By Sue Reilly
June 19, 1978 12:00 PM

She broke into movies as Mrs. Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory, but the real theme song of Melinda Dillon’s life is Hard Travelin’. In 38 tough years she’s survived a shattering childhood, a nervous breakdown that landed her in “a raving loony bin,” a miscarriage, the death of a premature baby, a divorce and a kidnapping attempt on her only son. “Devastated” when not nominated for an expected Oscar for Bound for Glory, she was named this year as Richard Dreyfuss’ UFO-struck neighbor in Close Encounters—and then lost to Vanessa Redgrave. After all that, could anything else happen? It almost did. In April a recurrence of a childhood case of scarlet fever left Melinda with no hearing or equilibrium. “I was terrified,” she recalls. She was helped by an operation—and by a spontaneous recovery that left her “feeling very lucky.”

Her good fortune could last. The third of Dillon’s four movies in three years, Slap Shot, included the first nude scene of her career—with Paul Newman, no less. “I spent ten and a half hours naked in bed with Paul and absolutely loved it,” she gloats. A tougher nut was Sylvester Stallone, who tried to fire Dillon from their current epic F.I.S.T. early in production, she reports, “because he thought I photographed too old. It was very unpleasant.” She hung onto the part by volunteering to submit to a screen test. Melinda now magnanimously explains Stallone’s behavior as jitters: “There was so much pressure on Sly.”

During that F.I.S.T. fight she found a sympathetic shoulder and mentor in, of all people, former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, whom she’d just met on a flight to Chicago. “I was absolutely awed by him,” says Melinda, a worker during his 1968 presidential campaign. “But we are not lovers,” she cautions. “We haven’t spent enough time together to have a real friendship.” Dillon’s uncertainty also kept her from asking McCarthy to escort her to the Academy Awards. (She eventually went with actor buddy Paul Sand.)

Melinda was born near Cullman, Ala., where her father, Floyd Clardy, was a traveling salesman and her mother was a volunteer at an Army hospital. “It was not a match made in heaven,” Dillon says. It was more nearly made in Coming Home. Her mom fell in love with a wounded vet named Wilbur Dillon, whom she divorced Clardy to marry. The family migrated through a series of Army bases before being stationed in Nuremberg, Germany. Her half sister, Cathy, was born there, which gave Melinda a companion. But her mother’s next baby lived only a few days. “From then on it was a nightmare. I broke down when I found they weren’t going to bury her but burn her,” says Melinda, then 11. “She was so beautiful. I screamed for hours.” The shock was too much for Melinda’s mother, who spent almost a year coming to terms with her grief. “It was horrible for all of us, especially her.”

Melinda escaped into acting, which she’d begun at 6 as Turkey Lurkey in Henny Penny. Graduating from high school in Chicago, she studied at the Goodman Theatre and then joined the Second City satirical troupe. Her apprenticeship was short. After she starred in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle at Washington’s Arena Stage Theater, Louise Lasser, a contemporary, complained that producers kept looking for “Melinda Dillon types.” At 23 she got a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut as Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But, daunted by star Uta Hagen, Melinda left after nine months. “I didn’t know how to face up to the tension and pressure. I started crumbling, imploding.” She checked into New York’s Gracie Square Hospital, “where they used to lock up Marilyn Monroe for weeks when she’d been drinking. There was not even a Nurse Ratched to give phony group counseling.” It took the frightened Dillon nearly a month to get “my good conduct medal” and freedom.

In 1963 (after a fling with author Irwin Shaw) she married revue comedian Richard Libertini and had Richard Jr. two years later. But her second pregnancy ended on her opening night with Paul Sills’ Story Theater, when the baby was born prematurely and died. Melinda flew to L.A. for an intensive session with her female therapist. “I worked out my grief all day, said goodbye to the baby and flew back to resume performing.” Following another pregnancy that ended in a miscarriage, she says, “I fell in love with another man. But that wasn’t what broke up the marriage. It was just over. Richard and I will always be close friends. I love him.”

Melinda now lives in an antique-filled house (rented because she can’t afford to buy) in Malibu. Her housemate is her son, Richie. Her next roles are a TV movie with Robert Wagner and Lloyd Bridges and a feature opposite Martin Balsam. For all the trials of her life, Melinda has wound up an extraordinarily solid, forgiving woman. She aspires, she says, to play Blanche DuBois to ex-nemesis Sly Stallone’s Stanley Kowalski. And rather than such Hollywood religions as Scientology, est or Aesthetic Realism, Melinda spends Sunday mornings singing in the choir of the Malibu Methodist Church and “counting my blessings.”