Melinda Dillon, who shot to Broadway stardom at 23, withdrew from acting after a mental breakdown, and then, in her late 30s, staged a comeback, receiving best supporting actress Oscar nominations for her roles in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Absence of Malice,” died on Jan. 9. She was 83.
Her death, which was announced by a cremation service, came to public notice in recent days. The announcement did not specify the cause or location of her death.
Ms. Dillon was best known for playing mothers coping with grave or silly problems in popular movies of the 1970s and ’80s. In “Close Encounters,” the enduring Steven Spielberg hit from 1977, she played an artist and single mother living on a rural farm who watches her son get abducted by aliens.
She played more explicitly archetypal mothers in “Harry and the Hendersons” (1987), a family comedy about having Bigfoot as your pet, and “A Christmas Story” (1983), a series of vignettes depicting an all-American Christmas in midcentury Indiana.
The latter film, long a classic of the holiday season on television, inspired a 2020 tribute in The New York Times, which hailed Ms. Dillon’s character, a frazzled Everymom, as a “damn hero.”
In “Absence of Malice” (1981), Ms. Dillon played against maternal type as a Catholic woman who must admit to having an abortion.
Her star turn of that era came late for an actress — in Ms. Dillon’s late 30s and 40s — and it constituted an unexpected re-emergence, following a crisis that seemed to halt her promising career.
Melinda Ruth Clardy was born in Hope, Ark., on Oct. 13, 1939. Her father, Floyd, worked as a traveling salesman, and her mother, Noreen, was a volunteer at a U.S. Army hospital. Noreen fell in love with Wilbur Dillon, a wounded veteran, and Melinda’s parents divorced when she was 5.
She took her stepfather’s surname and had the peripatetic upbringing of a child of the military, living for a while in Germany. She left home at 16 and soon began pursuing an acting career.
She moved to New York City in 1962, fresh out of acting school. In just a matter of weeks, she landed one of four parts in the Broadway debut of Edward Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
She played Honey, the wife in a young couple invited to the home of an older couple for a drink. The premiere, on Oct. 13, fell on her 23rd birthday.
“Critics unanimously hailed her performance as superb,” The Daily News announced in a profile published that month that described Ms. Dillon’s “overnight rise from obscurity to stardom.”
Her agent, Peter Witt, told The News, “What has happened to her is a one in a million shot paying off the first time out in the theater.”
In a 2014 New York Times review of a recording of the play’s original cast, the theater critic Charles Isherwood called the production “one of the seminal theatrical events of the 20th century” and said the actors’ performances, including Ms. Dillon’s, “still feel fresh, fierce and definitive.”
But as time went on, the pressure bore down on Ms. Dillon. Sometimes she would perform in a three-hour matinee in the afternoon, then study acting with Lee Strasberg for two hours, and then do another three-hour performance in the evening. Talking to sophisticated, powerful people in the New York theater world terrified her.
After nine months, she left the play and checked into the mental ward of Gracie Square Hospital in New York, where she found herself feeling suicidal.
“I had had the American dream — to go to New York and study with Lee Strasberg,” she told The New York Times in 1976. “I guess I just wasn’t prepared for it all to happen so quickly.”
After her release from the hospital, she took a few acting roles but then sought safe harbor in marriage, to the actor Richard Libertini, and in motherhood, raising their son, also named Richard.
But she did not find contentment in life away from the spotlight. By the mid-1970s, she was single and being cast in multiple major Hollywood productions, including “Slap Shot,” a 1977 film starring Paul Newman.
“I spent 10 and a half hours naked in bed with Paul and absolutely loved it,” she told People magazine in 1978.
After the apex of her Hollywood career, she continued acting, and into the 21st century she occasionally made appearances on television shows like “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
Information about her survivors was not immediately available.
Ms. Dillon sang in the choir of a Methodist church as an adult, and she threw herself into film roles as mothers. But she came to reject what she had once sought in the life of a traditional suburban housewife.
“I left home so early that when I found somebody who wanted to take care of me, I just stopped everything; I could have soared ahead — I really know that — and I chose not to,” she told The Times. In marriage, “I got buried alive,” she continued. “That’s what got me to act again.”