Louise Fletcher (1934- ) is a television and film actress from Birmingham, Jefferson County. She is best known for her iconic portrayal of Nurse Ratched in the 1975 film One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Born in Birmingham on July 22, 1934, Estelle Louise Fletcher was one of four children of Robert and Estelle Fletcher, who were both deaf. Robert Fletcher was an Episcopal priest who ministered in sign language to a congregation of deaf and hearing-impaired people in Birmingham. Fletcher and her siblings were not hearing impaired, but Fletcher was so shy that her first teacher thought she was deaf and recommended that her parents send her to a school for the hearing impaired. This angered her father, who wanted his children to be successful in the hearing world. As a result, he sent each of his children to spend time with his wife's hearing sister in Texas. Thus, Louise Fletcher grew up in two different worlds. When she was three years old, she spent a year with her hearing aunt and would spend three months of each year of her childhood in Bryan, Texas. In her wealthy aunt's home, Fletcher learned to speak and was also introduced to acting. This lifestyle was a stark contrast to life in her parents' modest home in Alabama and visits with her father to minister at nearby asylums to the deaf residents.
Fletcher graduated from Ramsay High School in Birmingham and then attended the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC). She participated in the theatre department at UNC and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1957. After graduation, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. There, she worked as a receptionist during the day and took acting classes at night. In 1958, Fletcher had her first small role in an episode of the television series Bat Masterson. For the next several years, she acted almost continuously, appearing in various television series, including Maverick and The Untouchables. In 1962, Fletcher married Jerry Bick, a Hollywood producer and friend of director Robert Altman. The following year, she made her film debut with a small, uncredited role in the war drama, A Gathering of Eagles. Also in 1963, her first son was born. In 1964, Fletcher became pregnant with her second son and retired from acting to raise her children. After an 11-year hiatus, Fletcher agreed, at the urging of her husband and Altman, to take a role in Altman's 1974 film Thieves Like Us, although she initially refused because her husband was a coproducer. She played the role of a law-abiding woman who betrays her brother to the police in hopes of protecting her children. The film was set in 1930s Mississippi, and Altman thought her southern upbringing made her perfect for the role.
Fletcher's role in Thieves Like Us caught the attention of director Miloš Forman, who was working on a film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Ken Kesey's book about life in a mental hospital. To prepare for her role, Fletcher observed group therapy sessions at Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon, where the movie was filmed. Although she won a Golden Globe and awards for Best Actress at the American and British Academy Awards, she was disturbed by her character's cruelty and never watched the film. At the end of her acceptance speech at the American Academy Awards ceremony, she used sign language to thank her parents, who watched from their home in Birmingham. This action intrigued the press and brought attention to the deaf community.
Her next film, Exorcist II: The Heretic, came out in 1977 and was unsuccessful. The following year, she and Bick divorced but remained close friends. Despite the lukewarm reception of Exorcist II, Fletcher would go on to create a niche for herself in horror and science fiction film and television. Several popular performances include roles in the films Brainstorm (1983) and Flowers in the Attic (1987) and the television series VR.5 (1995-1997). From 1993 to 1999, she played Kai Winn Adami on the science-fiction series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
In 1996, Fletcher had a guest role on the CBS series Picket Fences that won her an Emmy nomination. In 1999, she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award in her hometown of Birmingham at the city's inaugural Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival. She received a second Emmy nomination for her role on the CBS series Joan of Arcadia in 2004. In 2009, Fletcher had a recurring role on the popular NBC series Heroes. She played the mother of a deaf child and used her knowledge of sign language on the show. More recently, she played William H. Macy's mother on the Showtime series Shameless (2012). Fletcher lives in Los Angeles but remains involved with St. John's Episcopal Deaf Church in Birmingham, where her father was the first rector. She has served on the board of the National Institute of Health's National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. She continues to act in film and television.
Hametz, Aljean. "Louise Fletcher: The Nurse Who Rules the 'Cuckoo's Nest'." The New York Times, 30 November 1975; http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/movies/bestpictures/cuckoo-ar2.html.
Harvey, Alec. "Oscar-Winner Louise Fletcher, Now on 'Heroes,' Still Maintains Birmingham Roots." Al.com, 17 October 2009, http://blog.al.com/aharvey/2009/10/oscar-winner_louise_fletcher_n.html.
Weinraub, Bernard. "Oscar's Glory is Fleeting. Ask One Who Knows." The New York Times, March 27, 1995.
Published March 4, 2014
Last updated March 24, 2014