Nation & World

Cloris Leachman, Iowa native Oscar winner and TV star, dies at 94

'Mary Tyler Moore Show' actress was born in Des Moines

Actress Cloris Leachman gestures to honoree Mel Brooks in the audience during the American Film Institute's 41st Lifetim
Actress Cloris Leachman gestures to honoree Mel Brooks in the audience during the American Film Institute’s 41st Lifetime Achievement Award Gala on June 6, 2013, in Los Angeles. Leachman, a character actor whose depth of talent brought her an Oscar for the “The Last Picture Show” and Emmys for her comedic work in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and other TV series, has died. She was 94. (Invision/AP)
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Cloris Leachman, who won an Oscar for her role in the bleak coming-of-age movie “The Last Picture Show” and Emmy awards during a prolific television career that stretched back to the “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” has died at her home in Encinitas, Calif.

The ubiquitous actress always seemed to be working: She anchored her own “MTM” spinoff series “Phyllis” and starred in the hit TV shows “The Facts of Life,” “Rhoda,” “Touched by an Angel,” “The Ellen Show,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Raising Hope.” She had a recurring role on “American Gods” in 2016 and an acclaimed career in film, highlighted by her Oscar-winning performance in 1971’s “The Last Picture Show” and the classic tour-de-farce “Young Frankenstein.”

Leachman, who worked well into her 80s and became the oldest contestant on “Dancing With the Stars” in 2008, died Tuesday evening of natural causes, her publicist said. She was 94.

“It’s been my privilege to work with Cloris Leachman, one of the most fearless actresses of our time. There was no one like Cloris. With a single look she had the ability to break your heart or make you laugh till the tears ran down your face,” said Juliet Green, Leachman’s manager. “You never knew what Cloris was going to say or do, and that unpredictable quality was part of her unparalleled magic.”

Leachman’s versatility was often praised and accentuated by a youthfulness that belied her age, which aided her later projects and brought a freshness to her roles as matriarchs and grandmothers.

“There’s more to me than nutty; there’s more to me than energy,” she told The Times 1986, still seeking the right adjective to describe herself.

Given her sweeping resume and penchant for outsized and offbeat characters, Leachman said she had only one credo: “Since my childhood I have disliked rules and for the most part have avoided them.”

Born in Des Moines in 1926

Leachman was born in Des Moines on April 30, 1926, the eldest of three girls. Her father ran a lumber mill, Leachman Lumber Co., and the family home was on the outskirts in town. She told The Times that her closest neighbor was the Lone Tree Filling Station.

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Leachman said she slept with her sisters in the attic of their house, up a flight of creaky stairs, because of the national anxiety following the kidnapping of the 20-month-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh Jr. Every noise in the house, she said, prompted fear. “My mother said, ‘Who’d want you?’” a remark she found oddly comforting.

Her mother encouraged her in the arts, but more for pleasure than for gain. Her family couldn’t afford a piano but she taught herself the instrument anyway by practicing on a cardboard drawing of piano keys. She had a radio talk show and acted at the community playhouse, which earned her a scholarship to study drama at Northwestern University and become a classical pianist. But academics overwhelmed her and she left school abruptly to work the pageant circuit — a move, she later said, that “seemed rather stupid.”

“My mother told me to walk straight and sparkle plenty,” Leachman told the Hollywood Reporter in 2016.

Competed in Miss America pageant

Leachman earned the Miss Chicago title and competed in Miss America in 1946. She played part of the Grieg piano concerto as her talent offering and placed in the top five, earning a $1,000 scholarship. She used the money to fund her move to New York and study voice and drama at the Actors Studio.

The actress notched several Broadway credits in the 1940s and ’50s, sang for Rodgers and Hammerstein and gained success in theater starring opposite Katharine Hepburn in “As You Like It.”

While in New York, Leachman booked jobs on theatrical and television productions, landing her first major role in the 1955s noir thriller “Kiss Me Deadly.” By then she had married producer George Englund, and together they would have four sons and a daughter before he ran off with actress Joan Collins. The couple divorced in 1979.

In the late 1950s, she played the doting wife and mother Ruth Martin on “Lassie” before being replaced by June Lockhart.

She appeared on the “The Frank Sinatra Show,” “Gunsmoke,” “The Twilight Zone” and she starred in the anthology series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “General Electric Theater.”

In 1971 she landed a role in the “The Last Picture Show”, a moody black-and-white film set in the 1950s in a small Texas town. Leachman was cast as the depressed wife of a high school coach who has an affair with one of his students. The role won Leachman an Oscar for best supporting actress and changed the trajectory of her career.

‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’

Leachman acquired her largest audience in the 1970s while playing Mary Richards’ landlady Phyllis Lindstrom in the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” She played Mary’s nosy neighbor for five years, before landing her own eponymous spinoff, “Phyllis.”

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“The Mary Tyler Moore” show earned Leachman her first Emmy nomination in 1972 and an Emmy win two years later. She went on to win one Daytime and eight Primetime Emmys during her career, and was nominated more than 20 times.

In 1974, Leachman played the iconic Frau Blucher — the sinister housekeeper of the Frankenstein estate whose very name spooked the horses — in Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s horror parody “Young Frankenstein.”

Her scene-stealing presence showcased yet “another aspect of her evidently limitless gifts,” wrote the late Times film critic Charles Champlin.

In Brooks’ 1977 Hitchcock spoof “High Anxiety,” Leachman recalled arriving on set to play the psychiatric ward overseer Nurse Diesel with concern that she was simply expected to reprise Blucher’s ridiculous Eastern European accent and stern countenance. So she penciled in a light mustache, added extra shoulder padding, raised the costume’s torpedo-shaped breasts to just below her chin, and talked out of the side of her mouth — an effect that even gave the notoriously zany Brooks pause.

Mounting a comeback in her 80s

She teamed up with Brooks again on “History of the World: Part I” before making a prominent return to television in 1986 when she replaced Charlotte Rae in NBC’s long-running sitcom “The Facts of Life.” Returning to prime-time television, she said, was like “falling backwards into a warm bath.”

She appeared in “Going to the Chapel,” 1990’s “Love Hurts,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” movie and “Now and Then.”

The late 1990s brought on the grandmother roles in sitcoms such as “Thanks,” “The Ellen Show” and “Touched by an Angel.” She won another Emmy Award in 2002 for playing the irascible granny Ida on Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle” and made history in 2006 when she won again as guest actress, becoming the winningest female performer in Emmy history.

“I’m 80. If your heart doesn’t stop beating and you stay up with it, look what happens,” she said backstage at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards.

Seemingly ageless and wonderfully unfiltered, Leachman reintroduced herself to America in 2008 when she competed on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” At 82, she was the competition’s oldest contestant and outlasted singers Toni Braxton, celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito and reality star Kim Kardashian before being voted off.

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It was all part of her “master plan” for her octogenarian resurgence that was hatched in late 2007 when her son George Englund Jr. became her manager. The varied rollout included a one-woman show that Leachman performed in theaters across the country and on cruise ships, a lettuce-clad PETA campaign and her dishy autobiography, “Cloris,” ghost-written by her former husband.

The memoir told of her “epic” fling with Gene Hackman and recounted haute Hollywood when she and Englund Sr. hobnobbed and occasionally worked with such legendary figures as Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.

She also appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-nominated picture “Inglourious Basterds” and played the dementia-addled matriarch Maw Maw in Fox’s “Raising Hope.”

When she turned 90 in 2016, she tweeted: “Thank u all 4 the kind & sweet birthday wishes. Remember, no matter what I’ll always be younger than @BettyMWhite.”

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