Cloris Leachman, Oscar Winner and Sitcom Star, Dies at 94


In 2016, Oscar and multi-Emmy Award-winning actress Cloris Leachman participated in Creative Until You Die, a series of Hollywood Reporter profiles of nonagenarians who were still creatively active. When asked if she ever thought of retiring, Leachman uttered a direct and defiant response: “Fuck you.”

Cloris Leachman, whose career spanned seven decades, has passed away at the age of 94, her longtime manager told Variety Wednesday. Her most celebrated role was Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for which she won two of her unprecedented eight Primetime Emmys. The imperious Phyllis was best summed up in one of Leachman’s Emmy-winning episodes, “The Lars Affair,” in which she considered the male bee: “Once the male bee . . . has serviced the queen, the male dies. All in all, not a bad system.”

As with the characters Lou Grant and Rhoda Morgenstern, Phyllis earned her own eponymous spin-off series that lasted two seasons.

But beyond Phyllis, Leachman is indelibly associated with numerous iconic series, classic episodes, and era-defining feature films. Most notably, she was little Timmy’s foster mother for a season of Lassie, she was the mother of a 6-year-old monster on “It’s a Good Life”—widely considered to be one of the 10 best Twilight Zone episodes—and she was Frau Blücher (insert horse whinny here) in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. In 1972, she earned an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her shattering portrayal of lonely high-school coach’s wife Ruth Popper in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. She reprised her character in Texasville, which was released in 1990.

Though she was in her twilight years, the sun never set on Leachman’s career. She began in the golden age of live television in the late 1940s, and in 2017 at the age of 91, she had a pivotal role in the buzzworthy supernatural Starz series American Gods, playing Zorya Vechernyaya, a sassy Old God out of Slavic mythology.

She never considered quitting acting. As Leachman shared in her 2009 memoir, Cloris, which she co-wrote with George Englund—to whom she was married from 1953 to 1979; they had five children—her mother offered her some simple advice when she landed her first play with a community theater group: “If you like it, just keep doing it.”

Leachman was born on April 30, 1926, in Des Moines, Iowa. In a 1972 Playgirl magazine interview, she declared, “I knew from the very beginning that I didn’t belong in Iowa.” She studied piano, loved movies, and at the age of 15, earned a summer radio scholarship to Northwestern University in Illinois. She would attend the university to study drama, becoming close friends with fellow actors Charlotte Rae and Paul Lynde in the process.

Leachman was crowned Miss Chicago in 1946, her senior year, and went on to compete in the annual Miss America pageant. She was ranked in the top 16. Then she moved to New York. Early successes included understudying Mary Martin as Nellie Forbush during the original run of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific. In 1949, she chose to leave the Broadway-bound production of William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba, in which she costarred as a boarder who destabilizes a middle-aged couple’s household, to costar opposite Katharine Hepburn in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. “I don’t think I could be successful as a sex symbol,” she wrote in her memoir. “I was first and foremost an actress.”

Leachman studied with the Actors Studio alongside Martin Balsam, Burgess Meredith, Julie Harris, and Anne Jackson. “I learned a lot,” she noted, “but I also made enemies . . . because I refused to take the ‘Method’ seriously.” She also fended off an ardent Marlon Brando. “I didn’t want to be one of the multitude,” she recalled. Instead, she introduced Brando to Englund and the two became lifelong friends.

Prolific would be one word to describe Leachman. IMDb lists 275 television and movie acting credits for her, beginning with the 1947 feature film Carnegie Hall. Among her most memorable are Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in which she appears as Agnes, a prostitute briefly engaged with Paul Newman’s Butch, the Emmy-nominated made-for-TV movie The Migrants, in which she played the matriarch opposite Sissy Spacek and Ron Howard, and Jonathan Demme’s drive-in cult classic Crazy Mama.



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