Melinda Dillon, Actress in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and ‘A Christmas Story,’ Dies at 83

Photo of author

Melinda Dillon, who received the support Oscar nominations due to her roles in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Absence of Malice, and played her mother in the classic holiday film A Christmas Story, died the 9th of January. 9th the family of her deceased mother announced. She was 83.

Straight out of the gates, Dillon earned a Tony nomination as well as a Theatre World award in 1963 for her first performance in Broadway as the child-like wife Honey in the first show of the Edward Albee’s novel Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

The Arkansas native appeared in two roles alongside David Carradine Woody Guthrie’s former wife, Mary, and a dark-haired folk musician called Memphis Sue — in the biopic Bound for Glory (1976) written and directed by Hal Ashby; was a lesbian hockey spouse on George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot (1977); and played John Lithgow’s wife on the movie about the family Harry and The Hendersons (1987).

Her resume on the big screen also comprised Norman Jewison’s F.I.S.T. (1978) in which she played the wife/girlfriend of an Teamster performed by Sylvester Stallone; Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides (1991) in which she played the suicidal twin sister of Nick Nolte’s character and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) in which she played the wife of an philandering quiz host (Philip Baker Hall).).

She was engaged to the actor Richard Libertini from 1963 until their divorce in 1978. they had an infant son.

For Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Dillon portrays Jillian Guiler, a single mother who goes towards Devils Tower with utility worker Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) to find her three-year-old son, who’s taken by aliens via the doggy doors in the kitchen.

Ashby had suggested her to Spielberg to play the role, and she was offered the role just few days prior to when filming started.

In Sydney Pollack’s Absence of Malice (1981) featured her back together with Slap Shot co-star Paul Newman in this film, playing the role of a Catholic woman who decides to take her own life when a journalist (Sally Field) is asked to write a report regarding her pregnancy.

On the Oscars, Dillon lost out to Vanessa Redgrave of Julia in 1978 and then to Maureen Stapleton of Reds in 1982.

However, unlike the two, Dillon shows up every Christmas season on rebroadcasts of TV in the role of the adorable mother to Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and Randy (Ian Petrella) and the wife of the character Darren McGavin plays in old Man Parker in A Christmas Story (1983) written by Bob Clark.

In the film Sam Kashner noted in a 2016 piece for Vanity Fair, “Dillon has an adorable, comedic personality that could easily dissolve into a state of creative chaos. Her mother is vigilant, but remains an infant at heart which is evident when she entices her son, Randy, a fussy eater, to act like he’s the pig in the trot. Randy is really into it drinking, and then putting into his face into his mashed potatoes and meat loaf as he and his mom burst into laughter.”

In fact, as The New York Times pointed out, the woman “hadn’t ever had any hot food for herself for 15 years.”

Melinda Ruth Dillon was born on the 13th of October. 13th, 1939 in Hope, Arkansas. Her mother divorced and later remarried an Army veteran. She was a resident of several bases which included one located in Nuremberg, Germany, before graduation from High School in Chicago.

As a coat check girl at The Second City, she was able to fill in for the sick Barbara Harris and performed in the form of a skit. This set her acting career on the right track. (Second City also is where she first met Libertini who was part of the troupe improv comedy.)

After her studies in acting in DePaul University, she came to New York and was cast with Uta Hagen Arthur Hill and George Grizzard in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Then, she walked out of the dramatic play after nine months of being in the play and spent in a psychiatric institution.

“I were in Virginia Woolf and I just became irrational; it was as simple as that,” she said in an interview for The New York Times.

“I believe it was my way of life as the show was too long that the union of actors did not permit us to participate in the matinee. It was necessary to use an entirely new actor for the show however, I was able to perform the show numerous times, because the actress would become sick. I would work for 3 hours in the afternoon, and then study alongside Lee Strasberg for two hours before performing the show for three hours at night. After that, George Grizzard left to play Hamlet and a weird event took place. I was accustomed to leaning on George to the point of breaking, but I just fell apart in my own bowels. I’m not sure why.

“I was a child who had an American dream of being able to travel in New York and study with Lee Strasberg. It seems like I just didn’t know how it would to take place so fast and so quickly in New York. I’m not a sophisticated person I’d never had any sort of education in the field of culture whatsoever which is why when it came to meeting with people and presenting any sort of thoughts I could be able to share I’d be nervous.”

In the meantime, Sandy Dennis went on to be the character Honey as Honey in Mike Nichols’ 1966 film version of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and also won an Oscar.

Dillon made her return to Broadway at the end of 1967 and starred for two seasons with the smash You Know I’m Not Hearin’ You when the Water’s Flowing, and then in the year 1970, to host an Second City reunion via Paul Sills’ Story Theatre. Between them she made her big screen debut with The April Fools (1969) with Jack Lemmon.

Dillon continued to appear in several other films such as The Muppet Movie (1979), Songwriter (1984), Sioux City (1994), To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), How to Make an American Quilt (1995) and Reign Over Me (2007). She also appeared on TV series such as The Jeffersons, Picket Fences and Heartland.