Louise Fletcher, the veteran actress who earned a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the cruel, sadistic psych ward administrator Nurse Mildred Ratched in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, died Friday at the age of 88. Fletcher’s agent, David Shaul, confirmed her death to Rolling Stone, adding that she died “at her home in France surrounded by family.”
Fletcher began her career on TV in the late 1950s, appearing in popular shows Lawman, Maverick and The Untouchables. She left the industry for a decade in 1962 to raise her two sons, but returned to film in the mid-1970s, starring in Robert Altman’s 1974 crime drama Thieves Like Us. Director Milos Forman saw Fletcher in the film and cast her as Mildred Ratched in his adaptation of Ken Kesey’s acclaimed 1962 novel.
The film pitted Fletcher against Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy, a convict who pretends to be mentally ill to avoid hard labor and reside in a psychiatric hospital. “I was already past the age of being a romantic lead,” she told the Independent in 2016. “Pretty soon I’d be too old to play young and too young to play old.” Forman envisioned the role as “the personification of evil” but told the Independent after seeing Fletcher in Altman’s film, “I slowly started to realize that it would be much more powerful if she doesn’t know that she’s evil. She, as a matter of fact, believes that she’s helping people.”
The role earned her an Academy Award, a BAFTA Award and a Golden Globe Award and, thanks to Fletcher’s brilliant, soft-spoken portrayal, the name “Ratched” remains synonymous with cruel characters four decades later. When the American Film Institute named their Greatest Villains in Film, Fletcher’s Ratched came in fifth behind The Wicked Witch of the West, Darth Vader, Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter. An origin story, Ratched, developed by Ryan Murphy aired in 2020 with Sarah Paulson in the title role.
The role became Fletcher’s most indelible, with the actress finding varying subsequent success in Hollywood in films like Exorcist II: The Heretic, Flowers in the Attic and Cruel Intentions. She found greater accolades upon her return to television, where she portrayed religious leader Kai Winn Adami in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Peggy “Grammy” Gallagher in Shameless alongside Emmy-winning performances in Joan of Arcadia and Picket Fences.
“I wanted them to see a person like we all see in life every day: a teacher, a telephone operator, or a conductor or a senator or a president — one who is convinced that they are right and the thing that they are doing is best for you,” Fletcher told Huffington Post of the character in 2020. “‘Sit down and shut up.’ ‘Take what I say because it is a great act of kindness that I am giving you.’ And there’s nothing scarier than the old lady next door who has power … She says kind things, but if you cross her, that’s it. You’re done for.”
Numerous famous actresses were up for the role, including Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, Anne Bancroft and Angela Lansbury, but Fletcher was confident. “A reporter asked me how I felt, having taken a role that had been rejected, and he named five major actresses,” she told HuffPo. “And I was really shocked. I don’t know who I thought they were offering it to. I just thought, ‘This is my part. This is mine.’”