Melinda Dillon, actress in ‘Close Encounters’ and ‘Christmas Story,’ dies at 83

Melinda Dillon, an actress who won acclaim for playing women in crisis or at a crossroads in roles such as the mousy Honey in Broadway’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, a mother seeking her alien-abducted son in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and the doting matriarch in the holiday classic “A Christmas Story,” died Jan. 9. She was 83.

Ms. Dillon’s death was announced by her family, without giving a cause or where she died.

Over more than five decades, Ms. Dillon built a career in supporting roles onstage, cinema and television. She often played women locked in personal struggles in films including the psychological drama “The Prince of Tides” (1991) and “Absence of Malice” (1981) as a Catholic woman who kills herself after her abortion is revealed by a journalist (Sally Field).

Ms. Dillon’s own life also had periods of disquiet. She said the intensity of performing in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” left her emotionally drained and in need of a break nine months after its debut in 1962. She left the show to undergo mental health care.

“I was in ‘Virginia Woolf’ and I just went crazy; it was really that simple,” she said in a 1976 interview with the New York Times.

Ms. Dillon was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance, but she did not return to the role and was not cast in Mike Nichols’s 1966 film version. Sandy Dennis, playing the role of the innocent and troubled Honey, won an Academy Award.

Looking back, Ms. Dillon said she had reached “the American Dream” as a young performer raised in Arkansas and studying in New York with celebrated acting coach Lee Strasberg.

“I guess I just wasn’t prepared for it all to happen so quickly in New York,” she said. “I’m not sophisticated; I hadn’t had any kind of cultural education, at all, so when it came to meeting people, and presenting any kind of ideas I might have to offer, I would be terrified.”

She became, however, a sought-after performer who was defined by two roles as mothers in very different settings: manic in “Close Encounters” in a quest that leads to Wyoming’s monolithic Devil’s Tower, and stoic in “A Christmas Story” about a boy’s dream of getting a BB gun as a present.

“They got him,” Ms. Dillon’s character quivers in “Close Encounters” after her son is snatched by aliens through the doggy-door in their kitchen.

The scene became part of sci-fi movie fandom — never showing the aliens at the house but announcing their presence with pulsing lights and a mayhem of flying kitchenware and rattling appliances. Ms. Dillon said her shrieks were not acting.

“I was petrified,” she said, describing holding the young actor (Cary Guffey) playing her son. “I started screaming. I was so scared that the baby was going to get hit with this stuff.”

In the movie, she and another person who had a brush with the aliens (Richard Dreyfuss) become increasingly obsessed with images that they would later learn is Devil’s Tower, where they find the alien fleet. (Another famous scene is Dreyfuss’s character piling mashed potatoes into a glob resembling Devil’s Tower.)

Ms. Dillon received one of eight Oscar nominations for “Close Encounters,” whose cast included French director François Truffaut as a UFO expert. The film won an Academy Award for cinematography.

In “A Christmas Story” (1983), Ms. Dillon played a dutiful housewife aghast that her son Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) is desperate for a Red Ryder BB gun. She trots out mom-speak chestnuts — “you can take someone’s eye out” — and churns out meatloaves for the family dinners.

Author and essayist Dina Gachman saw more than just a suburban mom. “One look at her disheveled hair and shabby robe and exasperated stare and I thought: This woman is a damn hero,” she wrote in the New York Times in 2020.

Gachman urged viewers of the Christmas watch-list staple to give more due to Ms. Dillon’s role. “I’ll be rooting for the mom, and imagining a deleted scene where she kicks up her feet, has that Tom Collins and gets a quiet moment all to herself,” she wrote.

Ms. Dillon also shared her own secret about the drama. Once again, she had an unscripted scream.

In a scene at a Chinese restaurant, she was not told the Peking duck would come with its head. She let out a squeal when the server brought down a cleaver on the duck’s neck.

Melinda Ruth Dillon was born on Oct. 13, 1939, in Hope, Ark., and moved frequently with Army postings for her father, including time at a U.S. base in what was then West Germany.

She studied acting at DePaul University in Chicago and worked in the coat check room at the improv-comedy club, The Second City. A break came when a performer fell ill and Ms. Dillon took her place in a skit.

In films, she dabbled in lighter roles in “Slap Shot,” a 1977 hockey comedy starring Paul Newman, and alongside John Lithgow in “Harry and the Hendersons” (1987) as a family with a Sasquatch in tow. Ms. Dillon did double duty in the Woody Guthrie biopic “Bound for Glory” (1976), playing both Guthrie’s wife, Mary, and a folk singer, Memphis Sue.

Ms. Dillon returned to Broadway in 1967 with the hit “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running.” In television, she appeared in shows including “The Jeffersons” and “Picket Fences.”

Her marriage to the actor Richard Libertini ended in divorce. She is survived by a son.

Ms. Dillon said the kitchen bedlam scene in “Close Encounters” was a one-take wonder. Filming was set for a day that was sweltering and humid. “We were all just soaked,” she said.

So Spielberg said there would be no rehearsals.

“And he says, ‘Action,’” Ms. Dillon recalled. “And the kitchen flew apart. The whole kitchen blew up.”

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