the most recognizable blockbusters and classic films for directors Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Barbra Streisand, Melinda Dillon cultivated a loyal fanbase in award-winning turns. Dillon retired from the acting game in 2007, but her legacy lives on in the performances that are well-regarded by new generations of fans to this day.
Melinda Dillon is probably most recognized for her role as the mother in the classic holiday movie, A Christmas Story. Seemingly on an endless loop on television marathons during Christmas Eve every year, A Christmas Story speaks to Dillon’s natural ability to bring comedy to a family story.
But Dillon’s career is very layered, so here is a look at one of Hollywood’s greatest legends.
MELINDA DILLON WAS BORN IN 1939 IN THE SAME TOWN AS BILL CLINTON
Melinda Dillon was born in 1939 in Hope, Arkansas, but moved around quite a bit during her childhood, which included stints in Alabama and Germany before finally settling in Chicago for her teenage years. She graduated with a Drama degree from the Art Institute of Chicago and owed much of her professional career to her days living in Chicago.
President Bill Clinton was also born in Hope, Arkansas, and made it a central slogan of his 1992 presidential run for the White House by ending many of his stump speeches and ads by invoking a line that incorporated the word “hope” often.
SHE GOT HER START ON THE STAGE
Beginning with a small gig in improv and moving onto larger stage productions, Melinda Dillon got the chance of a lifetime at age 23 when she starred in the original Broadway production of Edward Albee’s now-famous play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Directed by Alan Schneider and costarring Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, and George Grizzard, Dillon’s first significant Broadway role was that of Honey in the play, and she would go on to be nominated for the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play. The exact role was taken over for the film adaptation by Sandy Dennis, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the part.
After the success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Melinda Dillon continued to act on the stage for years before breaking into the film business. She was featured in several productions, including You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running, again acting alongside George Grizzard, and Paul Sills’ Story Theatre, which opened in 1970. Her run on the Broadway stage coincided with bit parts on television series of the time, including episodes of The Defenders, Bonanza, and The Jeffersons.
SHE WAS IN CLOSE ENCOUNTERS AND SLAP SHOT
At a time when film productions were heavily coveted compared to Broadway or television, Melinda Dillon hit the ground running once she started her movie career.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, Dillon became a household name with roles as Mary in Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory and Suzanna in Slap Shot, costarring Paul Newman. At this point, she was nominated by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year – Actress, an award that no longer exists, which she lost in 1976 to Jessica Lange for King Kong.
But Melinda Dillon didn’t feel threatened by Jessica Lange’s win, as Dillon would continue her career by costarring in Steven Spielberg’s science fiction epic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Released in 1977, the blockbuster starred Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, and director Francois Truffaut and ended up grossing over $306 million at the box office against a budget of $19 million.
Melinda Dillon solidified her place in movie history by earning a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Jillian Guiler.
The role of Jillian Guiler was a pivotal one for Melinda Dillon, helping to launch her film career beyond any of her wildest expectations. During a significantly challenging scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which aliens in their kitchen kidnap Jillian’s child, SlashFilm reports that the fear on Dillon’s face is real. Apparently, director Steven Spielberg gave young actor Cary Guffey one set of instructions and gave Dillon a different set of instructions on what to do in the scene.
With no rehearsal of the scene prior to filming, Dillon was thrown onto a collapsing set, and audiences can see her actual reactions in the scene on film, which helped strengthen her character as a whole.
Melinda Dillon followed up her success on Close Encounters of the Third Kind with another costarring role opposite Paul Newman in 1981’s Absence of Malice, which earned the actor another nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
During this period of her acting life, Dillon starred in various television movies and miniseries, including Enigma, The Critical List, and Transplant. She even had a guest appearance on the hit television series CHiPs and starred with Paul Newman again in the 1980 adaptation of The Shadow Box.
MELINDA DILLON STARRED IN A CHRISTMAS STORY
Taken seriously for acting in dramas and big blockbusters, Melinda Dillon took a varied approach to how she would be presented in projects of the 1980s and 1990s. After a substantial role in Absence of Malice, Dillon went on to star in A Christmas Story alongside Darren McGavin in what has become a Christmas classic nearly 40 years later.
The movie about a boy who wants an air rifle for Christmas is regarded as one of the best Christmas movies of all time. Rotten Tomatoes ranks the film Certified Fresh with a 90 percent rating on its Tomatometer, with an Audience Score of 88 percent.
Following a new trend of family and ensemble movies, Melinda Dillon starred with John Lithgow in Harry and the Hendersons while jumping back into television movies with Shattered Spirits, Shattered Innocence, and later Judgment Day: The John List Story. Dillon made her mark in the early 1990s by joining the cast of The Prince of Tides, which was directed by Barbra Streisand and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
She would go on to costar in minor roles in the 1990s in Sioux City for director Lou Diamond Phillips, the comedy drag film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, and finally landing a part as Rose Gator in the ensemble masterpiece Magnolia for writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson.
MELINDA DILLON WAS MARRIED TO ACTOR RICHARD LIBERTINI AND THEY HAD ONE CHILD
Since the late 1990s, Melinda Dillon had slowed her acting career down, ultimately retiring from the profession in 2007. She had made appearances on hit television series like Picket Fences, Judging Amy, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit before bowing out of the acting world for good. Her last film role was in the 2007 drama Reign Over Me with Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, and Jada Pinkett Smith, where she plays the role of Sandler’s mother in the movie.
Melinda Dillon was married from 1963 to 1978 to Richard Libertini, a fellow actor who has also appeared on the stage and screen. Libertini is most famous for roles in Fletch, Awakenings, Lethal Weapon 4, and Dolphin Tale before his death from cancer in 2016. Through her marriage to Libertini, Dillon had a son named Richard.
While Melinda Dillon enjoyed critical acclaim throughout her career, most of her film and television roles were seen as supporting rather than leads. However, the underrated actor has transcended the idea of what it means to play a “motherly” or “spousal” role and solidified her place in film history with parts for famous directors of the era. She might not have been on social media or took roles in new movies after 2007, but Melinda Dillon’s performances live on.
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