Cloris Leachman, Ageless Actress Who Collected Emmys, Dies at 94
(Bloomberg) -- Cloris Leachman, the seemingly ageless actress who won Emmy awards and her own spin-off for her TV portrayal of an opinionated neighbor on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” has died. She was 94.
Her death was reported by the Associated Press, which cited her publicist.
With more than 250 television and film credits, Leachman won an Oscar -- for best supporting actress in 1971’s “The Last Picture Show” -- along with Emmy awards and a Golden Globe award.
Her TV career spanned the live network dramas of the 1940s through “Dancing With the Stars” in 2008 and beyond. Like Betty White, another “Mary Tyler Moore Show” alumna, Leachman maintained an age-defying schedule.
On “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” anchor of CBS’s Saturday night lineup from 1970 to 1977, Leachman’s Phyllis Lindstrom was a dermatologist’s wife and manager of the apartment building that was home to Moore’s Mary Richards and her upstairs neighbor, Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper). Leachman left in 1975 to star in a spinoff, “Phyllis,” about her character’s new life following the death of her husband.
She won Emmys for her work on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and a Golden Globe for “Phyllis.”
“She’s one of those geniuses who’s capable of thinking on the spot and making it funny and making it truthful,” Moore said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” in 2009. “Everybody used to laugh at Cloris, you know, but I would go to no other person than she to ask for advice.”
Moore died in 2017.
Harper, in her 2013 memoir, called Leachman “unorthodox and outspoken, unable to stop herself from sharing, unsolicited, her tastes and opinions.”
Leachman was born on April 30, 1926, in Des Moines, Iowa, the first of three girls of Berkeley Leachman, a lumber-company owner known as Buck, and the former Cloris Wallace.
From piano lessons at age 7, Leachman grew into an entertainer, performing at a community theater in Des Moines and learning live radio acting during a summer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She worked as a model and a radio news reader before returning as an undergraduate to Northwestern, where her fellow drama students included Charlotte Rae and Paul Lynde.
She was named Miss Chicago in 1946, which earned her a slot in the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. After being voted third runner-up, she took the train to New York City for a three-day visit, enough time to land a role as an extra in “Carnegie Hall” (1947).
She returned to New York after graduating in 1948 from Northwestern with a bachelor’s degree in speech. She delved into drama at the Actors Studio, studying alongside Julie Harris and Marlon Brando. She filled in for Mary Martin as the lead in “South Pacific” on Broadway for four weeks and appeared with Katharine Hepburn in “As You Like It.”
She made her film debut in “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955) while continuing her TV work, which included two dozen episodes of “Lassie,” playing the adoptive mother, Ruth Martin, a role taken over the next season by June Lockhart.
Her Academy Award-winning performance came under the direction of Peter Bogdanovich in “The Last Picture Show,” as a Texas high school football coach’s unfulfilled wife who has an affair with one of the team’s players.
She said she endured something of an Oscar curse, struggling to land a meaty role after her win.
“I do so much comedy that I wonder what happened to all the other serious roles,” she said in 2011, according to the Associated Press.
Some of her best-known film roles were for director Mel Brooks, in “Young Frankenstein” (1974) as Frau Blucher, the creepy Transylvanian housekeeper; “High Anxiety” (1977), as the sadistic Nurse Diesel, and “History of the World: Part I” (1981), as Madame Defarge, lead conspirator to overthrow King Louis XVI.
In her memoir, Leachman said she had played the mother of more than 50 actors, including Cybill Shepherd in “Daisy Miller” (1974), Ron Howard and Sissy Spacek in the TV movie “The Migrants” (1974), Meryl Streep in “Music of the Heart” (1999), Diane Keaton and Meg Ryan in “Hanging Up” (2000), and Donald Sutherland in “Beerfest” (2006).
She married George Englund, a producer and director, in 1953. They had five children -- sons Adam, Bryan, George Jr. and Morgan, and daughter Dinah -- before divorcing in 1979. Bryan Englund, who struggled with drug addiction, died in 1986, at 30.
Her last two Emmys, in 2002 and 2006, came for her recurring guest role as Grandma Ida on “Malcolm in the Middle.” Her last Emmy nomination was in 2011 for a guest role as sometimes-delusional grandmother Maw Maw on “Raising Hope.”
She appealed to a new generation of TV viewers by lasting six feisty weeks on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” in 2008. After one of her dances, judge Carrie Ann Inaba told her: “I hope that when I’m 82, I’m half the woman that you are.”
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