Actress Cloris Leachman portrayed women of wit and sass over a seven-decade career. She won an Oscar and nine Emmys, and her career was relentlessly inventive. The actress died Wednesday in Encinitas, Calif., of natural causes, according to her press representative, Monique Moss. She was 94.
Leachman was born April 30, 1926, in Des Moines, Iowa. By the age of 11 she was working with the Des Moines Playhouse, and at 17 she had a radio show in which she gave style advice to women. After college, it was off to New York and the Actors Studio. She met and married the Hollywood impresario George Englund, and they had five children together.
When her children were still young, Leachman worked tirelessly on the stage, on TV and in film. She may be best remembered for playing Phyllis Lindstrom, the kooky, nosy landlady on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. At 45, she gave a wrenching, Oscar-winning performance in 1971’s The Last Picture Show. Her character was Ruth Popper, a married woman having an affair with a high school senior in a dying Texas town. In 2009, Leachman told Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross about that film’s dramatic final scene in which Ruth’s lover returns after ditching her. She said the scene almost didn’t make it into the movie — the producer wanted to cut it out altogether, but director Peter Bogdanovich put up a fight. “He insisted and fought for and kept my scene in, and that’s of course why I won the Oscar,” Leachman said of her best supporting actress award.
The actress seemed game for anything, from playing a creepy housekeeper in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein to competing on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars at the age of 82. “I don’t want to prove anything,” she told one of that show’s dance instructors. “I just want to be the best jive dancer I can be.”
Leachman made a point of saying she wanted to reach people through the characters she played — but she wasn’t necessarily like those characters. In 2008, she told The New York Times, “If I were to do some outlandish role, I always made sure I’d be on Johnny Carson to show that I wasn’t that person that I played. I’d be myself. And so people got to know me, I think, and I think they know that I’m honest and truthful and real. … I’m just a simple person, with a silly bone.”
She was silly, serious, hard-working and had a very, very long career — all qualities that helped make her one of Hollywood’s most decorated and versatile performers.