She played Phyllis on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ and her own series and was memorable in ‘The Last Picture Show’ and ‘Young Frankenstein.’
Cloris Leachman, the Miss America contestant who won an Oscar for her work in The Last Picture Show, then collected two of her record nine Emmys for playing the quirky Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, has died. She was 94.
Leachman, the bawdy Iowa native also known for her hilarious turns in the Mel Brooks-Gene Wilder classic Young Frankenstein (1974) and on the TV shows Malcolm in the Middle and Raising Hope, died of natural causes Wednesday in Encinitas, California, according to her manager, Juliet Green.
Leachman is perhaps best known for playing Mary Richards’ delusional, self-centered landlady Phyllis on the legendary CBS sitcom and then on her own spinoff show in which her character, now a widowed single mother, moved from Minneapolis to San Francisco. The actress received Emmy nominations each year from 1972 through 1976, winning in ’74 and ’75.
Phyllis has been described as “neurotic,” but Leachman “didn’t find any fun in that word,” she once said. “I decided to be perfect. And there’s nothing more boring than somebody that’s perfect. She was insufferable.”
For playing Grandma Ida on Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle, Leachman picked up five straight outstanding guest actress comedy noms from 2002 through ’06, winning in the last year. That gave her her ninth Emmy trophy, the most ever awarded to any actor (her haul also includes one Daytime Emmy win).
Leachman got more laughs — and yet another Emmy nom, the 22nd of her career — for guest-starring as the not-always-lucid grandmother Maw Maw on Fox’s sitcom Raising Hope.
“I love it very much and it’s very far out,” Leachman told the Huffington Post in 2012. “I’m either sitting on the toilet saying, ‘It takes as long as it takes’ when people try to get me out of the bathroom. Or I have no bra on at all and I’m going out the front door and down the street.”
Leachman also portrayed Ruth Martin, Timmy’s mom, on Lassie; a mother terrified by her son (Billy Mumy) on the classic 1961 Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life;” and Ellen DeGeneres’ eccentric mom Dot on The Ellen Show. She also effective replaced Charlotte Rae (her former classmate at Northwestern) on The Facts of Life.
Leachman was just great as the scary old Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein; every time someone says her last name in the film, the horses whinny loudly offscreen. “I asked Mel about that a few years ago,” she noted, “and he said, ‘Blucher means glue.’ “
It turned out he was mistaken, but the gag sure is funny. She also appeared for Brooks as the evil Nurse Diesel in High Anxiety (1977) and as tavern owner Madame Defarge in History of the World: Part I (1987).
At age 82, the amazingly durable Leachman competed on Dancing With the Stars, and just before she turned 90, she accepted the role of Zorya Vechernyaya, the eldest of three sisters who watch over the constellations, on the Starz fantasy drama American Gods. She appeared on television in every decade from the 1940s to the 2010s.
In the Peter Bogdanovich drama The Last Picture Show (1971), Leachman won her best supporting actress Oscar for portraying the lovelorn Ruth Popper, the neglected wife of a high school coach in a dusty Texas town. She memorably has an affair with a student (Timothy Bottoms); one scene of theirs was considered risque at the time because it featured full-frontal nudity.
“When we started to do the bed scene, the first thing came from Timothy, and he said, ‘I ain’t taking off my clothes for this scene.’ So honoring that, we designed the scene around not taking our clothes off, and we planned to get down to our underwear and then get into bed,” she recalled in a commentary for a Criterion DVD edition.
“And they planted some underwear in the bed, so that when we get into bed, we pretend as if we’re taking off our underwear but actually throw out the planted underwear. And we do the scene and we take off our clothes, and we go to either side of the bed and get under the covers, and I immediately took off my bra and pants and threw it out, and he just threw out his planted underwear.”
During production, she asked to shoot a scene again, but Bogdanovich said there was no need to. “You just won the Oscar,” he said.
Leachman was born on April 30, 1926, in Des Moines, Iowa, the oldest of three sisters. Her father owned a lumber company. “We lived in the country,” she said. “We didn’t have any money back then during the Great Depression. Mama was still very imaginative without any money. She’d buy cheap material and we had curtains and clothes and dresses and tablecloths all of the same cloth and pattern.”
While attending Northwestern, where she studied drama (and was good friends with Rae and another future actor, Paul Lynde), she competed as Miss Chicago in the 1946 Miss America pageant and finished among the 16 finalists. She used her winnings to move to New York to attend the Actors Studio and study with Elia Kazan.
Early in her career, Leachman starred in several Broadway productions, including Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific and, opposite Katharine Hepburn, in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
She also thrived on live television, making her debut on The Ford Theatre Hour in 1948 and later performing on many of the top shows of the ’50s, including The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, The Billy Rose Show, Zane Grey Theater and Armstrong Circle Theatre.
In the 1960s, Leachman performed on such TV Westerns as Gunsmoke, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Rawhide, Laramie and Wagon Train and guest-starred in the G-man series The Untouchables.
Leachman also turned up in such films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) — playing a prostitute — and Lovers and Other Strangers (1970). Later, she played Granny in the movie version of The Beverly Hillbillies (1993) and starred as a wild-eyed criminal in Jonathan Demme’s Crazy Mama (1975).
Leachman’s other film credits include Kiss Me Deadly (1955), The North Avenue Irregulars (1979), Herbie Goes Bananas (1980), Prancer (1989), Love Hurts (1990), My Boyfriend’s Back (1993), Music of the Heart (1999), Hanging Up (2000), Manna From Heaven (2002), Alex & Emma (2003) and Beerfest (2006).
She also brought her distinctive talents to voice work in such animated films as Beavis and Butt-head Do America (1996), The Iron Giant (1999), Ponyo (2008) and The Croods (2013).
In 1997, Leachman appeared on the cover of Alternative Medicine Digest in body paint, a parody of Demi Moore’s notorious Vanity Fair cover.
“I was lying in bed and started thinking, ‘What would I do? If they had to use me, I think I should be stark naked and hanging from a tree. It would be good [with] old, old roots coming up and [an] old trunk coming up to younger and younger and then the arms of the tree with beautiful fruit hanging.’ I thought that would be pretty.”
She added, “Or just [have] fruits and vegetables painted all over me naked.”
In 2009, Leachman donned vegetables once again for a PETA campaign, posing in a dress of red cabbage and leaf lettuce with the phrase, “Let Vegetarianism Grow on You.” A vegetarian since age 35, the actress said: “I couldn’t eat meat now if you gave me $1 million. I couldn’t put it in my mouth.”
She also was a self-proclaimed atheist. “For many, many years, I thought that God would get even with me or punish me because I didn’t believe in him, or her, or them,” she explained. “And nothing ever happened except for good things. So I don’t believe at all in God, and I’m very relieved that I don’t.
“Extraordinary miracles, billions and trillions of them, happen all the time, but not because there’s a God.”
In 1953, she married George Englund, director of the 1963 Marlon Brando film The Ugly American, and they divorced in 1979. The couple had five children; one of them, Bryan, died of a drug overdose in 1986.
Donations in her name can be made to PETA or Last Chance for Animals.
Mike Barnes and Duane Byrge contributed to this report.