Cloris Leachman, Oscar-winning actress and prolific TV star, dies at 94
Cloris Leachman, who won an Oscar for her role in the bleak coming-of-age movie “The Last Picture Show” and Emmy awards during a prolific television career that stretched back to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” has died at her home in Encinitas, Calif.
The ubiquitous actress always seemed to be working: She anchored her own “MTM” spinoff series “Phyllis” and starred in the hit TV shows “The Facts of Life,” “Rhoda,” “Touched by an Angel,” “The Ellen Show,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” and “Raising Hope.” She had a recurring role on “American Gods” in 2016 and a critically acclaimed career in film, highlighted by her Oscar-winning performance in 1971’s “The Last Picture Show” and the classic tour-de-farce “Young Frankenstein.”
Leachman, who worked well into her 90s and became the oldest contestant on “Dancing With the Stars” in 2008, died Tuesday evening of natural causes, her publicist said. She was 94.
“It’s been my privilege to work with Cloris Leachman, one of the most fearless actresses of our time. There was no one like Cloris. With a single look she had the ability to break your heart or make you laugh till the tears ran down your face,” said Juliet Green, Leachman’s manager. “You never knew what Cloris was going to say or do, and that unpredictable quality was part of her unparalleled magic.”
Leachman’s versatility was often praised and accentuated by a youthfulness that belied her age, which aided her later projects and brought a freshness to her roles as matriarchs and grandmothers.
“There’s more to me than nutty; there’s more to me than energy,” she told The Times 1986, still seeking the right adjective to describe herself.
Given her sweeping resume and penchant for outsized and offbeat characters, Leachman said she had only one credo: “Since my childhood I have disliked rules and for the most part have avoided them.”
Leachman was born in Des Moines on April 30, 1926, the eldest of three girls. Her father ran a lumber mill, Leachman Lumber Co., and the family home was on the outskirts in town. She told The Times that her closest neighbor was the Lone Tree Filling Station.
Leachman said she slept with her sisters in the attic of their house, up a flight of creaky stairs, because of the national anxiety following the kidnapping of the 20-month-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh Jr. Every noise in the house, she said, prompted fear. “My mother said, ‘Who’d want you?’ a remark she found oddly comforting.
Her mother encouraged her in the arts, but more for pleasure than for gain. Her family couldn’t afford a piano but she taught herself the instrument anyway by practicing on a cardboard drawing of piano keys. She had a radio talk show and acted at the community playhouse, which earned her a scholarship to study drama at Northwestern University and become a classical pianist. But academics overwhelmed her and she left school abruptly to work the pageant circuit — a move, she later said, that “seemed rather stupid.”
“My mother told me to walk straight and sparkle plenty,” Leachman told the Hollywood Reporter in 2016.
Leachman earned the Miss Chicago title and competed in Miss America in 1946. She played part of the Grieg piano concerto as her talent offering and placed in the top five, earning a $1,000-scholarship. She used the money to fund her move to New York and study voice and drama at the Actors Studio.
The actress notched several Broadway credits in the 1940s and ‘50s, sang for Rodgers and Hammerstein and gained success in theater starring opposite Katharine Hepburn in “As You Like It.”
While in New York, Leachman booked jobs on theatrical and television productions, landing her first major role in the 1955s noir thriller “Kiss Me Deadly.” By then she had married producer George Englund, and together they would have four sons and a daughter before he ran off with actress Joan Collins. The couple divorced in 1979.
In the late 1950s, she played the doting wife and mother Ruth Martin on “Lassie” before being replaced by June Lockhart. Leachman said she had to be reminded that the star of the show was a dog.
“They used to tell me, ‘No, Cloris, it’s all about Lassie,’” she joked in a 2004 Times interview.
She appeared on the “The Frank Sinatra Show,” “Gunsmoke,” “The Twilight Zone” and she starred in the anthology series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “General Electric Theater.”
In 1971 she landed a role in the “The Last Picture Show,” a moody black-and-white film set in the 1950s in a small Texas town. Leachman was cast as the depressed wife of a high school coach who has an affair with one of his students. The role won Leachman an Oscar for best supporting actress and changed the trajectory of her career.
Leachman acquired her largest audience in the 1970s while playing Mary Richards’ landlady Phyllis Lindstrom in the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” She played Mary’s nosy neighbor for five years, before landing her own eponymous spinoff, “Phyllis.”
“The Mary Tyler Moore” show earned Leachman her first Emmy nomination in 1972 and an Emmy win two years later. She went on to win one Daytime and eight Primetime Emmys during her career, and was nominated more than 20 times.
“Nothing I could say would top the enormity of my love for you. Until we meet again darling,” her “MTM” costar Ed Asner tweeted Wednesday.
Asner was among the living legends who saluted Leachman on Twitter Wednesday. Other tributes came from Steve Martin, author Stephen King and Bob Saget, the last of whom she infamously roasted in 2008.
In 1974, Leachman played the iconic Frau Blücher — the sinister housekeeper of the Frankenstein estate whose very name spooked the horses — in Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s horror parody “Young Frankenstein.”
Her scene-stealing presence showcased yet “another aspect of her evidently limitless gifts,” wrote the late Times film critic Charles Champlin. Brooks counted her delivery of “He was my boyfriend!” among his all-time favorite scenes to shoot.
“That was a great choice,” the director told The Times in 2004. “Cloris’ genius is that she never plays comedy for laughs. She’s deadly serious as the character.”
In Brooks’ 1977 Hitchcock spoof “High Anxiety,” Leachman recalled arriving on set to play the psychiatric ward overseer Nurse Diesel with concern that she was simply expected to reprise Blücher’s ridiculous Eastern European accent and stern countenance. So she penciled in a light mustache, added extra shoulder padding, raised the costume’s torpedo-shaped breasts to just below her chin, and talked out of the side of her mouth — an effect that even gave the notoriously zany Brooks pause.
She teamed up with Brooks again on “History of the World: Part I” before making a prominent return to television in 1986 when she replaced Charlotte Rae in NBC’s long-running sitcom “The Facts of Life.” Returning to prime-time television, she said, was like “falling backwards into a warm bath.”
She appeared in “Going to the Chapel,” 1990’s “Love Hurts,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” movie and “Now and Then,” stretching her repertoire in 1994 with a one-woman show called “Joy Ride: The True Story of Grandma Moses,” playing the legendary farm wife who started painting late in life.
The late 1990s brought on the grandmother roles in sitcoms such as “Thanks,” “The Ellen Show” and “Touched by an Angel.” She won another Emmy Award in 2002 for playing the irascible granny Ida on Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle” and made history in 2006 when she won again as guest actress, becoming the winningest female performer in Emmy history.
“I’m 80. If your heart doesn’t stop beating and you stay up with it, look what happens,” she said backstage at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards.
When Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft became ill during the filming of “Spanglish,” Leachman took over the role of Tea Leoni’s mother, Evelyn — a retired, alcohol-soaked jazz singer in James L. Brooks’ dysfunctional-family comedy.
That led to her casting as the prison warden’s secretary in “Spanglish” co-star Adam Sandler’s raunchy 2005 remake of “The Longest Yard.”
Seemingly ageless and wonderfully unfiltered, Leachman reintroduced herself to America in 2008 when she competed on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” At 82, she was the competition’s oldest contestant and outlasted singers Toni Braxton, celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito and reality star Kim Kardashian before being voted off. She also starred in ABC’s “Celebrity Wife Swap” in 2015.
It was all part of her “master plan” for her octogenarian resurgence that was hatched in late 2007 when her son George Englund Jr. became her manager. The varied rollout included a one-woman show that Leachman performed in theaters across the country and on cruise ships, a lettuce-clad PETA campaign and her dishy autobiography, “Cloris,” ghost-written by her former husband.
The memoir told of her “epic” fling with Gene Hackman and recounted haute Hollywood when she and Englund Sr. hobnobbed and occasionally worked with such legendary figures as Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.
The career revival wasn’t without its befuddling displays: She conducted her late night interview with Jimmy Kimmel half-reclining on the ground and spewed obscenities during the Comedy Central roast of Saget.
In 2008 she joined the all-star ensemble cast of “New York, I Love You” and the all-female cast of Diane English’s dramedy “The Women” with Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Candice Bergen and Carrie Fisher. She also appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-nominated picture “Inglourious Basterds” and played the dementia-addled matriarch Maw Maw in Fox’s “Raising Hope.”
After joining Twitter in 2010, she gained more than 88,000 followers, giving America’s favorite grandma Betty White some stiff competition in their golden years.
When she turned 90 in 2016, she tweeted: “Thank u all 4 the kind & sweet birthday wishes. Remember, no matter what I’ll always be younger than @BettyMWhite #HappyBirthdayCloris”
Leachman is survived by her children Morgan, Adam, Dinah and George; six grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren. Her son Bryan died in 1986.
— Nardine Saad is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times
— Times staff writer Christie D’Zurilla contributed to this report.
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