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Melinda Dillon Dies: ‘Close Encounters’, ‘A Christmas Story’ & ‘Absence Of Malice’ Actress Was 83

By Erik Pedersen,


Melinda Dillon , a two-time Oscar nominee for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Absence of Malice who also played Ralphie’s mom in A Christmas Story , has died. She was 83. Her family said she died January 9 in Los Angeles but did not give other details.
Dillon and Richard Dreyfuss in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ 1977

Dillon probably is best known for playing a mother whose young son is abducted by the aliens in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. She and Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) inexplicably are drawn to Devils Tower in Wyoming as they struggle to make sense of what has happened to them. She earned a Supporting Actress Oscar nom for the role.

She also played the mother of the young lead Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) in the 1983 holiday classic A Christmas Story , memorably warning the boy who wants a BB rifle that, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

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Dillon would earn a second Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for 1981’s Absence of Malice, playing a close friend of Paul Newman’s Michael Gallagher. Sally Field also starred in the pic directed by Sydney Pollock.

That film was a reunion with Newman, with Dillon having played a minor league hockey goalie’s wife with whom Newman’s aging player-coach has a tryst, and tells him some surprising news. Later film roles included The Prince of Tides, Harry and the Hendersons, How to Make an American Quilt , Magnolia , Cowboy Up and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar .

Along with Spielberg and Pollock, Dillon worked with such Oscar-winning or -nominated filmmakers as Norman Jewison, Barbra Streisand, Paul Thomas Anderson, Hal Ashby and George Roy Hill.
Dillon in ‘Absence of Malice,’ 1981

The versatile actress amassed dozens of other film and TV credits spanning 45 years, and she also appeared in five Broadway shows, most notably playing Honey in the original 1962 production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That was her Broadway debut, and she was the last surviving principal cast member from the production.

Born on October 13, 1939, in Hope, AR, got her start in the 1960s and ’70s, guesting on such popular TV series as Bonanza and The Jeffersons before landing a key supporting role as the wife of Woody Guthrie (David Carradine) in the 1976 drama Bound for Glory. She would appear in Slap Shot and Close Encounters the following year and then co-starred opposite Sylvester Stallone, Rod Steiger and Peter Boyle in the trucker-union drama F.I.S.T.

After doing a handful of TV movies at the height of that genre’s popularity, she landed her role in Absence of Malice, in which Field played an investigative reporter who tipped off about a local Miami liquor wholesaler (Newman) who is suspected of killing a union leader. The twisty thriller also earned a sixth career Oscar nom for Newman.
Dillon and Peter Billingsley in ‘A Christmas Story,’ 1983

Her next big-screen role was as Mother Parker, the matriarch in A Christmas Story, which has become among the most popular holiday films of the past half-century. Her reaction to her husband (Darren McGavin) proudly displaying the campy “leg lamp” — complete with fishnet stocking — he won in a contest, putting it in the front window for all to behold, was priceless. Later, she accidentally destroys it.

Dillon returned to guesting on TV series during the 1990s and ’00s, appearing on Picket Fences, Tracey Takes On…, Judging Amy and Law & Order: SVU. She also did an arc on Heartland in 2007, which was her final screen credit.

Her other Broadway roles in the late ’60s and early ’70s included You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running, A Way of Life, Paul Sills’ Story Theatre and Ovid’s Metamorphosis.

Greg Evans contributed to this report.

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