Actor Melinda Dillon, ‘A Christmas Story’ mom from Chicago, dies at 83

Two-time Oscar nominee, for ‘Close Encounters’ and ‘Absence of Malice,’ got her start at Goodman School and Second City.

SHARE Actor Melinda Dillon, ‘A Christmas Story’ mom from Chicago, dies at 83
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Melinda Dillon (left) starred in “A Christmas Story” with Darren McGavin, lan Petrella and Peter Billingsley.

MGM

Actor Melinda Dillon, whose expansive career took her from Hyde Park High School to Second City to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “A Christmas Story,” has died at age 83.

A notice from her family said Dillon died Jan. 9 in Los Angeles. No cause of death was disclosed.

Of her many film and TV roles, the best known was the long-suffering mother of Ralphie Parker, the boy yearning for an air rifle from Santa in the holiday perennial “A Christmas Story” (1983). Over the course of the story, set in 1940 Indiana, the unnamed mom deals with dogs destroying her holiday dinner, the boy picking up his dad’s swearing habit and her husband’s acquisition of a gaudy lamp shaped like a woman’s leg.

Dillon was nominated twice for the best supporting actress Oscar, the first for playing the mother of a child abducted by aliens in “Close Encounters” (1977). Four years later, she was nominated for “Absence of Malice” (1981), in which her character was betrayed by an unscrupulous reporter.

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Melinda Dillon plays the mother of a child (Cary Guffey) drawn to an alien ship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Columbia Pictures

Her other big-screen credits included “Bound for Glory” (1976), “Slap Shot” (1977), “The Prince of Tides” (1991) and “Magnolia” (1999).

Dillon was born in Arkansas and later settled in Chicago, where she graduated from Hyde Park High and attended the Goodman School of Drama, then based at the Art Institute of Chicago.

She landed at a job at a fledgling comedy theater called The Second City, checking coats. One night, when original cast member Barbara Harris took ill, Dillon volunteered to fill in for her.

“It was grand,” she said in “The Second City,” a company history by Sheldon Patinkin. “I adored Barbara and had followed her every move and nuance, and being the monkey I am, I knew the show.”

Dillon performed with the company in the early 1960s. In 1962 she originated the role of Honey in the Edward Albee classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” on Broadway, winning a Tony nomination.

She was married to actor Richard Libertini (“Fletch,” “The In-Laws”) from 1963 until their divorce in 1978. The couple, who had a son, met at Second City.

In Patinkin’s book, she recalled the day she met Libertini, another Second City actor. She had arranged for her mail to be delivered to the theater.

“One morning I went to collect it and there wasn’t any,” she said. “Wanting to attract the attention of the beautiful Italian actor Richard Libertini, who was sitting nearby, I said, ‘Nobody loves me.’ He heard me and said, ‘Nobody loves me either.’ We smiled, and I left. Later, we married.”

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