Cloris Leachman, an Oscar-winning actress for portraying a lonely housewife on The Last Picture Show and comedic delight as fearsome Ms. Blücher in Young Frankenstein and selfish neighbor Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, has died. She was 94 years old.
Leachman died in her sleep of natural causes in her Encinitas, California home, publicist Monique Moss said on Wednesday. Her daughter Dinah Englund was by her side, Moss said.
Leachman, a character actor of exceptional reach, defied typography. In her early television career, she appeared as Timmy’s mother on the series “Lassie”. She played a frontier prostitute in Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, a family member in Crazy Mama, and Blücher in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, in which the mere mention of her name provoked a horse commentary.
“Every time I hear a horse neigh I will forever think of Cloris’ unforgettable wife Blucher,” tweeted Brooks, calling Leachman “incredibly talented” and “irreplaceable”.
Greetings from fellow admiring colleagues poured out on social media. Steve Martin said Leachman “brought the secrets of comedy to the big and small screens”. “Nothing I could say exceeds the extent of my love for you,” wrote Ed Asner of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. “Applause every entry and exit,” said Rosie O’Donnell.
“There was no one like Cloris. With a single look, she had the ability to break your heart or make you laugh until tears ran down your face, ”Juliet Green, her longtime manager, said in a statement.
In 1989, Leachman toured in Grandma Moses, a play in which she was between 45 and 101 years old. In the 1990s, she appeared in major cities as the captain’s wife in the revival of Show Boat for three years. In the 1993 film version of The Beverly Hillbillies, she took on the role of Irene Ryan as Granny Clampett.
She also had an occasional role as Ida on Malcolm in the Middle and won Emmys on that show in 2002 and 2006. Her Emmy stretch has totaled eight over the years, including a trophy for Moore’s sitcom, which she linked with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the top Emmy-winning cast.
In 2008, Leachman joined the Dancing With the Stars contestants. She didn’t last long in the competition, but delighted the crowd with her sparkling dance costumes, sat on the judges’ rounds and swore during the live broadcast.
She began as Miss Chicago on the Miss America Pageant and willingly accepted nondescript film roles.
“Basically I don’t care how I look, ugly or beautiful,” she said in 1973 to an interviewer. “I don’t think that’s beauty. In a single day, each of us is ugly or beautiful. I’m heartbroken, I can’t be the witch in “The Wizard of Oz”. But I want to be the good witch too. Phyllis combines both.
“I am like that in life. I am magic and I believe in magic. There is supposed to be a point in life where you shouldn’t believe in it. I haven’t reached it yet. “
In the 1950s, Leachman was engaged in live television drama and demonstrated her versatility, including in roles that represented casting standards of the time.
“One week I was traveling as a Chinese, the next as a blonde Cockney and weeks later as a dark-haired someone else,” she recalled. In 1955 she made her film debut in a die-hard Mickey Spillane saga, Kiss Me Deadly – “I was the nude blonde Mike Hammer took on this dark highway.”
It followed with Rod Serling’s court-martial drama The Rack and a season about Lassie. She continued to star in supporting roles on Broadway and in films, then achieved triumph with Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, based on the Larry McMurtry novel.
When Leachman won the 1971 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, she gave a long speech thanking her piano and dance teachers and concluded, “This is for Buck Leachman, who paid the bills.” Her father ran a wood mill.
Despite her photogenic appearance, she continued to be cast in character parts. Her most indelible role was Phyllis Lindstrom on the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Phyllis often visited Mary’s apartment and brought complaints about her husband Lars and caustic remarks about Mary and especially about her opponent, another tenant, Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper). Phyllis was so unexpectedly engaged that Leachman starred in its own spin-off series, Phyllis, which ran on CBS from 1975 to 1977.
With Young Frankenstein Leachman became a member of the “Mel Brooks Stock Company,” which was also featured in Part I of High Anxiety and History of the World. Her other films included Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller and Texasville, which repeated her role on The Last Picture Show. In 2009 she published her autobiography Cloris, which made headlines when she told of a “wild” one-night stand with Gene Hackman.
Cloris Leachman grew up on the outskirts of Des Moines, Iowa, where she was born in 1926. The large family lived in a remote wooden house with no running water, but the mother had ambitious ideas for her children. Cloris took piano lessons at the age of 5; Since the family could not afford a piano, they practiced on a cardboard drawing of the keys.
“I’m going to be a concert pianist,” the girl announced, and her mother encouraged her to book in churches and civic clubs. She arranged for Cloris to take a coal wagon to Des Moines to audition for a Drake University play. She received the role and appeared in other plays at a local theater. After high school, she received a scholarship to study acting at Northwestern University.
Admittedly a poor student, Leachman only lasted a year. As a lark in the Chicago area, she tried a Miss Chicago Beauty Contest and was selected. She entered the 1946 Miss America competition in Atlantic City and qualified as a finalist. Her consolation prize: a $ 1,000 talent scholarship.
With renewed ambition, she went straight to New York, where she worked as an extra in a movie and understaffed Nina Foch in the hit “John Loves Mary”.
More understudy jobs followed, and she enrolled at the Actors Studio to improve her craft. “I finally quit because of smoking,” she said later. “I couldn’t stand that blue haze.”
In 1953, Leachman married George Englund, later a film director and producer, and they had five children: Adam, Bryan, George, Morgan and Dinah. The couple divorced in 1979. Son Bryan Englund was found dead in 1986 at the age of 30.