Cloris Leachman, an Oscar-winner for her portrayal of a lonely housewife in “The Last Picture Show”, a comedic delight as the fearsome Frau Blucher in “Young Frankenstein” and self-absorbed neighbor Phyllis on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” has died. She was 94.
Leachman died in her sleep of natural causes at her home in Encinitas, California, publicist Monique Moss said Wednesday. Her daughter was at her side, Moss said.
A character actor of extraordinary range, Leachman defied typecasting. In her early television career, she appeared as Timmy’s mother on the “Lassie” series. She played a frontier prostitute in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” a crime spree family member in “Crazy Mama,” and Blucher in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” in which the very mention of her name made horses whinny.
“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,” Juliet Green, her longtime manager, said in a statement.
Although she started out as Miss Chicago in the Miss America Pageant, Leachman willingly accepted unglamorous screen roles.
“Basically, I don’t care how I look, ugly or beautiful,” she told an interviewer in 1973. “I don’t think that’s what beauty is. On a single day, any of us is ugly or beautiful. I’m heartbroken I can’t be the witch in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ But I’d also like to be the good witch. Phyllis combines them both.”
During the 1950s, Leachman became busy in live TV drama, demonstrating her versatility, including in roles that represented casting standards in that era. She followed with Rod Serling’s court-martial drama “The Rack” and a season on “Lassie.”
She continued in supporting roles on Broadway and in movies, then achieved her triumph with Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” based on the Larry McMurtry novel. When Leachman received the Oscar as best supporting actress of 1971, she delivered a rambling speech in which she thanked her piano and dancing teachers and concluded: “This is for Buck Leachman, who paid the bills.” Her father ran a lumber mill.
Despite her photogenic looks, she continued to be cast in character parts. Her most indelible role was Phyllis Lindstrom on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Phyllis often visited Mary’s apartment, bringing laments about her husband Lars and caustic remarks about Mary and especially about her adversary, another tenant, Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper). Phyllis was so unexpectedly engaging that Leachman starred in a spinoff series of her own, “Phyllis,” which ran on CBS from 1975 to 1977.
With “Young Frankenstein,” Leachman became a member of “the Mel Brooks stock company,” also appearing in “High Anxiety” and “History of the World, Part I.” Her other films included Bogdanovich’s “Daisy Miller,” and “Texasville,” repeating her role in “The Last Picture Show.” In 2009, she released her autobiography, “Cloris,” which made tabloid headlines for her recounting of a “wild” one-night stand with Gene Hackman.
In 1953, Leachman married George Englund, later a film director and producer, and they had five children. The couple divorced in 1979, and her son Bryan Englund was found dead in 1986 at age 30.