Cloris Leachman died of natural causes yesterday in Encinitas, California, Variety reports. “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 in a statement confirming her passing. “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 was 94.
Leachman was an extraordinarily successful and hard-working actor. She held the record for many years for the most Primetime Emmys wins by a single performer with eight. (Julia-Louis Dreyfus tied that record in 2017.) Leachman also won an Oscar for Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show in 1972.
She was born in Des Moines in 1926; her father was heir to a lumber family. After attending Northwestern University, she competed in the Miss America pageant in 1946, and started acting soon afterward in anthology programs from the earliest day of television like The Ford Theatre Hour and Actor’s Studio. She made her film debut in 1955 in the Mike Hammer film noir Kiss Me Deadly. She continued to work steadily, stepping in as Timmy’s adoptive mother in the last half of season four of Lassie in 1957, while appearing on shows like Dr. Kildare and 77 Sunset Strip into the ’60s. IMDB notes that on Christmas Eve in 1962, she appeared in three prime-time television series as a guest star: Stoney Burke, Saints And Sinners, and The New Loretta Young Show.
On the big screen, she had a small part in 1969’s Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. But she made her biggest screen impact in 1971’s The Last Picture Show, playing a neglected wife who has an affair with a much younger man. The way Leachman transforms in the role won her the award: She changes from a dowdy housewife to an absolutely radiant woman in love.
By this point she was also starring in The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Mary’s glamorous but flighty friend Phyllis, married to the mysterious, never-seen Lars. As with so many of MTM’s side characters, Phyllis was spun off into her own series, which ran in the mid-’70s and won Leachman a Golden Globe for Best Actress In A Television Series-Comedy.
Around this same time, Leachman she had also become a regular player in Mel Brooks’ stable of actors, appearing as Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein (in a Golden Globe-nominated performance) and Nurse Diesel in High Anxiety. In addition to her film career, she continued her TV guest spot work, appearing as Queen Hippolyta in The New Original Wonder Woman and several times on The Love Boat. (Her IMDB page lists almost 300 entries.) Other prominent TV roles include replacing Charlotte Rae on The Facts Of Life (1986-88), Ruth on Touched By An Angel (1997-2003), Maw Maw on Raising Hope (2010-14), a voice role as Dr. Doofenshmirtz’s Mom on Phineas And Ferb (2009-14), and winning two Emmys for her portrayal of Ida on Malcolm In The Middle (2001-06). Most recently, she played Zorya Vechernyaya on American Gods (2017-19).
One of Leachman’s more recent appearances as herself may be among her most memorable: In 2008, at the age of 82, she became Dancing With The Stars’ oldest-ever female contestant. Her typically spirited self won her many DWTS fans before getting eliminated in week six of the show’s seventh season, announcing, “I’m not leaving!” (“I’m afraid you are,” host Tom Bergeron responded.) The following year, she was the grand marshal for the New Year’s Day Tournament Of Roses Parade and Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena, California. She also published Cloris: My Autobiography in 2009, and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall Of Fame in 2011.
Leachman also was a strong advocate for the animal-rights group PETA, posing in a dress made of cabbage for a PETA “Let Vegetarianism Grow on You” ad, for example, or filming a video encouraging people to neuter their pets. She and George Englund, her husband of 25 years, were divorced in 1978; she is survived by four children, six grandchildren, and a plethora of film and TV credits.