Cloris Leachman, who won eight career Emmy Awards spanning six programs and 22 nominations, and also earned a Supporting Actress Oscar for The Last Picture Show during a sterling seven-decade career, died Tuesday of natural causes at her home in Encinitas, CA. She was 94.
Her manager confirmed the news.
Among her most famous roles were recurring as Phyllis Lindstrom in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its 1975-77 spin-off, Phyllis. She also famously played the cigar-chomping, violin-playing, over-accented and riotously funny Frau Blücher in Mel Brooks’ 1974 classic horror spoof, Young Frankenstein. She reunited with Brooks to play Nurse Diesel in the 1977 Alfred Hitchcock takeoff High Anxiety, and as French revolutionary Madame Defarge in the underappreciated 1981 sendup History of the World, Part I.
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More recently, she earned an Emmy nom for playing the too-hip Maw Maw in Fox sitcom Raising Hope, and earned two Emmys and four other noms for her role as Grandma Ida in the network’s 2000s sitcom, Malcolm in the Middle, opposite Bryan Cranston and Jane Kaczmarek.
She also scored an Emmy among four nominations for Mary Tyler Moore, and a Lead Actress nom for Phyllis.
Born on April 30, 1926, in Des Moines, IA, Leachman launched her showbiz career after competing in the 1946 Miss America Pageant, and began guesting on such early-TV series as The Ford Theatre, Suspense, Actor’s Studio, and The Bob & Ray Show. She continued to work in television as the medium evolved and matured, with roles in such classic series as The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, The Untouchables, Route 66, Wagon Train, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 77 Sunset Strip, and a recurring part on more than two dozen episodes of Lassie.
She also began to score Broadway roles in the postwar era. After a few understudy and bit parts, she was cast as a replacement for the starring role of Ens. Nellie Forbush in the original Main Stem run of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, South Pacific. Leachman went on to appear in eight other Broadway shows during the 1950s, including As You Like It, King of Hearts, and Masquerade.
By the early 1970s, Leachman was focused on features and the emerging TV-movie genre. On the big screen, she played Ruth Popper, the lonely middle-aged wife of a closeted-gay high school football coach who began an affair with one of the players (Timothy Bottoms) in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. Her powerhouse performance earned a Supporting Actress Oscar — one of eight nominations and two wins for the 1971 film that also featured Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ellen Burstyn, and Ben Johnson, who won the Supporting Actor Academy Award.
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Leachman went on to costar in John Milius’ Dillinger (1973), and reteamed with Bogdanovich and Shepherd for Daisy Miller (1974). Later that year, Leachman would nearly steal the show from an ensemble of scene-stealers in Brooks’ smash parody, Young Frankenstein.
Her character was delightfully over-the-top — as was the Transylvania-set black-and-white movie that also starred Gene Hackman, Teri Garr, Marty Feldman, and Madeline Kahn. A recurring gag throughout the gag-filled pic saw often-unseen horses nervously whinnying at the mere mention of her name. The film remains among the funniest ever made.
Speaking of “funniest ever made,” Leachman in the mid-’70s continued to recur on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It scooped Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy noms for its first four seasons — losing to All in the Family twice and M*A*S*H — before winning the category back-to-back-to-back from 1975-77. In 1974, just ahead of that remarkable run, CBS spun off Valerie Harper’s Rhoda Morgenstern character for the sitcom Rhoda.
Leachman appeared in the high-rated wedding episode of Rhoda in 1974, and the show finished in the year-end top 10 among primetime programs in its first two seasons — ahead of Mary Tyler Moore. Following Rhoda’s out-of-the-box success, the Eye Network spun off Leachman’s character for the 1975 sitcom, Phyllis. Airing as the lead-out for Rhoda on Monday nights, the new series also was an immediate hit, actually eking out a full-season ratings with over Rhoda during 1975-76. But both series were overshadowed by NBC’s hit drama Little House on the Prairie, which moved to Monday nights that season. Phyllis wrapped in 1977, and Rhoda was gone a year later.
Leachman earned an Emmy nom for the first season of Phyllis a year after winning back-to-back hardware for the role in Mary Tyler Moore.
She continued to rack up film and TV credits throughout the 1970s and ’80s before landing her second series-regular role as a replacement for longtime star Charlotte Rae in NBC’s hit sitcom, The Facts of Life. Leachman took over as the female lead in 1986 for the final two of its nine seasons, playing Beverly Ann Sickle, the chatterbox sister of Rae’s Edna Garrett.
Leachman followed that up with the lead in The Nutt House, a short-lived NBC sitcom created by Alan Spencer and Brooks in which she played a double role opposite fellow High Anxiety and History of the World alum Harvey Korman. The slapstick farce about a once-mighty hotel that had fallen on hard times lasted only a handful of episodes.
A few seasons later, NBC paired Leachman with another popular star, Stacy Keach, for Walter and Emily, a multigeneration comedy that ran for one season in 1991-92. That season she also had a one-off voice role in The Simpsons, and she had a brief but memorable voice role in the 1996 feature Beavis and Butt-head Do America. She played an elderly woman who ran into the boys on the road multiple times, drolly referring to them as “Travis and Bob.”
Leachman continued to work apace in the 1990s, by then well into her 60s and even her 70s. She scored another series-regular role as Ellen DeGeneres’ fussy mom in CBS’ The Ellen Show, which aired in 2001-02. Around the same time, she first appeared as Grandma Ida in Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle. The role would span about a dozen episodes across multiple seasons, earning her a pair of Guest Actress Emmys and six total nominations
In 2012, as she pushed 80, Leachman voiced a couple episodes of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, which led to her voicing Gran in the 2003’s toon feature The Croods — a role she would reprise in last year’s hit sequel, The Croods: A New Age.
In 2014, the newly minted octogenarian got a recurring voice role in the Amazon toon Creative Galaxy, and Leachman suddenly was an in-demand voice-over actor. She would voice roles in the series Justice League Action and Elena of Avalor, the latter of which wrapped with a primetime special in 2020.
In 2019, at age 93, Leachman was cast as Mrs. Mendelbaum in Spectrum Originals’ revival of the 1990s Paul Reiser-Helen Hunt sitcom, Mad About You. She went on to appear in 10 episodes.
Leachman would steal other shows in the mid-2010s, serving as a presenter at the Annie Awards with Tom Kenny. The SpongeBob SquarePants star repeatedly played straight man as Leachman tossed off line after great — and sometime blue — line. “We don’t have very much time, so hurry up,” Leachman warned winners during ASIFA-Hollywood’s 2014 trophy show. But she also courteously reminded the winners to be careful on their way to the stage because — in her best Frau Blücher voice — “The stairs can be treacherous.”
She later added that the Annies should be called the Cecilies so it doesn’t sound so much like Emmys. Presenter Patrick Warburton later quipped, “Welcome back to the Annie Awards — or as it’s now known, the Cloris Leachman Award.”
Aside from her prolific acting career, Leachman was a tireless advocate for animal rights. “It was our honor to present her with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her efforts to help animals great and small,” PETA president Lisa Lange said in a statement. “From orcas at SeaWorld and elephants in circuses to caged birds in retirement homes, and we will always treasure her legacy of compassion.”
She was married to filmmaker George Englund for 25 years before they divorced in 1978. She is survived by four of their five children — Adam, Morgan, George Jr., and Dinah — seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Her son Bryan died in 1986, and Englund died in 2017.
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