Actress Cloris Leachman, Who Played Both Silly And Serious, Dies At 94

Jan 27, 2021
Originally published on January 27, 2021 11:39 pm

Actress Cloris Leachman portrayed women of wit and sass over a seven-decade career. She won an Oscar and nine Emmys, and her career was relentlessly inventive. The actress died Wednesday in Encinitas, Calif., of natural causes, according to her press representative, Monique Moss. She was 94.

Leachman was born April 30, 1926, in Des Moines, Iowa. By the age of 11 she was working with the Des Moines Playhouse, and at 17 she had a radio show in which she gave style advice to women. After college, it was off to New York and the Actors Studio. She met and married the Hollywood impresario George Englund, and they had five children together.

Leachman (center) may be best remembered for playing kooky landlady Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Here, she appears in a scene with Mary Tyler Moore (left) and Valerie Harper.
AP

When her children were still young, Leachman worked tirelessly on the stage, on TV and in film. She may be best remembered for playing Phyllis Lindstrom, the kooky, nosy landlady on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. At 45, she gave a wrenching, Oscar-winning performance in 1971's The Last Picture Show. Her character was Ruth Popper, a married woman having an affair with a high school senior in a dying Texas town. In 2009, Leachman told Fresh Air's Terry Gross about that film's dramatic final scene in which Ruth's lover returns after ditching her. She said the scene almost didn't make it into the movie — the producer wanted to cut it out altogether, but director Peter Bogdanovich put up a fight. "He insisted and fought for and kept my scene in, and that's of course why I won the Oscar," Leachman said of her best supporting actress award.

In 2008, Leachman told The New York Times, "I'm just a simple person, with a silly bone."
Kevin Winter / Getty Images for AFI

The actress seemed game for anything, from playing a creepy housekeeper in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein to competing on ABC's Dancing With the Stars at the age of 82. "I don't want to prove anything," she told one of that show's dance instructors. "I just want to be the best jive dancer I can be."

Leachman made a point of saying she wanted to reach people through the characters she played — but she wasn't necessarily like those characters. In 2008, she told The New York Times, "If I were to do some outlandish role, I always made sure I'd be on Johnny Carson to show that I wasn't that person that I played. I'd be myself. And so people got to know me, I think, and I think they know that I'm honest and truthful and real. ... I'm just a simple person, with a silly bone."

She was silly, serious, hard-working and had a very, very long career — all qualities that helped make her one of Hollywood's most decorated and versatile performers.

Editor Ted Robbins and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Cloris Leachman, the blonde who portrayed women of wit and sass over seven decades, has died at age 94. She won eight Primetime Emmy Awards and an Oscar, and her career was relentlessly inventive, from serious film dramas to reality TV. Jacki Lyden has this remembrance.

JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: Cloris Leachman may be best remembered for playing Phyllis Lindstrom, the kooky, nosy landlady on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Phyllis sure wasn't ready to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW")

CLORIS LEACHMAN: (As Phyllis Lindstrom) My husband and I are into cryonetics (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What's that?

LEACHMAN: (As Phyllis Lindstrom) Well, when Lars and I go, we will be frozen. Then, of course, when they discover a cure for whatever it is that made us go, we will be defrosted.

LYDEN: She won an Emmy twice for that role. Cloris Leachman was born April 30, 1926, in Des Moines, Iowa. By the age of 11, she was working with the Des Moines Playhouse. At 17, she had a radio show in which she gave style advice to women. She was a beauty. After college, it was off to New York and the Actors Studio. She met and married the Hollywood impresario George Englund. They had five children.

Leachman worked tirelessly on the stage, on TV and in film when her children were young. She was 45 when she gave a wrenching, Oscar-winning performance in the classic film "The Last Picture Show." Her character is Ruth Popper, a married woman having an affair with a high school senior, played by Timothy Bottoms, in a dying Texas town. In this scene, he's returned after ditching her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LAST PICTURE SHOW")

LEACHMAN: (As Ruth Popper) I wouldn't treat a dog that way. I guess you thought I was so old and ugly, you didn't owe me any explanation. You didn't need to be careful of me. You didn't love me. Look at me. Can't you even look at me?

LYDEN: In 2009, on NPR's Fresh Air, she talked about how the scene almost didn't make it into the movie. Director Peter Bogdanovich not only saved it; he made it the film's final scene, changing the producer's mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEACHMAN: He said, when Timmy drives away in his pickup, that's when we should end the picture. And all the credits can come under his driving away. It'll be really good. Peter said no, no. And he insisted and fought for and kept my scene in. And that's, of course, why I won the Oscar.

LYDEN: In her memoir "Cloris" and in interviews that she did, Leachman made a point of saying that she wanted to reach people through the characters she played, but she wasn't the characters, like this memorable role in Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN")

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) I am Frau Blucher.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE NEIGHING)

LYDEN: Leachman seemed game for anything, like competing on "Dancing With The Stars" when she was 82.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DANCING WITH THE STARS")

LEACHMAN: One, two - oh no. I don't want to prove anything. I just want to be the best jive dancer I can be.

LYDEN: She told a New York Times reporter, people got to know me, and I think they know that I'm honest and truthful and real. I'm just a simple person with a silly bone. Silly, serious, hardworking and very, very long working - those are the qualities that made her one of Hollywood's most decorated and versatile performers.

For NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVOLUTION OF STARS' "PRETENDING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.