Cloris Leachman appreciation: She loved basking in the showbiz spotlight

Award-winning actress Cloris Leachman’s work ethic and versatility were only exceeded by her love of basking in the showbiz spotlight. The legacy she leaves her fans after dying this week at the age of 94 is immense, as is her share of trophies that she earned over the course of her career that continued up to 2020.

Her path to fame started when she was a Miss America contestant in 1946 as Miss Illinois. That led to a scholarship under Elia Kazan at the Actors Studio in New York City. She would make her film debut in Robert Aldrich’s disturbing film noir in which private eye Mike Hammer gives a lift to Leachman’s hitchhiker Christina, who has escaped a mental hospital wearing only a trench coat. She is duly tortured to death by a gang of men and her demise haunts the rest of the movie.

She paid her dues with guest spots in countless TV, especially Westerns, and even played the mother on “Lassie” until June Lockhart took over.

But what put this legend on the map was her 1971 Oscar-winning supporting role in director Peter Bogdanovich’s  “The Last Picture Show,” a black-and- white drama set in run-down Texas town in 1951. She played Ruth Popper, a lonely  and depressed middle-aged wife of a closeted high-school coach who has an affair with a student played by Timothy Bottoms.

 In her acceptance speech (watch above), the often-quirky Leachman says, “I’m having an amazing life and it isn’t over yet.” She would go on to thank her piano teacher and dancing teacher as well as her father “who paid the bills” and her Walter Mitty-esque mother. She said after claiming her Academy Award, “I’m at a point where I’m free to go out and have a little fun with my career. Some Oscar winners have dropped out of sight as if they were standing on a trapdoor. Others picked it up and ran with it. I’m going to run with it.” And, indeed, she did.

One aside: When she returned to present the same award to Eileen Eckhart for her supporting role in 1972’s “Butterflies Are Free,” Leachman had the wherewithal to bring a letter opener on stage. That forethought is her all over.

However, the actress would soon be better known for her comedy chops thanks to her role as Phyllis Lindstrom, the snooty downstairs landlady and friend of TV news woman Mary Richards on CBS’ “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” One oddity is that her dermatologist husband Lars is never seen. She would win two of her record eight Primetime Emmys – a landmark she shares with Julia Louis-Dreyfus –for her appearances on the show. In 1975, Leachman would get a spin-off sitcom, “Phyllis,” which finds the newly widowed character moving from Minneapolis to San Francisco with her daughter, Bess (Lisa Gerritsen). It lasted for two seasons.

But thanks to Mel Brooks, she would be a stand-out as Frau Blucher in 1974’s “Young Frankenstein” opposite the laughable likes of Gene Wilder as Frederick, the grandson of mad scientist Victor Frankenstein, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle and an uncredited Gene Hackman. The housekeeper encourages him to continue his grandfather’s work.  Anyone who has seen the comedy has her laugh lines etched in their brains, including her admission about Victor: “Yes, yes, he vas my … boyfriend.”

When Brooks paid tribute to Leachman on Twitter when he heard the said news, even he admits to having flashbacks to how the mere mention of Frau Brucher had a weird effect on the equine community:   “Such sad news — Cloris was insanely talented. She could make you laugh or cry at the drop of a hat. Always such a pleasure to have on set. Every time I hear a horse whinny I will forever think of Cloris’ unforgettable Frau Blücher. She is irreplaceable, and will be greatly missed.”

Leachman was also a standout in Brooks’ comedic Alfred Hitchcock spoof “High Anxiety” as the despicable Nurse Diesel who works at the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous and dons a rather lethal torpedo- bra. She and Harvey Korman’s smarmy doctor are part of a scam of claiming wealthy patients are mentally ill and extorting from their families. Her big line? “Those who are tardy do not get fruit cup.” She would also be part of the ensemble cast in Brooks’ “History of the World, Part I” as Madame Defarge.

On a personal note, this “MTM” fan could not help but notice in 2009 that both Leachman and fellow cast member Betty White were both having a senior moment in the spotlight when I was an entertainment writer at USA TODAY. Since I was going to cover the Disney release of “The Proposal,” in which White’s naughty grandma character was a standout — at the junket in L.A., I decided to ask my publicist friend Arlene Ludwig – who was a dear friend of Leachman’s — if she could set up a luncheon for all four of us at the Polo Lounge and allow them to have a reunion.

At that time, Leachman had just had become the oldest person to compete on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” with the oldest pro Corky Ballas. What she lacked in grace, she made up in pure entertainment. The pair would place seventh in the competition. She was also promoting a well-received autobiography. Alas, her role as a Jewish woman in Quentin Tarantino’s World War II thriller “Inglourious Basterds” was cut. But she had no hard feelings.

All was going well at the table with both ladies chowing down on their chopped salads – no bacon for vegetarian Leachman and no dressing for minimalist White.  Apparently Phyllis has forgiven the so-called Happy Homemaker Sue Anne Nivens’ affair with husband on a 1973 episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

But then Leachman sees a man who is about to be seated and observes, “Doesn’t that look like James Lipton from the neck up? She then yells out: “You’re not James are you?” Turns out it is the somewhat obsequious bearded and bespectacled host of Bravo’s “Inside the Actors Studio.” “It’s nice to see you,” Lipton says to White while she introduces him to Leachman.

Suddenly, Leachman – an actual grad of the Actors Studio – is miffed. “You don’t know me, do you? Why am I never on your show? Really, seriously.” The rattled Lipton says, “That’s something I will ask Bravo. Absolutely.” She is not having it. “We’ve asked you many times. What do you think it is?”

“I don’t know,” he says while trying to make an escape. “Bravo makes a list and I go from the list. I will get into it the minute I get back. I give you my word.” The lesson learned:  One does not dismiss a talent like Cloris Leachman and gets off scott-free. Rest knowing that this not-to-be- ignored lady got some satisfaction that day.

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