Cloris Leachman: What a Character!

“I don’t think “comedy” or “serious”. I always brought seriousness to comedy and comedic things to serious roles.” … Cloris Leachman

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At the beginning of this year (January 27, 2021) we lost an extraordinary actress. Cloris Leachman was an American actress and comedienne who spent seven decades making indelible impressions with every role, no matter how small.

Depending upon your age/generation, you may have been introduced to Leachman via a variety of roles that range from the “Gran” voice in the animated THE CROODS (2013), or as “Ida” on “Malcolm in the Middle” sitcom which earned her years of Emmy noms and wins, or as the oldest contestant on the 7th season of “Dancing With The Stars” when at age 82 she broke the record for their oldest dancer (which still stands today). Or perhaps, like me, you knew her first as hilarious characters in Mel Brooks films and as quirky “Phyllis” from the landmark show, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” No matter how you first came to know her, with her memorable performances across comedy and drama over the span of seven decades, no doubt you were hooked and left wanting to see more.

On April 30, 1926, Cloris Leachman was born in Des Moines, Iowa, heir to the family lumber business. But she had other dreams and studied drama in college. Her classmates at the Drama Department of Northwestern University included Paul Lynde, Patricia Neal, Agnes Nixon, Charlotte Rae, and Martha Hyer. She was titled Miss Chicago of 1946, performed with the Des Moines Playhouse, then headed to New York where she found her way into small roles in TV. For the next couple of decades, most of her career focused in television work.

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But her few films from the 50s and 60s were memorable, including her explosive role in Robert Aldrich’s film noir, KISS ME DEADLY (1955). Her performance as the terrified, hitchhiking runaway, wearing nothing but a trench coat, “Christina Bailey” was compelling enough to gain the sympathies from a hardened private dick like Mike Hammer- and from us, too. She also made the most of a bit part as “Agnes” in BUTCH CASSIDY and the SUNDANCE KID (1969). Apparently it was her idea to sing “The Sweetest Little Fellow” from Paul Robeson’s song “Mighty Like a Rose.” She was less than thrilled when she thought it sounded like a cat mewing, but they left it in anyway.

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Cloris won the Academy Award for her supporting roles as a cheating coach’s wife in a tiny, lifeless Texas town, “Ruth” in Peter Bogdanovich’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971). The film remains a classic with high praise from critics and established Leachman as a serious dramatic actor. But the 1970s would also bring Leachman immense popularity as a comedic actor in both television and film.

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As “Phyllis Lindstrom” Leachman portrayed Mary’s delightfully clueless, chatty, and self-absorbed neighbor/friend/landlady in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” from 1970 – 1975. Phyllis was a frequent guest in the first 2 seasons but appeared less so in seasons 3 through 5. Cloris Leachman was given a chance to expand the “Lindstrom” character when “Phyllis” became a spin-off in 1975. It lasted 2 seasons/48 episodes. “Rhoda” (1974 – 1978) and “Lou Grant” (1977 – 1982) were also spin-off shows from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970 – 1977).

This decade launched her film partnership with Mel Brooks. She would do a total of three films with Brooks, starting with her legendary “Frau Brucher” in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974). As one of my all-time favorite films, I can attest we quote “Frau Brucher” on a weekly basis in my home. It often begins if someone says something along the lines of “be careful” which I generally reply with, “zee staircase can be ver-we treacherous,” in my best Brucher accent. One of the reasons this film is considered side-splitting funny to this day is due to Cloris Leachman’s natural humor instincts.

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According to The Hollywood Reporter article (by Ryan Parker) published following the news of her death this year, Cloris got a kick out of making Gene Wilder break character on the YF set because he found her so hilarious…

“As I turned to Gene, he’d be laughing, his face was in two pieces laughing,” she said in the interview. “We did about 15 takes. I hear him laughing, and I have not said anything. I just tickled him to pieces.” She added, “Everything I did in the movie tickled Gene to pieces. And it was so much fun to work with him.” Brooks said of Leachman’s passing, “Such sad news — Cloris was insanely talented. She could make you laugh or cry at the drop of a hat. Always such a pleasure to have on set. Every time I hear a horse whinny I will forever think of Cloris’ unforgettable Frau Blücher. She is irreplaceable, and will be greatly missed.”

Her next Mel Brooks film would be as “Nurse Diesel” in HIGH ANXIETY (1977). This film is a spoof of practically every top-grossing Hitchcock film, but her character is more akin to a “Nurse Ratched” dominatrix wet dream. From her bullet bra that could give you stitches, her clinched teeth, and her penciled-on features, Leachman kept us all in stitches. Her last on-screen Brooks role was as “Madame Defarge” in HISTORY of the WORLD: Part 1 (1981), a parodic look at events from world history. One of my favorite lines she delivers with superb wit…

Madame Defarge: “We are so poor, we do not even have a language! Just this stupid accent!”

Fellow Revolutionist: “She’s right, she’s right! We all talk like Maurice Chevalier!”

Married to director/producer George Englund from 1953 to 1979, together they had 5 children, and 7 grandchildren. And yet, she somehow managed to work in 287 credits to her acting career- starting as an uncredited dancing patron in Edgar G. Ulmer’s CARNEGIE HALL (1947) starring Marsha Hunt, to her final film, a holiday film completed and ready to be released this year, HIGH HOLIDAY (2021).

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She earned eight Emmy Awards from 22 nominations, making her the most nominated and, along with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, most awarded performer in Emmy history. Here is a list of her many awards and nominations*:

  • Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (1972) for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW
  • Emmy Nomination*, Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in Comedy (1972, 1973) for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (CBS)
  • Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (1973) for “A Brand New Life: Tuesday Movie of the Week” (ABC)
  • Emmy Nomination*, Best Lead Actress in a Drama (1974), “The Migrants CBS Playhouse 90” (CBS)
  • Best Supporting Actress in Comedy (1974), “The Mary Tyler Moore” (CBS)
  • Outstanding Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Comedy or Drama Series (1975), “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (CBS)
  • Outstanding Continuing or Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in Variety or Music (1975), “Cher” (CBS)
  • Emmy Nomination*, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series (1976), “Phyllis” (CBS)
  • Emmy Nomination, Outstanding Continuing or Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in Variety or Music (1976), “Telly… Who Loves Ya, Baby?” (CBS)
  • Emmy Nomination*, Outstanding Performance by a Supporting Actress in a drama or comedy special (1978), “It Happened One Christmas” (ABC)
  • Emmy Nomination*, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Special (1984), “Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter” (ABC)
  • Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program (1984), “Screen Actors Guild 50th Anniversary Celebration” (CBS)
  • Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series (1998), “Promised Land” (CBS)
  • Emmy Nomination*, Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series (2001, 2003, 2004, 2005), “Malcolm In The Middle” (FOX)
  • Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series (2002, 2006), “Malcolm In The Middle” (FOX)
  • Emmy Nomination*, Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series (2005), “Joan Of Arcadia” (CBS)
  • Emmy Nomination*, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie (2006), “Mrs. Harris” (HBO)
  • Emmy Nomination*, Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series (2011), “Raising Hope” (FOX/ Twentieth Century Fox Television)
  • Emmy Hall Of Fame, Honoree (2011)

The full list of all of her awards (all 28 wins and 42 nominations) can be found here: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001458/awards

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She really could do it all- from every genre to every medium. Drama, comedy, film noir, horror, westerns, sitcoms, holiday films, television, play productions, Broadway, film. Heck, she was even in an “After-School Special.” Most importantly, no role was ever too small for her because she stole every scene. I believe she is worthy of singing her praises because in addition to her obvious talent and vibrance, she possessed an authentic grounded appeal. Perhaps it’s that Midwestern hard work ethic. She seemingly held no vanities in order to get a good laugh, which is the sign of a natural-born comic. As a true working actor, she performed right up until the end, to the age of 94. She died from natural causes (a stroke) but it should be noted that the final medical reports revealed she had COVID-19 and it is believed that contributed to her stroke and subsequent death.

**This article is a contribution to the What A Character! Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, and yours truly- Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled. I encourage you to explore all the contributing authors to this 10th annual blogging event, which tributes character actors, is being held Saturday, Dec. 4th, 2021.

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Comments

  1. She was fantastic!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! Those nominations and wins are incredible. How fabulous that Cloris’s great talent was recognized so fulsomely in her lifetime.

    I recall an interview she gave on Canadian television and the young host asked how she determined which roles to accept at the beginning of her career. Cloris laughed and said, at that stage of a career an actor answers the phone with “Where do you want me?”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful tribute to one that hits close to the heart. An astoundingly talented actor, a part of the family, and one of the funniest people who ever graced any screen. I love this, Kellee. Terrific choice.

    Aurora

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Kellee thanks for this wonderful tribute! Just seeing her makes me smile and laugh! she’s one of the most talented actors ever! Cheers, Joey

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Not long after she died, I saw a photo of her in her youth. I was stunned at how beautiful she was, especially given how ugly Mel Brooks made her in his movies! (I was a bit too young to have seen her in MTM.) Delightful actress who killed it in just about everything she did, drama or comedy or whatever.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a lovely post about a wonderful actor. As I am reading through the blogathon posts, it’s amazing how many of these supporting players we first met though television. God bless Mel Brooks for putting this gal front and center in his lunacy…she was always a diamond.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Kurt Burgess says:

    Excellent article on an amazing talent. Her running in the middle of the highway in KISS ME DEADLY stands out…setting the tone for an unusual film.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow, what a woman! I learned so much about Ms. Leachman through your lovely tribute. Wonderful choice for the blogathon!

    Like

  9. What a career…from KISS ME DEADLY to Dancing With The Stars. I had no idea she’d won so many awards.

    Like

  10. She was so multitalented! Thanks for this, and thanks for hosting the blogathon. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

Trackbacks

  1. […] morning edition with this entry by co-host Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled on the career of the über-talened Cloris Leachman, “She really could do it all- from every genre to every medium. Drama, comedy, film noir, […]

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