Melinda Dillon, ‘Close Encounters,’ ‘A Christmas Story’ Star, Dies @ 83

Melinda Dillon, the critically acclaimed actress who made her mark on the silver screen in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and A Christmas Story (1983), died January 9, her family told THR.

Dillon as Mother Parker (Image via MGM/UA)

She was 83.

Dillon was born in Hope, Arkansas, on October 13, 1939. She studied drama at school in Chicago, becoming a part of the Second City troupe. It's said an early break came when she had to fill in last-minute for Barbara Harris (1935-2018).



♬ original sound - Matthew Rettenmund/BoyCulture

Dillon made what turned out to be an auspicious screen debut in the short The Cry of Jazz (1959) by director Edward Bland (1926-2013). Now regarded as an influential piece of Black-themed Black filmmaking, it is preserved in the Library of Congress.

She committed to a grueling Broadway debut in Edward Albee's (1928-2016) Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). Dillon, who originated the role of Honey in the drama, left the production after nine months due a self-described mental health collapse brought on by the intense performing schedule.

Dillon and Arthur Hill (1922-2006) doing Edward Albee (1928-2016) proud (NYPL Digital)

She earned a Tony nomination, and had been the play's last surviving main cast member. When the film version was made, Sandy Dennis (1937-1992) took over the role — and won an Oscar.

Dillon's other Broadway credits were You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running (1967) and Paul Sills' Story Theatre (1970).

She made her feature-length film debut in 1969's The April Fools, appeared in the biopic Bound for Glory (1976) for director Hal Ashby (1929-1988) and had a featured role in the well-liked comedy Slap Shot (1977).

Her performance in the Steven Spielberg (b. 1946) blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but she lost to Julia (1977) star Vanessa Redgrave (b. 1937). She went on to appear in F.I.S.T. (1978) and The Muppet Movie (1979).

Dillon received her second and final Oscar nomination, again for Best Supporting Actress, for the Paul Newman (1925-2008)-Sally Field (b. 1946) legal drama Absence of Malice (1981). She lost to Maureen Stapleton (1925-2006) for Reds (1981).

But it was Dillon's work as Mother Parker — alternately sweet and punishing — in the nostalgic A Christmas Story (1983) that became her most popular project. The film became an ageless seasonal favorite, spawning a 2022 sequel with Dillon's part was recast with Julie Hagerty (b. 1955).

She appeared in Harry and the Hendersons (1987), Staying Together (1989) directed by Lee Grant (b. mid-'20s), The Prince of Tides (1991) directed by Barbra Streisand (b. 1942), How to Make an American Quilt (1995), and was a SAG nominee for Magnolia (1999).

Dillon in Paul Thomas Anderson's (b. 1999) Magnolia (Image via New Line)

Dillon made a handful of episodic-TV guest spots after her TV debut on installment of The Defenders (1963), early in her career and late, including: East Side/West Side (1964), Bonanza (1969), The Jeffersons (1975), The Client (1995), Picket Fences (1996), Tracey Takes On ... (1997), Judging Amy (2001), Law & Order: SVU (2005) and her last work in any medium, Heartland (2007).

Along with series, she starred in numerous TV movies: The Critical List (1978), Transplant (1979), Marriage Is Alive and Well (1980), The Shadow Box (1980), Fallen Angel (1981), Hellinger's Law (1981), The Juggler of Notre Dame (1982), Right of Way (1983), Shattered Spirits (1986), Nightbreaker (1989), Judgment Day: The John List Story (1993), Confessions: Two Faces of Evil (1994), State of Emergency (1994), Naomi & Wynonna: Love Can Build a Bridge (1995) and A Painted House (2003).

Dillon was married from 1963-1978 to actor Richard Libertini (1933-2015). She is survived by their son, Richard Libertini Jr.

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