R.I.P. Melinda Dillon

Do you ever have those moments (I frequently do) when you catch an actor you haven’t seen in a while in a film or a tv show, and then the next day they die? It’s coincidence, but creates an illusion of significance. Did I cause it? you wonder. Was I meant to contemplate her on this day? This emotional feeling is the origin of superstition in the more primitive sections of the human brain, but I (though fully cognizant of its randomness) always embrace it, because it’s one of the things that seems to give meaning to our meaningless lives. It’s what makes Hollywood cult-like (see our recent tribute to Kenneth Anger).

Anyway, the day before yesterday we saw Melinda Dillon (1939-2023) in an old Law and Order: SVU; then, yesterday she died. The performance, from 2005, turns out to have been one of her last. Dillon was typecast, dare I say, as a mom who loves her son so much that she becomes his slave and forgives his crimes. Dillon specialized in mothers; or, at least, that’s what directors, casting agents, and audiences projected on to her. Her two most famous characters, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and A Christmas Story (1983) have motherhood front and center. I’d love to see her as one of Brecht’s mother characters! She had a really unique quality that everyone seems to have noticed and acknowledged. Rare in Hollywood, everyone appreciated her soft and appealing personality, for she was not a great beauty. As I wrote here, I was a major fan of Close Encounters when it was released (being all of 12 at the time). But I didn’t much care for Dillon initially. I was a bit perplexed that she was even cast. I found her off-putting. I imagine a lot of people had that reaction. At least in my case, appreciation for her accrued over time, seeing her in many roles. It’s been a pleasure learning that sharp people saw that warm emotional quality in her from the beginning of career.

Dillon’s given surname was Clardy and her early years were spent in Cullman, Alabama, which is about an hour south of my dad’s birthplace of Huntsville. Candid pix of her reveal that crackery look my people are prone to, though she “cleaned up good”, as the expression goes. There is nary a hint in her speech of a deep south accent, a testament to her seriousness. (She’d have been much better in Hillbilly Elegy than Glenn Close, but who’d want to?) In her younger years, she had a sort of hippie quality that was very much in tune with the aesthetics of the time.

By her teen years the Clarty family had moved to Chicago, where Dillon studied at the Goodman School of Drama and joined the Second City troupe around the same time as Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, and Richard Libertini, who became her husband. Her Broadway debut was in the original 1962 production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (in the role that went to Sandy Dennis in the movie). She began to get TV roles around this time, then returned to Broadway in You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running (1967), a bill of one-acts that cast her alongside such rarified company as Martin Balsam, Eileen Heckart, Larry Blyden, George Grizzard, William Redfield, and Joe Silver.

Dillon’s first feature film role was a small part in The April Fools (1969) with Jack Lemmon and Catherine Deneuve. Her other well-known movies include Bound for Glory (1977), Slap Shot (1977), F.I.S.T. (1978), Absence of Malice (1981), Harry and the Hendersons (1987), Prince of Tides (1991), To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar (1995), How to Make an American Quilt (1995), Magnolia (1999), Adam and Steve (2005) and Reign Over Me (2007). Her many TV appearances included the James Michener mini-series Space (1985) and Judgment Day: The John List Story (1993). Her last screen work was a regular role on the tv series Heartland in 2007.