Louise Fletcher, Nurse Ratched Actor in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest,’ Dead at 88

by Caitlin Berard
(Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Louise Fletcher, best known for her role as Nurse Ratched, the villain of the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, has died at age 88, as confirmed by her family. According to her son, Andrew Bick, the actress died on Friday (September 23) from natural causes. She passed away peacefully in her sleep in her home in Montdurausee, a commune in Southern France.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was originally a book, published in 1962. A year later, it made its Broadway debut with Joan Tetzel as the villainous nurse.

Louise Fletcher’s portrayal of Nurse Ratched, however, is nothing short of iconic. Fletcher is Nurse Ratched. Her performance was so strong, in fact, that the actress won the 1976 Best Actress Academy Award for her role in Cuckoo’s Nest.

Decades later, the portrayal earned even more accolades, as Nurse Ratched was named the fifth-greatest villain in film history by the American Film Institute. Louise Fletcher’s character also earned the title of greatest villainess in history, second only to the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz.

How Louise Fletcher Brought Nurse Ratched to Life

From the perspective of the patients in Salem State Hospital, the mental institution in which Nurse Ratched works, the “Big Nurse” is a despicable, horrifying monster. She does, after all, lobotomize a patient unnecessarily to keep him in line.

But when Louise Fletcher read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, she saw Ratched in a slightly different light. Sure, she was a villain, but maybe she didn’t see herself that way. Maybe Ratched truly believed she was helping her patients. With that, Fletcher began developing a previously unknown backstory for her character.

“She had sacrificed her life for other people,” Fletcher explained in a 2018 interview with Vanity Fair. “She hasn’t married, hadn’t done this, hadn’t done that, and was self-sufficient on her own leading this life. Because she dedicated her life, her earlier life, to other people who needed her.”

The ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ Director Hated Nurse Ratched at First

Before she stepped on set for the first time, Louise Fletcher had a fully fleshed-out vision of what Nurse Ratched would be like. To truly bring the terror of Nurse Ratched to life, Fletcher would make her wholly unreadable. Was she kind, or was she evil?

To do so, she performed Nurse Ratched as a painfully soft-spoken, imperturbable woman. She used such a quiet voice, in fact, that she had to ask the camera crew if she was even audible.

During the initial run-through, director Milos Foreman instantly decided he hated it. Nurse Ratched should be forceful, obviously powerful, not mild-mannered and ambiguous.

Soon, however, he realized that Louise Fletcher’s interpretation was genius. He admitted his mistake and the iconic Nurse Ratched that we all love to hate was born. As Fletcher later explained, “What’s so familiar can be the most frightening thing.”