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When the cuckoo called: We chat to actress Louise Fletcher

Forty years after Louise Fletcher came from nowhere to win the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of terrifying Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Tim Walker finds out what's happened to her since.

Louise Fletcher never played another role as remarkable as the one for which she won an Oscar in 1976: Nurse Ratched, the chillingly prim psychiatric ward administrator of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Fletcher was little known previously, and has been rarely prominent since.

A player of modest TV bit-parts in her twenties, who spent her thirties concentrating on bringing up her children, at 41 she was of unusually advanced years to be a first-time Oscar contender - and arguably too late to capitalise on the victory. Hollywood, to its shame, has little use for middle-aged women. This, you might think, was her one brief, shining moment.

And yet, from another angle, Fletcher's trajectory looks somewhat different. After quitting showbusiness to raise a family more than a decade before the casting of Cuckoo's Nest, she was plucked from retirement by not one, but two of the era's most celebrated filmmakers. And then, having delivered an indelible performance as Nurse Ratched - ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the five greatest screen villains of all time - she also delivered an Oscar acceptance speech for the ages.

The characters of Cuckoo's Nest first flew off the pages of Ken Kesey's countercultural novel in 1963, when Kirk Douglas starred in a Broadway stage adaptation as Randle McMurphy, the felon who fakes insanity to avoid a prison sentence and fetches up instead at an Oregon psychiatric hospital. McMurphy, an unstoppable force, meets an immovable object in the form of Nurse Ratched, with whom he struggles in vain for the souls of his fellow patients.

Fletcher had given up acting in 1962, the year Kesey's novel was published and her second son was born. Her husband Jerry Bick was a producer, but she assumed her career was over, until 1973, when Bick was working on Robert Altman's new film, Thieves Like Us, and the director asked to cast Fletcher in a key supporting role. She was reluctant, worried it would look like nepotism, but Altman persisted. "I really didn't want to be in it," she says. "But it turned out to be a good thing."

After Thieves Like Us, she had caught the acting bug again, but by then, she says: "I was already past the age of being a romantic lead. Pretty soon I'd be to too old to play young and too young to play old."

More than a dozen Hollywood talent agents had declined to represent her by the time Czech director Milos Forman saw an early screening of Altman's film.

Forman was watching Thieves Like Us to see Shelley Duvall, who he was considering for another part in Cuckoo's Nest. But it was Fletcher who caught his eye.

Fletcher recalls auditioning for Forman several times while the part was still being offered to big names such as Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, Anne Bancroft and Angela Lansbury. Her final audition was late in 1974, with Forman and the film's producers, Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas. The day after Christmas, her agent called to say she was expected at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem on January 4 to begin rehearsals. Though the film takes a dim view of his profession, the hospital's superintendent had offered up his facility as its main location, and even agreed to appear on screen, playing a doctor.

Forman had assembled a formidable cast of young character actors to play the other patients, including Danny DeVito, Brad Dourif and Christopher Lloyd. But while Nicholson's salary was "enormous", laughs Fletcher, "the rest of us were working for scale, or a little above that. I worked for 11 weeks and made $10,000 before taxes."

The cast and crew were billeted at a local motel, where the evenings often turned wild. Fletcher, though, feared getting too friendly with the other actors, in case the sentiment seeped into her performance.

"She was convinced that she had her world in order, and that for it to work properly it had to be in that order," Fletcher says of her character. "The minute McMurphy arrived, things began to fall apart for her. And she couldn't have that. She had enough power that her conviction could have consequences - and that's where I felt we were in the world at the time, too. The film was all about who has the power and how they use it, and how absolute power absolutely corrupts."

Nicholson, fresh from a string of classics, including Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown, was already one of the biggest stars in the world, but he and Fletcher had met each other some 15 years earlier, when both were unknowns taking classes from Jeff Corey, a blacklisted performer who became a sought-after acting teacher. On Cuckoo's Nest, Nicholson helped Fletcher to overcome her nerves. During a panicky moment on the first day of the shoot, she says: "Jack started making faces and picking his nose to distract me and help me to relax."

In fact, Nicholson's on-set antics positively enhanced her performance. In what may be the film's most stirring scene, McMurphy almost strangles his tormentor to death.

"Jack made shooting that scene a lot of fun," Fletcher says. "He said he didn't want to hurt me: 'So 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 and that was the only physical thing I got to do in the movie, so I kept asking him to practise. He got bored of it in the end!"

Born to deaf parents in Birmingham, Alabama, in July 1934, Fletcher was the second of four hearing siblings. Her mother Estelle was born deaf, but her father Robert had been struck by lightning and lost his hearing when he was four. An Episcopal minister, he founded 40 churches for the deaf in Alabama and spent much of his time on the road, preaching to deaf congregations. In her first term at a local primary school, the prohibitively shy Fletcher barely spoke.

"A teacher came to our house and told my father I ought to go to the school for the deaf in Talladega. They thought I was deaf."

When she was three, Fletcher was sent to Texas for a year, to live with her mother's sister Louise, whom she and her siblings knew as Aunt Beezie. Her parents had asked Beezie to teach the young Louise to speak, but she also taught her to perform.

"She had no children, so she doted on us all," Fletcher says. "She was very theatrical and she would dress us up and we'd sing and dance and do plays and get a lot of attention, a lot of approval. She taught me how to show off. I just loved getting applause."

During the first phase of her career, Fletcher appeared in supporting roles on several classic TV shows, including Maverick and Perry Mason. She married Bick in 1960 and the couple had two sons, John and Andrew. They would divorce in 1977, but remained close until Bick's death in 2004.

In the 1960s, the family spent six years in London, where they mingled with some of the capital's most swinging residents.

"I almost got arrested with Vanessa [Redgrave], picketing against the Vietnam War in Berkeley Square," Fletcher recalls. The actresses would later work together on Second Serve, a 1986 TV movie about the transgender tennis player Renée Richards. Fletcher and Bick's house on Old Church Street in Chelsea was next-door to the shoe shop where designer Manolo Blahnik worked at the time.

Contrary to the 'Curse of Oscar' theories, Fletcher has worked consistently ever since Cuckoo's Nest.

"I was offered a lot of villains after Nurse Ratched - and I played a lot of them, because you have to work."

During the 1990s she had a regular gig as a Machiavellian religious leader in the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine, the part for which she still receives the most fan-mail, Cuckoo's Nest notwithstanding. More recently, she has appeared as Frank Gallagher's foul-mouthed, deadbeat mother in the US version of Shameless.

Cuckoo's Nest was not just a critical success, it was also the year's third biggest box office hit, behind only Jaws and Rocky Horror.

A week before the Oscars in March 1976, Fletcher and Bick escaped to a beach in Baja, California, and it was there that she began to write her acceptance speech. The speech, enshrined on YouTube, is an antidote to awards-season cynicism that anyone with Leo-fatigue ought to seek out.

When Charles Bronson read out her name, she all but sprinted to the podium in excitement. Then she took a breath, collected herself, and began:

"Well, it looks like you all hated me so much that you've given me this award for it, and I'm loving every minute of it. And all I can say is I've loved being hated by you. I'd like to thank Fred Roos for remembering me, Milos Forman for choosing me, Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz for taking a chance and giving me a chance, and Jack Nicholson and a cast of actors whose professionalism, humour and capacity for getting into their roles made being in a mental institution like being in a mental institution ..."

What followed came straight from the heart. Many in the audience must have wondered what was happening as, in a first for the Oscars, she moved into sign language in order to communicate directly with her parents.

An ABC News crew had been dispatched to Robert and Estelle Fletcher's home in Alabama, to capture their reaction. Fletcher kept a copy of the footage. Remembering that now, Fletcher grows emotional.

"I miss them so much," she says. "They were a great inspiration."

They are the same emotions that consumed her 40 years ago as she signed the final words of her acceptance speech, her voice faltering: "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."

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