When eulogizing screen performers, we often look at an Academy Award as either the launchpad or the apex of an actor’s life. In the case of Cloris Leachman, who died Wednesday at the age of 94, her Oscar was just one milestone in the career of an exceedingly versatile character actress.
Leachman was honored over the years both for her dramatic intensity and for a comedy skillset that embraced neurotic tension and fearless physicality with equal grace. She not only lived to be a nonagenarian, but she also remained busy and in demand to the very end, with recent credits as a voice in “The Croods: A New Age” and on such shows as “Mad About You” and “American Gods.”
Born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1926, Leachman studied at Northwestern (where her classmates included fellow comedy legends Paul Lynde and Charlotte Rae) before competing in the 1946 Miss America pageant. She didn’t take the top prize, but she won a scholarship, which she used to study under Elia Kazan at the Actors Studio in New York City. After success on the stage in “South Pacific” and “As You Like It” (the latter opposite Katherine Hepburn), Leachman had her first big-screen breakthrough in 1955’s “Kiss Me Deadly,” where she makes an indelible impression by running alongside a busy highway wearing nothing but a trench coat.
Like many performers of her generation, she found a foothold on the small screen, working steadily throughout the 1950s and ’60s, most notably on the classic “It’s a Good Life” episode of “The Twilight Zone,” and as a regular on half a season of “Lassie.” There were some film roles interspersed during this period as well (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” George Cukor’s “The Chapman Report”), but it wasn’t until 1971, when Peter Bogdanovich cast her in “The Last Picture Show,” that her career would receive another big jolt.
As the love-starved wife of a high-school football coach — a role that co-star Ellen Burstyn turned down — Leachman carved out moments of aching poignancy in an ensemble film already juggling multiple characters and storylines. The role of Ruth Popper won the actress a well-deserved Academy Award, just as she was appearing on what would become a decade-defining TV comedy: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” in which Leachman crafted the unforgettable Phyllis Lindstrom. Vain, judgmental, intellectually superior, and thoroughly self-serving, Phyllis was the worst, but Leachman made audiences adore her anyway. (Of her nine Emmys — eight prime-time, one daytime — two of them were for playing Phyllis.)
Leachman also won a Golden Globe for playing the character in a spin-off show, “Phyllis,” which lasted two seasons. And while she began the 1970s being honored for a deeply dramatic role, the decade would see her winning laughs both as Phyllis and under the direction of Mel Brooks, for whom she starred as the formidable Frau Blücher in “Young Frankenstein” and Nurse Diesel in “High Anxiety.” (And take note, trivia fans: She also played Wonder Woman’s mother Queen Hippolyta on an episode of Lynda Carter’s hit series.)
For the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st, Leachman was simply never not working. Whether it was voice acting for animated films (“The Iron Giant,” “Ponyo”), celebrated sitcom appearances (two of her other Emmys came for playing Grandma Ida on “Malcolm in the Middle”), or scene-stealing film roles (“Bad Santa”), she was constantly in demand, seemingly in all corners of the industry. (In 2018, she appeared in “I Can Only Imagine” and “Lez Bomb”; rare is the performer called upon to do both faith-based movies and queer indies, let alone in the same year.) She even reprised the role of Ruth Popper for Bogdanovich’s “Last Picture Show” sequel, “Texasville.”
(Those interested in the deep cuts of Leachman’s oeuvre should seek out the short-lived sitcom “Thanks,” a hilariously dark comedy about the travails of the original Puritan settlers.)
The old Hollywood joke is that the phases of an actor’s career are: “Who is X?” “Get me X.” “Get me a young X.” “Who is X?” If she managed to be at “Get me Cloris Leachman” for decades, it’s because of her lack of vanity as a performer. As Phyllis, or in comedies like the Disney cult favorite “The North Avenue Irregulars,” she could be stylish, chic, and glamorous, but she was also perfectly willing to put on the moles, fake noses, and fright wigs required for a Mel Brooks comedy. More and more of her later roles called upon her to be grannies and witches, but there’s a career in playing grannies and witches when they’re memorable, and beloved by audiences.
Leachman’s talent and versatility made her a legend across the years and across all media. Her work will continue to entertain audiences for generations, and her career will stand as inspiration to longevity-minded performers for years to come.