Although known more for her prolific television career, Cloris Leachman was also an accomplished film actress winning an Academy Award and British Academy Film Award while also winning a Golden Globe and several Emmys for her TV work. A well-known and beloved comedienne and Hollywood star, Leachmen left a unique mark on film as a staple of the industry for eleven decades including the current one. Leachman passed away at the age of 94 on Jan. 27, 2021 from natural causes and today I’m taking a look back as the life and career of a woman who turned a childhood love of acting into an iconic and highly decorated career in the arts.
Cloris Leachman was born in 1926 in Des Moines, Iowa as the eldest of three daughters. While her middle sister also made an attempt at show business, it was Leachman who was destined for greatness. Her love for acting sparked at a young age when she appeared in local plays at Drake University. She attended Northwestern University in the School of Education and was a classmate of several fellow future comics. She competed in the 1946 Miss America pageant which opened the doors for her acting career securing her a scholarship to study under Elia Kazan at the Actors Studio. She would appear in several plays although she dropped out of each one before they made it to Broadway. She soon put her focus on acting for the big and small screen.
A year later she appeared in an uncredited role in “Carnegie Hall” before making her official debut on the in the short-lived television program “Hold It Please” in 1949 then appeared in four episodes of “Charlie Wild, Private Detective” in the early 50s. Leachman continued to grow her small-screen resume with roles in “Bob and Ray”, “Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre”, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and two episodes of “Gunsmoke”. Her first big-screen credit came with “Kiss Me Deadly” in 1955 followed by “The Rack” a year later. The 60s proved to be a slow decade for her big-screen career featuring only two films, “The Chapman Report” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, but Leachman continued to be a prominent small-screen figure with one- or two-episode appearances in shows like “The Twilight Zone”, “The Untouchables” and others. She also appeared in her first television film in 1969, “Silent Night, Lonely Night”.
The 70s is where Leachman’s career really blew up. After appearing in three films in 1970 Leachman took on one of her most iconic roles in “The Last Picture Show” as Ruth Popper. Director Peter Bogdanovich predicted Leachman would win the Oscar for her performance and he was correct. The role earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as well as a BAFTA and a Golden Globe nomination immediately sparking increased interest in her casting. At the same time Leachman was performing in one of the most successful shows of the early 70s, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” which earned her the first of many Primetime Emmy nominations in 1972 and 1973. She would later win two Emmys for the show and four in total during the decade. She went on to appear in numerous other shows and movies throughout the decade including “The Muppet Movie” and “Phyllis”, a spinoff of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, which won her take home her only Golden Globe in 1975.
The 70s also saw one of Leachman’s most iconic partnership with comedic director Mel Brooks. Leachman first appeared in Brooks’ 1974 comedy “Young Frankenstein” and would later work with the director again in “High Anxiety”. Their professional partnership would last into the 80s with a third film, “History of the World: Part 1”, and a starring role in Brooks’ sitcom “The Nutt House”. The 80s saw Leachman in 10 other big screen movies including her first animated feature, “My Little Pony the Movie”. While it wasn’t dubbed until 1998, Leachman would also eventually played a voice-over role in the English version of “Castle in the Sky” which was first released in the late 80s. Her small screen appearances continued to stack up in the decade including a popular run in 48 episodes of “The Facts of Life” as Beverly Ann Stickle.
In the 90s Leachman appeared in 15 films including even more animated features. In addition to live action movies like “Love Hurts” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” Leachman leant her voice to “A Troll in Central Park”, “Beavis and Butt-Head Do America”, “Annabelle’s Wish”, “Gen13” and “The Iron Giant”. Her small screen appearances were few though with only minor stints in shows like “Walter & Emily”, “The Simpsons”, “The Nanny” and “Touched by an Angel”. She also joined the cast of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” for a 20th anniversary documentary in 1991. Leachman’s career rebounded in the 2000s with at least one film in every year except 2007 including movies like “Bad Santa”, “Spanglish”, “The Longest Yard”, “Sky High”, “Scary Movie 4”, “Beerfest”, and the English dub of “Ponyo”. She also initially had a role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Bastards” but her scenes were cut from the film. Her television slate was just as busy with small roles in numerous TV programs like “Two and a Half Men”, “Family Guy”, “The Twilight Zone” reboot, “The Ellen Show”, and “Joan of Arcadia”. However her most notable TV appearance of that decade was as Grandma Ida in “Malcolm in the Middle” which, over the years, earned her six Primetime Emmy nominations and two wins. Her appearances in “Joan of Arcadia” and TV movie “Mr. Harris” also earned her Emmy nods.
Leachman remained busy in the 2010s appearing in at least one movie per year except for 2014. Among these films were “Expecting Mary”, “The Croods”, “The Bronx Bull” and others. She would reprise her role from “The Croods” in the 2020 sequel “The Croods: A New Age”. Again, her TV slate was just as active over the decade starting with her final long-term television role in Maw Maw in “Raising Hope”. The role would earn her the 22nd Primetime Emmy nomination of her career in 2011 making her the most nominated and (with Julia Louis-Dreyfus) the most awarded actress in Emmy history. Additional television credits included “Blue Mountain State”, “Hot in Cleveland”, “The Millers”, “Girl Meets World”, “Hawaii Five-0” and several guest appearances as herself on shows like “Top Gear” and “RuPauls’ Drag Race”. Her final television appearances were on “Teachers” and “Mad About You” in 2019 while her final voiceover role for TV was in a 2020 episode of the children’s program “Elena of Avalor”. Her final on-screen appearance before her death was in “Jump, Darling” in 2020. She is slated to appear in two 2021 films, “High Holiday” and “Not to Forget”, as her final roles.
In her personal life Leachman was an atheist and married only once to George Englund, a regular contributor to Hollywood films. They married in 1953 and divorced in 1979. She has four sons and a daughter from that marriage only four of which outlived their mother. Several have attempted career in Hollywood. She was a good friend of Marlon Brando who she met while studying in the Actors Studio eventually detailing their friendship in the 2005 memoir “Marlon Brando: The Way It’s Never Been Done Before”. Leachman’s comedic abilities went beyond the screen. She appeared nude in body paint on the cover of Alternative Medicine Digest in 1997 as a parody of the 1991 Vanity Fair cover featuring Demi Moore. As a vegetarian, Leachman was a huge PETA supporter appearing in one of their 2009 advertisement wearing only a lettuce dress as well as starring in a comedic spay and neuter PSA for the organization. In 2017 she received a lifetime achievement award for her dedication to animal rights from PETA. In 2009 Leachman released her autobiography, “Cloris: My Autobiography”, which became a best seller and was co-written by her ex-husband. She is an inductee into the Television Academy Hall of Fame and received her Hollywood Star on the Walk of Fame in 1980.
Cloris Leachman was a comedy goddess. Chances are even if you didn’t know it you’ve probably seen or heard her in one of your favorite movies from decades past. For me she will always be remembered as the grandma in “Beer Fest”, the old lady in “Beavis and Butt-Head Do America”, or the big screen version of Granny in “The Beverly Hillbillies” but that’s just from some of my favorite comedies of my youth. I’ve also grown to love her contributions to Mel Brooks films like many others as well as many other of her classic roles that defined a career spanning decades and numerous mediums that never seemed to slow down right to her passing. Leachman leaves a hole in the comedy world no one will soon fill as one of the most iconic, consistent and capable comedic performers of her time.