Melinda Dillon has died. An Oscar and Tony-nominated actress whose most enduring part, for many audiences, was as doting (but soap-wielding) mom Mrs. Parker in 1983's A Christmas Story, Dillon was an institution both on Broadway and in ’70s and ’80s cinema. (Other high-profile roles from the era included Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Absence Of Malice, Harry And The Hendersons, and more.) Per THR, Dillon’s death actually happened last month, on January 9, 2023, with web site Giant Freakin Robot confirming her death after contacting family members today. Dillon was 83.
Born in Arkansas in the late 1930s, Dillon got her start in the theater in Chicago, where she studied at DePaul and worked with the Second City. Moving to New York, she quickly landed in the limelight when she was cast in the role of young wife Honey in the original Broadway production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. Dillon ultimately left the part (opposite Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, and George Grizzard) after just nine months—citing the intensity of the material, the grueling schedule, and the sudden pressures of stardom for a subsequent stay in a psychiatric hospital—but not before picking up a Tony nomination for Best Performance By A Featured Actress.
Dillon transitioned into film in the 1970s, starting with an appearance in the Jack Lemmon romantic comedy The April Fools. Notable collaborators from the period include Hal Ashby, who cast her in his Woodie Guthrie biopic Bound For Glory, and Sydney Pollack, who filmed her alongside Paul Newman and Sally Field in 1981's Absence Of Malice. That was one of two roles Dillon would pick up an Oscar nomination for—the other had come back in 1977, when Ashby recommended her to Steven Spielberg to play the mother of a three-year-old abduction victim in Close Encounters. Cast just three days before filming began, Dillon anchors the film’s most harrowing scene, fighting to keep her young son safe from mysterious, seemingly malevolent invaders.
But, as we said: It’s hard to call any role of Dillon’s more enduring than A Christmas Story. As the mother to Peter Billingsley’s Ralphie, Dillon embodies a quintessential movie mom, but in a way that allowed her gifts as a comedian and dramatic actress to shine through. (The joy she brings to the moment when Mother Parker encourages her reluctant youngest son to eat from his plate like “a little piggy” is an especial highlight.) There are many reasons A Christmas Story has remained in near-permanent holiday rotation for the last 40 years; the authenticity and delight Dillon brought to the part is undeniably one of them.
Dillon continued to work regularly through the 1990s, appearing in films like The Prince Of Tides, To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything!, and Magnolia; meanwhile, in TV, she showed up for single-episode stints on series like Picket Fences, The Client, and more. She slowed down in the 2000s before ultimately retiring; her final few roles include an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2005, and then a small part in 2007 Adam Sandler drama Reign Over Me.