Obituary: Cloris Leachman, Oscar-winning American actress

Cloris Leachman, actress. Born: April 30 1926 in Des Moines, Iowa, United States. Died: January 27 2021 in Encinitas, California, US, aged 94.
Cloris Leachman at a Hollywood event in 2007Cloris Leachman at a Hollywood event in 2007
Cloris Leachman at a Hollywood event in 2007

With eight Primetime Emmy awards and 22 nominations, as well as an Oscar, Cloris Leachman was used to breaking records. At 82 she set another record as the oldest person to appear on the American version of Strictly Come Dancing.

Leachman also posed nude in her seventies for a magazine cover. With her body painted with images of fruit, she was seemingly poking fun at Demi Moore’s Vanity Fair cover, in which Moore’s clothes were painted on.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In Seventies US sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Leachman played Moore’s bossy landlady, friend and sparring partner who proved so popular that she got her own spin-off series.

In Mel Brooks comedy Young Frankenstein she was Frau Blücher, a character so intimidating that horses whinnied at the very mention of her name.

And she was a revelation as the school football coach’s dowdy, downtrodden wife in The Last Picture Show, a character as far removed from Phyllis and Frau Blücher as it was possible to get. The coach’s dishevelled wife was quite a contrast, also, to Cybill Shepherd’s sexy young temptress, though Leachman herself had been a Miss America finalist in 1946.

Leachman won an Oscar and a Bafta for The Last Picture Show, to go with her eight Primetime Emmys, a record that she shares with Seinfeld and Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Her 22 nominations included five for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Phyllis in the 1970s and six in the 2000s for Malcolm in the Middle, in which she was the tyrannical grandmother.

The youngest of three sisters, Leachman was born in Des Moines and grew up a few miles out of town, where her father had a timber business. It was the Depression years and money was tight, but her mother sent her to singing and dancing lessons.

She acted with a local theatre group and studied Drama at Northwestern University in Illinois, where she entered the Miss Chicago beauty contest. She later recalled that the judges could not decide between three of the entrants and took the radical step of actually asking them to speak. Leachman said the first girl was tongue-tied and the second had a lisp. Having managed to construct a sentence or two, Leachman won a $1,000 scholarship, which financed a move to New York, where she studied at the Actors Studio with Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg.

She recalled in a lengthy Screen Actors Guild interview that she eventually left because she could not stand the cigarette smoke, the smell of Rod Steiger and the affected way in which Kim Hunter continually ran her fingers through her hair.

A natural and witty raconteur, Leachman could blether delightfully for ages without answering the question that had been posed. More than half an hour into that interview she pauses for breath and says “Question Two?”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Leachman played Celia in As You Like It on Broadway in 1950, with Katharine Hepburn as Rosalind, and two years later she took over the role of Nellie Forbush in the original Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.

She also appeared regularly in plays on television from the late 1940s onwards, but did not really make a mark in films until Kiss Me Deadly in 1955, which opens with her running barefoot down a road, desperately trying to flag down passing cars. Her character is a patient who has escaped from a psychiatric hospital and the car happens to be driven by private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker). Leachman’s role lasts only ten minutes and that includes the opening credits, before three thugs catch up with them, kill her and leave Hammer for dead too.

In the late 1950s Leachman played Lassie’s owner’s foster mum in the TV series Lassie and she had one-off roles in such hits as The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, The Virginian and Perry Mason and a small role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid before being cast as the domineering Phyllis Lindstrom in The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970.

It was a huge hit and spawned no fewer than three spin-off series – Rhoda, Lou Grant and Phyllis, in which Leachman’s character moves from Minneapolis to San Francisco after the death of her husband. Phyllis, the spoiled, snobbish wife of a dermatologist, is shocked to discover he has left her almost penniless and she has to get a job.

By the time the first series of Phyllis began in 1975 she had won an Oscar as Ruth Pepper, the coach’s neglected wife in the elegiac drama The Last Picture Show. Ruth has an affair with a student, played by Timothy Bottoms. He casts her aside, only to return after his young friend Billy is knocked down and killed. At first angry, she soon relents and takes him back.

After winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, Leachman said: “I’m at a point where I’m free to go out and have a little fun with my career.”

And she did, making three anarchic comedies with Mel Brooks – Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety – a parody of Hitchcock, in which she played Nurse Diesel, who made Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest seem warm and cuddly – and History of the World: Part I, in which she was Madame Defarge.

Leachman continued acting into her nineties and appeared in more than 400 films and television shows. In recent years she had recurring roles in Raising Hope, American Gods and Mad About You.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

She married film director George Englund in 1953. He left her for Joan Collins and they divorced in 1979, though they remained close friends until his death in 2017.

She is survived by four children, three of whom are actors. Another son died of an overdose in 1986.

Related topics: