Cloris Leachman, who would have turned 95 on April 30, was already a seasoned performer before her impressive streak in film and television began in the early 1970s. In 1972, she pulled off a rare feat: She won the best supporting actress Oscar for Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” in a finely-drawn dramatic performance, and was nominated for an Emmy in comedy supporting actress for her role as the nutty Phyllis on CBS’ “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
The longtime stage, big screen and TV actress was in her mid-forties when two of her most memorable roles came along, followed just a few years later by her hilarious Frau Blücher in “Young Frankenstein,” for which she received a Golden Globe comedy acting nomination.
Bogdanovich recalled casting Leachman in “Last Picture Show” after her death in January. When she first entered the room, he said, he thought she seemed wrong for the part.
But when she started to read the script, “She was completely different,” he said. “She gave a wonderful performance right away. I think I cast her right then, I didn’t see anybody else.”
Leachman described the impact “Last Picture Show” had on her life and career in her 2009 autobiography “Cloris.”
“I played Ruth Popper, a spare, lean woman who lives an emotionally barren life in Texas,” she wrote. “She is married to the high school football coach who is always away and, it seems, probably gay. That is Ruth Popper’s life on the outside. Inside of her is a full-fledged female who wistfully retains the hope that romance might yet come her way. There were no frills either in the production or in my performance. The film was shot in black and white, and I wore no make-up. Being Ruth Popper as her dormant emotions are awakened by a boy in his late teens was a deeply human experience. It radiated through my life.”
Variety‘s reviewer called her “Last Picture Show” performance one of the film’s best. “The best, most solid, most moving performances in the film are given by Ben Johnson, that old John Ford regular, as Sam the Lion, the owner of the ‘picture show’ and ‘pool room’ where the town boys spend most of their time, and CIoris Leachman as the coach’s wife, who introduces Bottoms to sex (not in a gentle ‘Tea and Sympathy’ manner but in a sequence marked by squeaking bedsprings, sweat and tears.),” wrote the critic.
From the “Last Picture Show” production in tiny Archer City, Texas, Leachman moved to a CBS and MTM Productions soundstage to shoot “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” on which she appeared in all seven seasons. After her 1972 Emmy nomination, she took home trophies for “Mary Tyler Moore” in 1974 and 1975.
“When I came back for the next season of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ I told them I’d done this film in Texas. And that was the end of that. I didn’t even think about it. Until I got a call that I’d been nominated for an Oscar,” Leachman said in an interview posted on MoviesTVNetwork.
Long before those notable moments, the Des Moines-born former Miss Chicago worked steadily throughout the 1950s and ’60s in a wide range of shows.
Her first mention in Variety came in 1947, when the Broadway Runaround column joked, “Cloris Leachman, who had never faced an audience before she went on for Nina Foch in “John Loves Mary,” did a laudable job — except for the fact that in her eagerness to get to her own part, she skipped a whole page and a half of dialogue, leaving slightly bewildered Loring Smith to invent his own cue!”
Another early mention came in 1950, when she was reported to have “switched her handle” to Gloria Leachman while up for the female lead in Charlie Chaplin’s next film. But she didn’t appear in any Chaplin films, and she continued to be credited as Cloris.
Leachman worked constantly in TV throughout the 1950s, and made her feature debut in the classic film noir, Robert Aldrich’s 1955 “Kiss Me Deadly.” In a none-too-enlightened publicity stunt before the production of the film, a front-page story in Variety reported that Aldrich had hired former “shimmy dancer” Gilda Gray as a “sex appeal consultant” to instruct Leachman and the other women in the cast — and indeed her performance as a doomed hitchhiker proved quite alluring.
With two feature films still waiting to be released when she died, Leachman worked right up to the end, racking up nearly 300 screen credits and winning two Emmys in the 2000s for “Malcom in the Middle,” which tied her with Julia Louis-Dreyfus for the most Emmy wins for a performer.