Melinda Dillon, who earned Oscar nominations for her performances in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Absence of Malice, died on Jan. 9 in Los Angeles. She was 83.
"Melinda was generous of spirit and lent such kindness to the character she played in Close Encounters of the Third Kind," says Steven Spielberg, who directed her in the 1977 sci-fi film. "She was a wonderful actor, and as gifted in dramas — including her unforgettable turn in Absence of Malice — as she was in beloved comedies like A Christmas Story, Harry and the Hendersons, and Slapshot. We will all miss her."
Melinda Ruth Clardy was born on October 13, 1939, in Hope, Arkansas, and raised in Alabama. (Her parents divorced when she was 5 years old, and she later took her stepfather's surname.) After graduating from acting school in Chicago, she moved to New York City in 1962. Within weeks, she booked her first role as Honey in the original Broadway production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, for which she received a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play.
"I had had the American dream — to go to New York and study with Lee Strasberg," Dillon told The New York Times in 1976. "I guess I just wasn't prepared for it all to happen so quickly."
Dillon made her film debut in the 1969 romantic comedy The April Fools, before breaking out in 1976's Bound for Glory, director Hal Ashby's biopic of folk musician Woody Guthrie (played on-screen by David Carradine), in which Dillon portrayed his singing partner, Memphis Sue.
Off Ashby's recommendation, Spielberg cast Dillon in 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Playing opposite Richard Dreyfuss, she starred as Jillian Guiler, a mother whose 3-year-old child is abducted by aliens. The film earned eight nominations at the 50th Oscars, including Dillon's first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress and Spielberg's first ever nomination (for Best Director). The film won an Oscar for Best Cinematography and a Special Achievement Award for sound effects editing.
In 1982, Dillon earned her second Oscar nomination, once again for Best Supporting Actress, this time for Sydney Pollack's Absence of Malice. The drama features Paul Newman as a man accused of murder and Sally Field as the reporter who accuses him of the crime, with Dillon playing Teresa Perrone, a lifelong friend of Newman's character who provides his alibi at her own expense.
Another notable role across Dillon's decades-long career was that of Mother Parker in the 1983 holiday classic A Christmas Story, memorably warning her BB gun-obsessed son, Ralphie, that, "You'll shoot your eye out!" She also appeared in 1987's Harry and the Hendersons, opposite John Lithgow, and in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999) as Rose Gator. Her final film role before retiring from acting in 2007 was in the family drama Reign Over Me, starring Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle.
Dillon is survived by her son, Richard Libertini Jr.