Tragic Details About Melinda Dillon

In her most famous roles, actress Melinda Dillon was known for playing the caring mom who could — and sometimes does — snap at any moment. That was true of her dramatic role as  Jillian Guiler, whose child is abducted by aliens in Steven Spielberg's 1977 sci-fi classic, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," for which she received an Oscar nomination in the "Best Supporting Actress" category. And it was true in her 1983 comedic role as Ralphie's mom in the original "A Christmas Story," in which she delivered the film's famous line (via YouTube): "You'll shoot your eye out." Dillon also earned a "Best Supporting Actress" Oscar nomination for her role as Teresa Perrone in the Paul Newman journalism drama "Absence of Malice."

With the announcement of Dillon's death early in 2023, fans of the actress recall her many other stellar roles in film and television. Per IMDb, throughout her Hollywood career that spanned five decades, Dillon played dozens of television roles, including "Bonanza," "The Jeffersons," "The Twilight Zone," "Judging Amy," and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." She appeared in more than 20 movies, including "Slap Shot," "F.I.S.T.," "Sioux City," "The Prince of Tides," and "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar." For her role as Mary in the 1976 film, "Bound for Glory," she was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for "New Star of the Year." But for all her accolades, Melinda Dillon's life wasn't always easy.

A trip out of tragedy

Melinda Ruth Cardy was born on October 13, 1939, in Hope, Arkansas, even though the Cardy family lived in Alabama. The decision to travel nearly 500 miles from the south to the midwest was a matter of previous tragedy. As Dillon told the New York Daily News (via in 1962, "[D]addy knew a doctor there, and mother had lost one baby." Her father, Fred Cardy, worked for an oil company; her mother, Noreen, ran a beauty salon. Melinda's parents divorced when she was just five years old, but Noreen soon remarried a man in the U.S. Army. "Although I was brought up using my stepfather's name, Dillon, my mother kept her word to my real father that I would not be adopted," she told the New York Daily News. "I guess that makes my real name still Cardy."

Having a new stepfather in the Armed Services meant Melinda's youth was spent getting used to one place just in time to move to another. One stint — from 1948 to 1951 — was in Nurnberg, Germany. She grew tired of constantly changing schools, including three different high schools, so, with her family's blessing, she put an end to that pattern by leaving home in her later teens. Per Variety, she graduated high school in Chicago at Hyde Park High School. According to the New York Daily News, she was awarded a scholarship from the Goodman School of Drama at the Art Institute of Chicago (now at DePaul University).

Dillon's career started on stage -- with consequences

Melinda Dillon received early attention for her work on the stage. At first, it was for her appearances as an improv comedian in Chicago's "The Second City" nightclub and theater. Soon after, she gained notoriety for her 1962 Broadway debut as the meek housewife, Honey, in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" For that role, she received a Tony nomination for featured actress in a play. She also acted in, among other stage productions, "Paul Sill's Story Theater," "A Way of Life," and "You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running."

But her success with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" came with consequences, especially for her mental health. "I was in 'Virginia Woolf,' and I just went crazy; it was really that simple," Dillon told The New York Times in 1976. Dillon told the newspaper that the intensity of the period led to a stay in a psychiatric hospital, during which she said she had to be restrained because of suicidal thoughts. Her schedule was impossible: "I would do [the show] three hours in the afternoon, then study with Lee Strasberg for two hours, and do the play three hours at night." But Dillon also noted she wasn't truly ready for her move to New York. "I had had the American dream — to go to New York and study with Lee Strasberg. I guess I just wasn't prepared for it all to happen so quickly in New York."

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Married life gone wrong

In 1961, Melinda Dillon was engaged to actor Richard Libertini. The two had known each other since their time with "Second City" in Chicago, and the two were in New York doing theater work. But by the next year, the two had called it off. "He's now in California doing television. We were both too busy to marry, we are still good friends," she told the New York Daily News (via She added: "Maybe I really do want to get married, but I can't pressure myself into it. Things are so interesting in the theater."

Dillon's instincts may have been prescient in more ways than one. In 1963, she married Libertini, but she wasn't happy. According to The New York Times, Dillon lived in the New York City suburbs as a housewife. She had two miscarriages but also gave birth to her son, Richard Libertini Jr. She had one word for that period: "suffocation." Still, she took on new acting roles but wasn't always happy with what was on offer. According to The New York Times, by 1976, she was separated from Libertini and living with her pre-teen son in a rented room on the beach in Malibu, wishing she was back in New York. "I would like to have more money; I would like to live better than I'm living, but I have principles that restrain me from doing some things," she told the newspaper. The couple finalized their divorce in 1978.

A period of flourishing

Less than a year after Melinda Dillon detailed to The New York Times how hard life had been, things turned around with her dazzling role as Jillian Guiler in Steven Speilberg's 1977 film, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," which earned her an Oscar nomination. That was on the heels of her role as Memphis Sue, wife of David Carradine's Woody Guthrie in the biopic "Bound for Glory." Her work in the film earned her a Golden Globes nomination.

That paved the way for her signature role as Mrs. Parker in the 1983 film, "A Christmas Story." Maya Rudolph, who played the same role in the 2017 live musical rendition of "A Christmas Story," noted how much reality Dillon brought to the character. "I didn't expect to ever play her part in the musical, but she really shines for me in that movie," Rudolph told Entertainment Weekly. "She's just wonderfully warm and a little bit her own odd, quirky mother that's not a normal mother but is a normal mother."

Dillon stopped acting in 2007, making her final appearances in the 2007 drama, "Reign Over Me," with Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle. She also acted in the Canadian family drama "Heartland." It seems she did try to make one last attempt at acting in 2011 when she was cast in "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" with Steve Carell and Keira Knightley. But if she did appear in front of the camera, her scenes never made the final cut.

Melinda Dillon's death almost remained a secret

On February 3, 2023, media outlets reported that Melinda Dillon died. Her death, which occurred almost a month earlier on January 9, 2023, was nearly missed altogether. It was only when Giant Freaking Robot picked up on a public obituary on the website of the Neptune Society of San Pedro, California, that the news of Dillon's death became widely reported. Per Giant Freaking Robot, family members confirmed Dillon's death, her wishes to be cremated, and her request to have her ashes spread in the Pacific Ocean. No cause of death nor the specific location at the time of death have been reported, according to CNN. Dillon was 83 years old. She is survived by her son, Richard Libertini Jr.

Hollywood colleagues took to social media with their tributes to Dillon. "Melinda Dillon was such a great actress, with a wonderful delicacy about her. She was a delight to direct in Prince of Tides. May she rest in peace," Barbra Streisand posted on Twitter. Actor Lou Diamond Phillips tweeted: "So very, very sad to hear of the passing of Melinda Dillon. She played my adopted mother in Sioux City, my second directorial effort. What a Light and a Blessing. So effortless in her work that it was easy to overlook how brilliant she was. I feel so lucky to have known her. RIP."