To hear her tell it, Cloris Leachman turned up to audition for The Mary Tyler Moore Show knowing she had an obstacle to overcome. Co-creator James L. Brooks, she’d been told, had serious doubts that the actress who had been so raw and moving in The Last Picture Show, for which she had just won the Oscar, could be right for the comedic role of kooky, egotistical Phyllis Lindstrom. So rather than take a seat when she arrived, she planted herself on Brooks’ lap, which started everyone laughing, and stayed on it the entire time, being raucous and nutty and shooting Brooks smoldering looks in between answering questions. “We never even got around to me reading for the part,” she remembers. Her audience was won.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show, of course, became an iconic part of television history, and as Phyllis, Leachman received her first Emmy nomination (she went on to win twice for the role, and was nominated for the sitcom spin-off Phyllis). In total, she has won eight Primetime Emmy Awards and one daytime Emmy — more than any other female performer.
Brooks, who was something of a neophyte in that first encounter in the early 1970s, recalled on a recent December morning that, “Initially, I found it surprising that she would do the role after doing a movie like The Last Picture Show and winning the Academy Award for it.” But he quickly discovered that Leachman had roots in television deeper than anyone he’d previously met — a history he remains in awe of.
“Cloris has a larger-than-life personality that can mask the fact that she’s one of the greatest actors we’ve ever had,” say Brooks. “She was in the initial group of the Actors Studio in New York, and Marlon Brando used to say that it was crazy that he got all the attention from that training, when in fact it was Cloris that the rest of them were all crazy about.”
Indeed, Leachman has been a part of the history of television practically since the medium was invented. Her remarkable range — she excels at both the plainest, most naturalistic dramatic work and the broadest, most outrageous farce (think three Mel Brooks movies, including Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety) — she attributes to those early days in New York City’s live television scene, when the demands on an actor changed mightily from week to week.
“There’s no difference between high art and low art for me,” the actress declares in a recent interview at a Brentwood coffee shop. “Whatever it is, you just invest yourself completely.” She pumps her fist into the air for emphasis, her eyes welling up with emotion. “Invest, invest, invest!” she repeats.
As early as 1947, in weekly anthologies like The Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Television Theatre and the Actors Studio television series, Leachman was developing her craft. “It was wonderful work, very creative and unusual, and you had to time it all so that it worked within the live program,” she recalls. “It was like a pas de deux with the guy pushing the camera — wherever I moved, he’d be right with me. There was a countdown, and you went into it. You couldn’t fail — you had to do your best. I can’t imagine a better way to learn.”
In 1951, on a live series called Suspense, she was given a part that she considered awfully close to one she’d played just the week before. “I couldn’t do that again, so I had to find another way of doing it, and for me, that was the beginning of the character work,” she explains.
She has amassed more than 140 television credits and counting since then, including substantial runs on series ranging from Lassie in the 1950s to Malcolm in the Middle last decade to her current turn as the senile Maw Maw on the Fox comedy Raising Hope.
Along the way she’s parented five children with her longtime husband (now ex) George Englund, traveled to six continents and lived to the hilt a life that she exuberantly describes as having “some real bang and smash in it” in her recent autobiography Cloris, co-written with Englund.
And unlike many a tale of an artist’s struggle to make a name in an indifferent world, it all came pretty easily. “I never sent out pictures and went on rounds; I never had to live in a cold-water flat,” she remarks. “Everything I did, something else came out of it. Someone would see me, and I’d be contacted for the next part.”
Born in 1926 into a rural household on the outskirts of Des Moines, Iowa, Leachman took a keen interest in the arts from a young age. In her senior year of high school, she won the Edgar Bergen scholarship to the drama school at Northwestern University. Setting her sights on the stage, she resisted advice to change her name, inherited from her mother Cloris — or her long, aquiline nose. With her trim figure and sparkling looks, she did some modeling, and was selected as Miss Chicago in a local pageant. She then parlayed her $1,000 winnings into voice and piano lessons in New York, and landed her first Broadway role as the lead in a revival of South Pacific.
To this day, Leachman attributes her performing instincts to her affinity for the piano. “Everything started with music,” she says. “The timing, the phrasing, the exclamation points. Making something sound beautiful, or scary, or ugly.”
She even finds an allusion to the piano in describing her approach to the character of Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “The description they gave me of the character was that she was neurotic,” says Leachman. “Well, that didn’t sound very funny to me. So eventually I decided that she would be perfect: the perfect chef, the perfect chauffer, the perfect lover. And what,” she laughs, “is more boring than that?”
“Phyllis was a character who didn’t have a mean bone in her body but was doing and saying the wrong thing all the time,” fills in Brooks, describing the charmingly clueless landlady with the bellbottom pantsuits and big collars.
“My mother-in-law had an expression about bad piano playing — ‘a sure, firm touch on the wrong note,’” says Leachman, laughing. “Well — that was Phyllis.”
Her talents as a comedienne tended to obscure the fact that Leachman was a looker. But she learned to turn her slightly unconventional features to her advantage. In casting the role of Ruth Popper, the lonely coach’s wife in The Last Picture Show, director Peter Bogdanovich says, “I needed someone who could be plain and a little broken, and then become more radiant when she falls in love. She had both the plain and the beautiful in her, and that’s unusual. And she gave a very good reading.”
In the movie’s raw and resonant final scene, Leachman receives a visit from the teenage lover who’s neglected her, and her emotions explode while she’s pouring him coffee in the kitchen. “Why am I apologizing — you’re the one made me quit caring if I got dressed or not!” she declares as she flings the old perk coffee pot at the wall.
Despite Leachman’s protests, Bogdanovich used the first and only take of that scene, and told her on the spot that she’d win an Oscar for it.
“It had this terrible tension, and I said to her, ‘We got it. It’s not possible to do it any better,’” he remembers.
To this day, Leachman disagrees. “I could have done the first part better. I still lay awake nights performing that scene in my head.”
Bogdanovich recalls an anecdote from another movie he did with Leachman, one that reveals a side of her personality that may have helped extend her career decades beyond the norm. “We were shooting Daisy Miller on the terrace of this famous European hotel. Cloris wasn’t in the scene, but she came out on the balcony and whistled to the crew and flashed open her bathrobe, and she wasn’t wearing anything beneath it. She’s always been a free spirit, always very much herself,” he says with a laugh.
Indeed, tales of Leachman’s audacious escapades are ubiquitous among her colleagues and loved ones, and make her a natural for antic roles such as the loose-cannon great-grandma she currently plays on Raising Hope.
“It's her outrageousness!” says Betty White, who co-starred as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “I think she’s missing a few little things upstairs. She doesn’t care what she does, or what she says — she’s going to do it or say it.”
Perhaps no one can attest to that better than Corky Ballas, Leachman’s partner during her seven-week run two years ago on Dancing with whe Stars. “Her wackiness was nonstop — I just had to roll with it,” he remembers. Their routines contained unplanned flourishes that made for great television — such as during their 1950s-era “jive” dance, when Ballas whipped off Leachman’s wig and tossed it into the crowd. Not surprisingly, there’s a story behind that.
“With the rehearsals, we were eight weeks into working together, so we were comfortable with each other,” he recalls. “Right before we went on stage to do the jive, she slapped me in the face. And the way she timed it, she knew there was nothing I could do about it; the next second we were live on the air. So we’re dancing, and I’m whispering to her, ‘You are gonna get it so bad!’ And she’s saying, ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘Wait and see!’ That’s when I tore the wig off her head. And,” he remembers with glee, “She never touched me again after that!”
But Ballas, a world-champion ballroom dancer, also lauds Leachman’s professionalism during the arduous ordeal. “Most of the celebrities I’ve worked with can’t hide that they’re petrified, but when push came to shove, Cloris would turn on a smile like a light bulb. That’s a lot to bring to the table.”
Her run on DWTS brought her “a tsunami of publicity and recognition,” Leachman says. “I can’t go anywhere without people greeting me, saying how funny I’d been, or what they’d learned about life from watching me on the show,” she writes in her book.
The spirit it required for her to take on such a daunting physical challenge at age eighty-two apparently impressed the public. Since then, Leachman has worked nonstop — but then, with few exceptions, she always has. “When I was a girl, my grandmother would say, ‘Cloris, you get out there and bring home the bacon,’” she recalls.
“She’s had one of the great acting careers,” says Brooks, who also directed her in his movie Spanglish. “And she’s still going strong, and able to kill it in anything she does.”
Notorious for being late to appointments — a trait she chalks up to her view of herself as an artist, exempt from following rules — Leachman declares that if there is some kind of deadline for when she’s expected to bow out of the business, she plans to be late for that, too.
Additional reporting by Libby Slate