Louise Fletcher was born on July 22, 1934, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her parents, Reverend Robert Capers Fletcher and Estelle Fletcher, were both deaf.
She and her 2 sisters and 1 brother spent their first year and every following summer with their aunt so that she could teach them to speak.
This was also the time that Louise was introduced to acting when the family would dress up and put on skits for guests. She knew she wanted to be an actress from an early age but never told anyone about it. Despite attempting to keep the secret, her mother reinforced this desire. They spent weekends at the movies where Louise translated them into sign language.
She majored in theater at the University of North Carolina and graduated in 1957. After that, she took a trip with her roommates and ended up stranded in Los Angeles with no money to return home. She took a job as a receptionist and took acting classes at night.
She began her career with guest appearances on TV shows such as Maverick, The Untouchables, Wagon Train, and Perry Mason.
Louise married literary agent and producer Jerry Bick in 1960. They had 2 sons, Andrew and John, and she took an 11-year hiatus from acting to raise them. He convinced her to return for a role in a film he was producing with Robert Altman called Thieves Like Us in 1974.
Robert saw her on the set of that film and thought she might be right for a part in Nashville. She met with the screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, but her part went to Lily Tomlin.
Louise sees herself as the type of actress who has to work for a living because she doesn’t have a large amount of savings to rely on. This made losing the role in Nashville a difficult blow, but a better opportunity was just around the corner.
Ken Kesey’s book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released in 1962. It also served as a perfect representation of the struggle between conformity and freedom in the 70s. Director Milos Forman wanted to turn it into a successful film, but finding the right actors and actresses was a struggle.
One of the most difficult characters to cast was Nurse Ratched. Most actresses weren’t interested in playing villains at the time, especially ones as detestable as the dictatorial leader of a mental institution. The part was offered to several major names, including Anne Bancroft, Jane Fonda, and Angela Lansbury. They all turned it down, and a few of them even found her anti-feminist and misogynistic.
Milos couldn’t find the right woman to take on the role until he saw Louise Fletcher in Thieves Like Us. They frequently met at the Sunset Marquis to discuss the role of Nurse Ratched.
Louise was interested in the film because she felt it could be used to portray the political struggles of the day. These included everything from the Watergate scandal to poor race relations during her childhood in Alabama. She even once said, “the Communist party is my Nurse Ratched!”
Louise made sure that Ratched always thought she was right, just like the political leaders of the day. She also saw the character as a woman who gave up everything in her life to help others, including a chance at love, which explains why she’s immediately attracted to the main character.
Another key element that viewers can still identify the nurse by today was created before filming began. Celebrity hairdresser Carrie White designed her signature pageboy haircut. It cemented the character’s inability to move on and accept change, making her look as if she were stuck in time.
Louise felt confident in her abilities until the first day of filming. Milos was just as particular about every little detail as she was and told her not to tilt her head because it looked weak. She became obsessed with and paralyzed by the comment. She even called her husband that night, telling him that she was convinced she’d be fired.
Jack Nickleson reassured her that she was doing fine, and she later understood what Nicos wanted. Her goal had been to portray the character as pleasant and gentle in contrast to her actions, but he wanted her to seem more intimidating. They reshot the first scene after reaching this understanding, and the movie was back on the right track.
The filming process for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filled with odd moments. Sydney Lassick tap-danced in the hallways. Danny Devito claimed to have an imaginary friend with him. Louise told castmates to “eat up” in the lunchroom, just as her character would have. Actual mental patients helped with set decoration and props.
Louise enjoyed her time with the men in the cast, especially Jack Nickleson. Despite this, she didn’t want it to interfere with her performance. She stayed in an individual room to keep her mind in the persona of her killjoy character.
The part affected her for months, and she can’t bear to watch the movie today. Despite this, there were times she let loose on set. She once stripped to her slip and bra in front of everyone and left them all a topless photo of herself in a nurse’s cap after filming wrapped.
Louise first saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in Oakland. She was thrilled when audience members shouted for McMurphy to kill Ratched at a follow-up screening in Chicago. She knew the film was giving off the right impression and felt like she experienced fame for the first time when fans came up to her after it ended.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was officially released on November 19, 1975. It earned over $100 million, coming in 2nd at the box office that year behind Jaws. It also earned 9 Academy Award nominations 3 months later.
Like and subscribe to Facts Verse for more on the most impactful female roles in the world of film and TV. Keep watching to learn about how Louise Fletcher gave one of the most famous award acceptance speeches of all time and how portraying Nurse Ratched affected her career.
Accepting the Oscar
Louise Fletcher received a trophy case full of awards for her portrayal of Nurse Ratched, including a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar for Best Actress.
She didn’t expect to win when she was nominated for the last of these awards but, just in case, she had a special speech in mind. She told no one about her plans but did call her sister Georgiana for a last-minute sign language lesson. Standard American Sign Language or ASL is a symbolic language that focuses on nouns and verbs, so she wanted to learn a version that would be more widely understood. The lesson took a bit of time but had wonderful results.
Her unforgettable 1976 Oscar speech began with self-deprecating humor. She included comments such as “it looks like you all hated me so much that you’ve given me this award for it.”
The tone of her speech shifted near the end. She said “if you’ll excuse me” and gave a tender thank you to her parents delivered in sign language.
Louise stood on stage and signed, “For my mother and my father, I want to say thank you for teaching me to have a dream. You are seeing my dream come true. Thank you.”
An ABC camera crew came to their home, and Louise went with them to see her parent’s reactions. She was pleased to see how proud and honored they were.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won 4 other Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Adapted Screenplay, a record that only It Happened One Night and The Silence of the Lambs have met. It has an enduring legacy, but so does Louise’s speech.
Like many talented actors and actresses, Louise’s superb performance as Nurse Ratched led her to be typecast. She was a psychiatrist in Exorcist II: The Heretic in 1977 and found herself in a string of horror films in the 80s, including Strange Behavior, Firestarter, and Invaders from Mars.
Louise appeared in other projects such as Flowers in the Attic in 1987, Blue Steel in 1989, and The Player in 1992. She also had a recurring role on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and her guest role on Picket Fences earned her an Emmy nomination.
Louise’s father died at the age of 87 in 1988, and her mother died 6 years later at the age of 91. Her special Oscar speech is a permanent way to remember them, and she’ll always appreciate the love and support they gave her throughout her childhood.
She’s still remembered for her role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and received fan mail from all over the world, including photos of key moments from the film for her to sign.
Nurse Ratched returned to our screens 43 years later when Netflix released an 18-episode origin story titled Ratched. Sarah Paulson took on the role this time despite the fact that she had massive shoes to fill.
The role of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest launched Louise Fletcher to fame and won her plenty of accolades, including an Oscar, a spot at #5 on the American Film Institute’s Villains list, and more. The memorable performance will live forever in the minds of fans, but there are plenty of details they don’t know about her experience playing the character.
Do you think Nurse Ratched is a purely evil villain or more of an anti-heroine? Let us know in the comments below. Like and subscribe to Facts Verse for more on the most memorable female film villains of all time.