Melinda Dillon, Oscar-Nominated Actress in ‘Close Encounters,’ Dies at 83

She also received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for 1981’s “Absence of Malice”

Melinda Dillon
Melinda Dillon and Cary Guffey in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (Getty Images)

Melinda Dillon, who was nominated as Best Supporting Actress for her roles in Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and Sydney Pollack’s “Absence of Malice,” has died at age 83, her family said in a public obituary.

She died on Jan. 9, but the obituary gave no cause of death.

Dillon memorably played single mother Jillian Guiler, whose son Barry (Cary Guffey), is abducted by aliens in “Close Encounters.” Like Richard Dreyfuss’s lead character, she also becomes obsessed with Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and both their quests lead them there. After running the gauntlet of military obstacles, they are the only two civilians who witness the alien ship landing in the film’s emotional finale.

She received her second nomination for playing a Catholic who commits suicide after a reporter (Sally Field) writes about her abortion in “Absence of Malice.” The film also starred Paul Newman, whom she had previously shared the screen with in the 1977 film “Slap Shot.”

In her 1963 Broadway debut, Dillon was nominated for a Tony and received a Theatre World award as Honey in Edward Albee‘s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” However, she left the play after nine months as she was often doing two performances of the intense, three-hour play a day.

As she told The New York Times in 1976, “I was in ‘Virginia Woolf,’ and I just went crazy; it was really that simple… the play was so long and the actors’ union wouldn’t let us play the matinee. We had to have a whole different cast for that, but I was called in to do it many, many times because the [other] gal would get sick. I would do it three hours in the afternoon, then study with Lee Strasberg for two hours, and do the play three hours at night.”

Sandy Dennis won an Oscar for the role in Mike Nichols’ 1966 film

Dillon’s other notable roles include the leg-lamp hating mother in 1983’s “A Christmas Story,” who delivers the classic quote, “You’ll shoot your eye out” to son Ralphie when he begs her for an air rifle; and the estranged wife of Philip Baker Hall’s character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 multi-character opus “Magnolia.”

She also starred in “Harry and the Hendersons,” “The Prince of Tides,” and Hal Ashby’s 1976 film “Bound for Glory,” which earned her a Golden Globe nomination for “New Star of the Year.”

Dillon was born on Oct. 13, 1939, in Hope, Arkansas. She attended the Goodman School of Drama at the Art Institute of Chicago, which is now at DePaul University. She got her big acting break at The Second City theater troupe, where she was working as a coat check girl: When “Nashville” star Barbara Harris was ill and had to miss a skit, Dillon filled in for her.

Her final film was 2007’s “Reign Over Me,” a post-9/11 drama starring Adam Sandler and her last TV appearance, also in 2007, was on the TNT medical series “Heartland.”

She was married to “Fletch” actor Robert Libertini, with whom she had a son.