Melinda Dillon, mom in A Christmas Story , dies at 83

Melinda Dillon, the actress best known for her portrayal of a harried but loving mother in the holiday classic A Christmas Story, died Jan. 9 at 83, according to a death notice.

Though most recognizable from that perennial favorite, Dillon was also an Oscar-nominated acting talent, earning nods for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Absence of Malice.

Steven Spielberg hired Dillon for Close Encounters on the advice of fellow filmmaker Hal Ashby shortly before shooting. She played Jillian Guiler, a single mom who goes in search of her 3-year-old son with her neighbor, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), after the child is abducted by aliens.

Melinda Dillon and Cary Guffey in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'
Melinda Dillon and Cary Guffey in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'

Everett Collection Melinda Dillon and Cary Guffey in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'

In Absence of Malice, Dillon acted opposite Sally Field and Paul Newman (with whom she also shared a love scene in Slap Shot) as a sheltered Catholic woman who is driven to suicide when Field's journalist character publishes a story about her abortion.

Her other notable films included Bound for Glory, Harry and the Hendersons, How to Make an American Quilt, The Prince of Tides, Magnolia, and The Muppet Movie.

Dillon gained early attention — and a Tony nomination — for her Broadway debut as meek housewife Honey in the original 1963 production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Her experience in the play was so taxing that she left after nine months to spend time in a psychiatric hospital.

"I was in Virginia Woolf, and I just went crazy," she once told The New York Times. "It was really that simple."

Melinda Dillon in 'Harry and the Hendersons'
Melinda Dillon in 'Harry and the Hendersons'

Universal/Everett Melinda Dillon in 'Harry and the Hendersons'

Born Oct. 13, 1939, in Hope, Ark., Dillon spent much of her childhood in Alabama. She moved, with her mother and stepfather, to several military bases, even spending several years in Germany. Dillon attended high school in Chicago before studying at the Goodman School of Drama, now housed at DePaul University.

Dillon began her career in improv, working at Chicago's legendary Second City. She was a hat check girl at the theater until an illness in the cast led her to go on one night.

After Virginia Woolf, Dillon continued to work in theater, including 1967's You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running and 1970's Paul Sills' Story Theatre.

She first attracted attention on screen for her role in the 1959 short film The Cry of Jazz, about jazz music and Black culture, and she made her feature film debut in 1969's The April Fools, opposite Jack Lemmon.

In 1976, she broke out as Memphis Sue, wife of David Carradine's Woody Guthrie in the biopic Bound for Glory. The role earned her a Golden Globes nomination for Best Female Acting Debut.

After her Oscar-nominated turns in Close Encounters and Absence of Malice, Dillon took on what would become her signature role in 1983's A Christmas Story. She played Mrs. Parker, a housewife who must contend with her husband's grousing as well as her son Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and his desire to receive a BB gun for Christmas.

Maya Rudolph, who portrayed Mrs. Parker in Fox's 2017 live musical rendition of A Christmas Story, sang Dillon's praises to EW ahead of the show. "I love Melinda Dillon in the movie so much," she said. "I didn't expect to ever play her part in the musical, but she really shines for me in that movie. She's just wonderfully warm and a little bit her own odd, quirky mother that's not a normal mother but is a normal mother."

Melinda Dillon in 'A Christmas Story'
Melinda Dillon in 'A Christmas Story'

Everett Collection Melinda Dillon in 'A Christmas Story'

Dillon retired from acting in 2007, and as a result she did not reprise her role as Mrs. Parker in 2022's A Christmas Story Christmas. Julie Hagerty stepped into the part. "Melinda, as you say, has retired from acting and wished us the best in our pursuits," Billingsley told EW. "I had spoken to her about this."

Prior to her retirement, Dillon also worked in television, appearing on such shows as Law and Order: SVU, The Jeffersons, Picket Fences, Bonanza, Judging Amy, and Heartland.

Dillon was married to actor Richard Libertini from 1963 until their divorce in 1978, and they shared a son, also named Richard. Libertini died in 2016, at 82.

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