An original member of the Second City improv troupe, Melinda Dillon scored a Tony nomination for her supporting work as the vulnerable Honey in the original Broadway production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" After her Golden Globe-nominated turn in "Bound for Glory" (1976), she earned an Oscar nomination for one of her most famous roles, that of a mother in search of her alien-abducted child in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977). After roles in "Slap Shot" (1977) and "F.I.S.T." (1978), she earned another Oscar nomination as a woman driven to suicide by the machinations of a reporter (Sally Field) in "Absence of Malice" (1981) and achieved pop cultural immortality as the sweet, slightly goofy mother in the ultimate holiday classic, "A Christmas Story" (1983). Dillon scored important roles as John Lithgow's wife in "Harry and the Hendersons" (1987) and Nick Nolte's troubled sister in "The Prince of Tides" (1991), but notched smaller supporting turns in the ensemble pieces "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" (1995), "How to Make an American Quilt" (1995) and "Magnolia" (1999). Working steadily but quietly, the actress continued to pop up in character roles, including an uncredited turn in "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" (2012). Equally adept at comedy as well as drama, Melinda Dillon was an exceptionally gifted actress who brought a unique spark to any project in which she appeared.
Born Oct. 13, 1939 in Hope, AR, Melinda Rose Dillon began her career at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, IL and subsequently became an original member of the famed Second City improvisational company. She made her Broadway debut creating the role of Honey in the original production of Edward Albee's classic "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" for which she won a New York Drama Critics Award as well as received a Tony nomination. She became a familiar face to audiences of that era with a string of TV guest spots on such popular programs as "Bonanza" (NBC, 1959-1973) and "The Jeffersons" (CBS, 1975-1985), while also making her film debut in "The April Fools" (1969), where she played an eccentric neighbor of Catherine Deneuve. Dillon's greatest impact would come on the big screen, and she earned a Golden Globe nomination for playing the dual roles of Woody Guthrie's abandoned wife and his singing partner in Hal Ashby's biopic "Bound for Glory" (1976). Her career earned a major boost, elevating her to household name status when Steven Spielberg cast her in his extraterrestrial masterpiece, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977) as a desperate mother coping with the alien abduction of her son. Her frantic search for her young son (Cary Guffey) as the aliens surround the family farmhouse, beaming otherworldly light through every crevice in the wall and floorboards, remained one of the most classic moments put to film. Her heartbreaking performance earned Dillon nominations for an Oscar and Saturn Award.
Dillon proved surprisingly sexy in the hockey comedy "Slap Shot" (1977) and flexed her dramatic chops as the lover of union organizer Johnny Kovak (Sylvester Stallone) in the drama "F.I.S.T." (1978). After a sweet cameo in "The Muppet Movie" (1979), she starred in several made-for-TV movies, including "The Shadow Box" (ABC, 1980), before notching her most powerful dramatic film role in Sydney Pollack's "Absence of Malice" (1981). As a loyal but emotionally fragile friend whose attempts to defend a businessman (Paul Newman) result in her own undoing and eventual suicide, Dillon delivered an unforgettable performance which earned her a second Oscar nomination. Dillon's most iconic and most beloved role, however, came when she played the high-spirited but understanding mother of young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) in "A Christmas Story" (1983). Although the film achieved a quiet, sleeper success at the box office upon its initial release, it was not until later in the decade that annual television airings and word-of-mouth propelled it into a beloved classic. By the 1990s, "A Christmas Story" was universally acknowledged as an annual holiday must-see and, for many viewers, an all-time favorite with oft-quoted lines and sequences immortalized in the popular imagination. Dillon herself provided many of the film's best moments, showcasing her exceptional ability with comedy as well as drama, including her frazzled, one-sided battle with her husband's (Darren McGavin) alluring leg lamp, her "mommy's little piggy" eating lesson with finicky younger brother Randy (Ian Petrella), and a touchingly gentle sequence in which she gracefully defuses a potential dinner table fight between Ralphie and his father.
Dillon went on to anchor an especially memorable nuclear war-themed installment of "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1959-1964, 1985-89; UPN, 2002-03), earned another Saturn Award nomination as John Lithgow's warm wife in the Bigfoot family favorite "Harry and the Hendersons" (1987), and essayed Savannah Wingo, Nick Nolte's fragile poet sister whose attempted suicide serves as the catalyst for family redemption in Barbra Streisand's masterful drama, "The Prince of Tides" (1991). Continuing her journey as an acclaimed character actress, Dillon notched a CableACE nomination for her work on the medical ethics drama "State of Emergency" (HBO, 1994) and took small roles in the ensemble films "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" (1995), "How to Make an American Quilt" (1995) and "Magnolia" (1999). Although her professional output slowed in later years, the actress still managed to notch interesting character work, including supporting turns in the gay romance "Adam & Steve" (2005), the 9/11 drama "Reign Over Me" (2007), and the quirky apocalyptic romantic comedy "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" (2012).
By Jonathan Riggs