During my 12 years as a reporter, photographer, and columnist for The Alton Telegraph in the Illinois side of the St. Louis metro area, I spent a portion of that time editing the weekend magazine of the paper and covered entertainment, including a nationally-known summer music festival, plays, and movies. Working in the St. Louis area also brought chances to interview actors, actresses, and directors promoting films.
I had the privilege of interviewing Mel Brooks, Steven Speilberg, Richard Dreyfuss, and others, including Louise Fletcher, who was promoting “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.” She died Friday at her home in the town of Montdurausse, in Southern France at Age 88. She also had a home in Los Angeles.
Many of the celebrity interviews were in hotel suites in St. Louis’ Chase Park Plaza. a historic luxury hotel in midtown St. Louis. When I arrived at the hotel shortly before the 2 p.m. scheduled meeting, the schedule said was had an hour. I left the room two and a half hours later after one of the best, most memorable interviews I had ever had with a famous person.
She set cross-legged on the sofa, wearing a sweater and jeans, as we drank multiple cups of coffee and tea while I went through three cassettes on my recorder as we talked about current affairs, the state of movies, and other things in what turned into a delightful conversation.
Fletcher smiled and laughed a lot and spoke candidly about a life that began in Alabama, the daughter of an Episcopalian minister and a mother who, like her father, was deaf from birth. She studied drama at the University of North Carolina before moving to Los Angeles to try acting.
When she met me at the door, she seemed at least a couple of inches taller than me. St 5 ft. 10 inches, she said her height caused her to be rejected for parts, Most male actors have a height of about 5 ft., 9.
She joked about Clint Eastwood, who stood well over 6 ft. actresses often had to stand on bosses or stools to even up their height for shooting.
“Westerns were one area where I could get work because most of the actors were taller,’ she said. Fletcher did TV guest spots on Bat Materson, Yancy Derringer, Wagon Train, Lawman, Maverick, and Wyatt Earp.
“Most of the time, my roles called for me to fall into the arms of the star, so he had to be taller than me,” she joked. “James Garner of Maverick was the most exciting arms to fall into.”
She married producer Jerry Bick in 1959 and took a break from acting to raise two sons. She talked lovingly about both of them and the times they spent together before she returned to acting in 1974 in a role in Robert Altman’s “Thieves Like Us.” They divorced shortly afterward but she said she spends “all the time I can” with the sons.
“Bob was an experience,” she said of Altman, whose fame came in the black comedy “MASH.” “He wanted spontaneity in our performances. Scripts were secondary. It was hard to keep up with him because he had a vision of the film in his head that he did not share easily.”
That role, of a woman who turns her thief brother into the police, caught the eye of director Milos Forman, who would later say, “I was caught by surprise when Louise came onscreen. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She had a certain mystery, which I thought was very, very important for Nurse Ratched.”
Fletcher said she felt the role of the strict, controlling nurse, who made life difficult for the mental patients in “Cuckoo’s Nest” was her hardest character to play at that point in her career.
“The self-control of Ratched was hard to portray,” she told me in an interview in St. Louis in 1975. “She was a stern, mean bitch but she was angry and afraid too.”
That role brought Fletcher her Academy Award for best actress a year later. In the ceremony, she used sign language to thank her deaf parents “for teaching me to have a dream.”
The American Film Institute lists her Nurse Ratched portrayal as the “second-most venerable villain in film history.” The Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz” is first.
“I envied the other actors tremendously in the film,” she said. “They were so free, and I had to be so controlled.”
She said co-star Jack Nicholson believed that any woman she wanted would fall under his spell and into bed with him, so I had to ask if that included her. “Let’s leave that as a ‘no comment,’ ” she said with a wink.
“Jack worked hard to help me relax in the role. He would make faces and pick his nose. When we had the scene where his character snapped and started choking me, he said we’re gonna do the Yiddish school of acting: you try to make me choke you, and I try not to choke you, and it looks the same.’ It was brilliant.”
She also told a story about trying to overcome the feeling of some of the cast that she was avoiding them, so she did an impromptu striptease in front of everyone, which brought stares, open mouths, and applause.
Was it a full striptease?
“Of course. Right down to the nips and hairs. I think I was trying to show them I’m a real woman under here, you know. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” she said with a laugh.
She considered Native American actor Will Sampson, another cast member in “Nest,” “a fascinating man who held on to many secrets.” She said she would have liked to get to know Sampson better.
In that hotel suite in St. Louis in 1975,” Louise Fletcher was anything but controlled. The two-and-a-half hours of discussion became the most fun, most relaxing, and easy interview to write after that time. Some of the things we discussed could not be used in a “family newspaper.”
The letter I received after the interview was published was equally gracious and uncontrolled. “An incredible thank you. The time with you was probably the best I have had with a man without sex,” she wrote. “And you can quote me on that.”
I just did.