December 13, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Cloris Leachman bowed as the deliciously self-absorbed Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show right around the time she played the frumpy, adulterous wife of a high school basketball coach in 1971’s The Last Picture Show (for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar). Her work always tickled MTM cocreator James L. Brooks (As Good as It Gets), and when a medical emergency sidelined Anne Bancroft a month into making Spanglish, the director tapped Leachman. Now she’s getting Oscar-buzz again as Evelyn, the alcoholic grandma of a dysfunctional California family. We caught the actress in the middle of some home improvements.

Is this a good time to talk? Oh, hold on. [To a workman] Do you need me to help you hold it? [To EW] Can you wait a second? He’s hanging a 300-pound fountain on the wall.

We can call back. Why don’t you do that? That’d be great.

[Five minutes later…]So you’ve known James L. Brooks for years. He’s got a reputation as a neurotic guy. He’s Jewish, don’t forget. He carries that on his back. It’s a mighty load.

Was Jim unsure about casting you in Spanglish, since you hadn’t initially auditioned for the role? He said, ”I think you’re too old. I want somebody 50 years old, that’s what I wrote it for.” The next thing you know, I’m playing it.

Was it weird replacing Anne Bancroft? We’d been out for the same [roles], only she’s gotten them. I always felt, There’s another streetcar coming along.

How did you prep with virtually no advance notice? There was nothing to prepare. I mean, you read this script, it could go any way. A woman who drinks — and yet Jim didn’t want me to be drunk. It’s not something to be laid out. It’s not about the lines, it’s about what’s going on among the people…. I mostly just let it come into my pores.

128 minutes
James L. Brooks
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