Cloris Leachman, TV icon and comedy star, dies at 94
Cloris Leachman, the Emmy- and Oscar-winning actress whose career spanned a stunning eight decades and garnered accolades for her memorable roles in television shows such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, movies like The Last Picture Show, and stage productions such as South Pacific, died Wednesday of natural causes in Encinitas, Calif. She was 94.
Leachman's manager, Juliet Green, confirmed the news to EW.
"It's been my privilege to work with Cloris Leachman, one of the most fearless actresses of our time," Green said in a statement. "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. You never knew what Cloris was going to say or do and that unpredictable quality was part of her unparalleled magic. She loved her children and her grandchildren ferociously. A lifelong vegetarian, she was a passionate advocate for animal rights. The family requests that any donations in her name be made to PETA or Last Chance for Animals."
Leachman, one of the most decorated performers in Primetime Emmys history, with eight wins, was born April 30, 1926, in Des Moines, Iowa. She began her long career on the stage, starring in productions at the Des Moines Playhouse and on local radio stations as a teenager. After studying drama at Chicago's Northwestern University, Leachman moved to New York City to join director Elia Kazans Actors Studio, where she was a recurring player on ABC's short-lived drama series of the same name. She appeared in a number of TV dramas during the late '40s and '50s — including several of the always-tricky, and now dead, live variety — but also carved out a niche on Broadway, starring as Nellie Forbush in the original production of Roger and Hammerstein's South Pacific and sharing the stage with Katherine Hepburn in Shakespeare's As You Like It.
But television increasingly proved to be an extremely strong medium for Leachman to let her comedic and dramatic talents shine as well: She played Timmy's wholesome Midwestern mother on Lassie in the late '50s and had recurring roles on series including Dr. Kildare (1965) and 77 Sunset Strip (1961-63). Success in films followed, as Leachman made a memorable splash as a jittery lady of the evening in the Best Picture nominee Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
Leachman's two most famous, award-winning roles — as Phyllis Lindstrom in Mary Tyler Moore and as Ruth Popper in The Last Picture Show — came at nearly the same time, when she was well into her 40s, an age that many would consider past an actor's prime. It was in 1970, at the age of 44, that Leachman joined Mary Tyler Moore in the recurring role of self-important, nosy neighbor Phyllis Lindstrom, a character that made her a household name and netted her four Emmy nominations and two wins. (Eventually, Leachman's character was spun off into her own series, Phyllis, which ran for two seasons and earned her another Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe win.) Leachman's portrayal of Ruth Popper — a lonely, neglected housewife who begins an affair with a senior in high school — in director Peter Bogdanovich's stark 1971 drama The Last Picture Show earned her an Oscar. Leachman was also a favorite of director Mel Brooks, showing up as Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein (1974), Charlotte Diesel in High Anxiety (1977), and Madame Defarge in History of the World: Part 1 (1981).
Leachman never stopped working in all her years in the business, but some of her more well-known roles in the '80s and '90s included a two-season stint in the "mentor" role on The Facts of Life (1986-88) and as Granny Clampett in the feature version of The Beverly Hillbillies (1993). The list of her roles reads virtually as an encyclopedia of Hollywood projects, as she starred in everything from Spanglish (2004) and The Ellen Show (2001-02) to Scary Movie 4 (2006) and, very memorably, Malcolm in the Middle (2001-06), a role that earned her six more Emmy nominations and one win. Leachman enjoyed a career surge late in life, appearing as the oldest contestant ever on ABC's Dancing With the Stars and starring for four seasons as Maw Maw Chance on Fox's Raising Hope. Her final screen credits included the Mad About You revival and voice roles in the Disney Channel series Elena of Avalor and the animated movie The Croods: A New Age.