Prolific actress Cloris Leachman, who won an Oscar for her turn in the 1971 drama The Last Picture Show, then went on to play Phyllis Lindstrom in classic sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show and on her own spinoff, has died at the age of 94.
She died Wednesday of natural causes in Encinitas, Calif., her representatives said.
“It’s been my privilege to work with Cloris Leachman, one of the most fearless actresses of our time,” her manager, Juliet Green, said in a statement to Yahoo Entertainment. “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.”
Indeed, Leachman excelled in both comedic and dramatic performances, racking up nearly 300 acting credits over seven decades. Along the way, she won eight individual Emmys for acting — more than anyone except Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who has the same number — as well as that Academy Award.
Leachman seemed to have genuinely kept her love for acting, even in her later years.
“[The work] finds me and it is the most amazing thing,” she told her hometown newspaper, the Des Moines Register in August 2019. “So many times I have been like, ‘Oh God, what were they thinking? How did they connect me to this part?’ If you asked me, I wouldn’t have thought of myself for this role or this production, but they do and it comes to me and that means more to me than anything.”
Leachman had decided by the third grade, after her teacher asked her to read to the class, that she wanted to be in front of a crowd. By the time she was 11, she won a part on a radio show, and went on to study drama at Illinois State University and Northwestern University. During that time, she won the title of Miss Chicago and competed in the 1946 Miss America pageant. And while she didn’t win, she ended up moving to New York City to study acting under Elia Kazan.
She made her Broadway debut in 1948, and she starred alongside Katharine Hepburn in As You Like It for several months.
Among her early TV credits are an episode of Phillip Morris Playhouse and the original Lassie.
She had more than 20 years of acting work behind her before she landed her Oscar-winning role of Ruth Popper in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. She also impressed on the screen in several Mel Brooks films, including the 1974 comedy classic Young Frankenstein. On Wednesday, Brooks praised his frequently collaborator as “insanely talented.”
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.
— Mel Brooks (@MelBrooks) January 27, 2021
In between, Leachman joined the cast of Mary Tyler Moore’s groundbreaking sitcom. Leachman’s character of Mary’s neurotic landlord and friend was so popular that she was given her own show, Phyllis, which ran for two seasons beginning in 1975.
“I’ve heard [Phyllis is] neurotic. I didn’t find any fun in that word,” Leachman told the Televison Academy. “I decided to be perfect. And there’s nothing more boring than somebody who’s perfect. You know, you’re a whore in the bedroom and a chauffeur in the cars, and you’re a chef in the kitchen… I think that she was insufferable.”
She later appeared regularly on The Facts of Life and Malcom in the Middle, Raising Hope and Mad About You. In September 2008, she competed on Dancing With the Stars and placed seventh.
Throughout all this time, she also worked on movies Prancer, The Beverly Hillbillies, Spanglish and dozens more.
She’s survived by four children: Adam, Dinah, George Jr. and Morgan.
In the wake of her death, her friends, colleagues and fans paid tribute. Here are a few:
Salute to Cloris Leachman, who brought comedy’s mysteries to the big and small screen.
— Steve Martin (@SteveMartinToGo) January 27, 2021
I loved your work!!! Just LOVED!! I grew up watching Phyllis and The Last Picture Show. Your consistent excellence, ability to morph, and bravery will be sorely missed. RIP Cloris Leachman! Godspeed 💛https://t.co/hnWjdomZ3x
— Viola Davis (@violadavis) January 28, 2021
Cloris Leachman has passed. The Oscar and Emmy-winning funny lady stole her way into our hearts and always left us smiling. She was 94.
Rest in peace, and save a laugh for us when we get there.
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) January 27, 2021
As a guest star on The Muppet Show, Cloris Leachman kept the show going despite an invasion of pigs and in The Muppet Movie she opened the door to our standard rich and famous contract. A legend and a great friend. Cloris, we will never forget you.
— The Muppets (@TheMuppets) January 27, 2021
Rest in peace Cloris Leachman you will always inhabit my sense of humour. Thank you
— Peter Frampton (@peterframpton) January 27, 2021
I had the honor to work with Cloris Leachman in A CBS TV pilot. She was wonderful. But I will always love her most AS frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein. “He vas my boyfriend!” RIP
— Treat Williams (@Rtreatwilliams) January 28, 2021
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