Oscar winner and multiple Emmy winner Cloris Leachman, best remembered as the delightfully neurotic Phyllis Lindstrom on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and her own subsequent sitcom, died of natural causes on Tuesday in Encinitas, Calif. She was 94.
“It’s been my privilege to work with Cloris Leachman, one of the most fearless actresses of our time,” her longtime manager Juliet Green said. “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.”
The daffy, self-absorbed Phyllis, a character she claimed was close to her own persona, brought the actress two Emmys as a featured actress in a series during the mid-’70s and made Leachman a household name.
Leachman also won a supporting actress Oscar in the early part of the decade for a far different character, an embittered small-town housewife in Peter Bogdanovich’s elegiac “The Last Picture Show”; she would later reprise the role in the film’s less successful sequel “Texasville.” Both films were based on the writings of Larry McMurtry.
Overnight success for the actress, however, came only after two decades of hard work in theater, television and some films. Leachman was in her 40s when stardom finally hit.
Leachman’s pitch-perfect timing and effortlessness in comedy and her unadorned honesty in drama was the result of many years honing her craft and incorporated her own life experiences as a mother of five children (by producer George Englund).
Her open, all-American look took her through several decades in a wide variety of roles on Broadway and early television as well as more than 40 movies, where she moved easily from leading roles to character parts.
The actress won a total of eight primetime Emmys, both for drama and comedy, and one daytime Emmy.
The recurring character of Phyllis Lindstrom on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” not only made her a TV star but also gave her time to squeeze in roles in film including “Lovers and Other Strangers,” “The People Next Door,” “WUSA” and “The Last Picture Show,” which brought her an Oscar for supporting actress in 1971 in an upset over her nominated co-star Ellen Burstyn. Two Emmys for the role of Phyllis were crowded alongside one for drama in the ABC TV movie “A Brand New Life” (1973) and led, in 1975, to her own series, which lasted a couple of seasons.
Decades later she was still working, and flying high: Leachman was a contestant on season seven of “Dancing With the Stars” in 2008, becoming, at age 82, the oldest contestant to dance on the series, and she was the grand marshal for the 2009 New Year’s Day Tournament of Roses Parade and Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena, Calif.
During the 1970s, she did well by Bogdanovich’s “Daisy Miller” and was hilarious in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein”; she also appeared in Brooks’ “High Anxiety.”
She was given more interesting work to do in television. She won a fourth Emmy for a guest role on the variety series “Cher,” and she became a telepic staple during the period and did TV productions of Lanford Wilson’s “The Migrants” and Dorothy Parker’s “Ladies of the Corridor” on PBS.
Emmys five and six would come for ABC Afterschool Special “The Woman Who Willed a Miracle” in 1983 and the SAG 50th Anniversary celebration the following year.
She tried series regular work again, doing best with “The Facts of Life.”
Leachman continued work in TV movies, appearing in the miniseries “Backstairs at the White House” plus “In Broad Daylight,” “Little Piece of Heaven,” “Fine Things,” “Deadly Intentions,” “The Oldest Living Graduate,” “Advice to the Lovelorn,” “Miss All American Beauty,” “Dixie,” “Mrs. R’s Daughter,” “Fade to Black,” “Between Love and Honor,” “Miracle Child” and “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble.”
In 1996 she appeared in the Los Angeles touring version of “Showboat.”
During the 1980s and ’90s, Leachman worked intermittently in films including “The History of the World Part I,” “Walk Like a Man” and the 1993 bigscreen version of “The Beverly Hillbillies” in the role of Granny.
She seemed to transition effortlessly and even embrace the grandmotherly roles she found herself playing in the 1990s and 2000s.
Leachman recurred on “Malcolm in the Middle” from 2001-06 as Grandma Ida and earned several Emmy nominations and two more Emmy Awards (in 2002 and 2006).
In 2003, she played the grandmother on the bigscreen in the romantic comedy “Alex and Emma” and in the darker comedy “Bad Santa.” She also did voicework in animated movies “Beavis and Butthead,” “A Troll in Central Park” and the 2008 English-language version of the Japanese anime “Ponyo” as well as TV’s “The Simpsons.”
It was hard to see any evidence that she was slowing down.
She was a series regular on the brief Ellen DeGeneres vehicle “The Ellen Show” in 2001-02, recurred on “Touched by an Angel” and guested on “Diagnosis Murder,” “Joan of Arcadia,” “Two and a Half Men,” “The Office,” “Phineas and Ferb,” “Hawthorne” and “Blue Mountain State.” In 2010-14, she was a series regular on Fox’s “Raising Hope,” drawing her 19th Emmy nomination. (She was still regularly appearing in telepics as well.)
On the bigscreen, she was much busier in the decade-plus after 2000, when she was in her late 70s and early 80s, than in the previous decade.
Her film credits during the period included (but were by no means restricted to) “Spanglish” (2004), “The Longest Yard” (2005), “Scary Movie 4” (2006), “Beerfest” (2006) and “The Women (2008). In the (2009) anthology pic “New York, I Love You,” she appeared in a poignant but unsentimental segment as an elderly woman coping with the infirmities of her even more elderly husband (Eli Wallach).
In 2011 and 2012, Leachman pressed forward on the silver screen in a wide range of pics including “The Fields,” comedy “Gambit,” horror movie “The Home” and action-dramas such as “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde” and “Timberwolf.”
Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Leachman received working experience as a child at the Des Moines Little Theater. By age 15 she was appearing on local radio stations. She won a special scholarship to study broadcast drama at Northwestern, where she stayed for while before returning to Des Moines to finish high school. She returned to Northwestern with a theater scholarship this time but dropped out and entered a beauty contest, eventually finding her way to the 1946 Miss America pageant.
Moving to New York, she landed a role in a quickie movie, “Carnegie Hall,” and just missed out on landing the female lead in the Broadway comedy “John Loves Mary” to Nina Foch. She studied at the Actors Studio and made her Broadway debut in 1948 in the short-lived production “Sundown Beach.” She attracted notice as Cecilia in a Theater Guild production of “As You Like It” with Katharine Hepburn that ran for six months.
Her role in “A Story for Sunday Evening” brought her good notices in 1950, and she played Broadway for eight months in the 1954 Jean Kerr/Eleanor Brooke comedy “King of Hearts.” She also played Nellie Forbush in a special revival of “South Pacific.”
More steady training came via live television. She was a regular on the early series “Charlie Wild, Private Detective” (1950-52), and she excelled at bad girl roles. She also made guest appearances on TV series including “Gunsmoke” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”
During this period she was seriously considered for the female lead in Charlie Chaplin’s bittersweet drama “Limelight,” but the role went to Claire Bloom. She then nabbed the role of a sexy hitchhiker in Robert Aldrich’s “Kiss Me Deadly.” She also landed a small role in Rod Serling’s film “The Rack” in 1956.
But television was much more conducive to motherhood, so she took a role as the mother in the “Lassie” series. Other TV work included Tennessee Williams’ “The Migrants” and George Gershwin’s “Of Thee I Sing.”
Leachman was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 2011.
“Cloris: My Autobiography” was published in 2009. She penned the bestseller with George Englund, whom she divorced in 1979.
Survivors include sons Adam, George Jr. and Morgan, an actor; and a daughter, Dinah.
The family requests that any donations in her name be made to PETA or Last Chance for Animals.