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With a career that spanned a staggering six decades on stage and screen, actress Cloris Leachman was one of primetime's funniest comediennes and a favorite player in the classic film satires of Mel Brooks. A former beauty pageant winner who began her career on the Broadway stage, Leachman's first high profile achievement was her Academy Award-winning performance in Peter Bogdanovich's stark drama "The Last Picture Show" (1971). From there, the over-40 actress' career kicked into high gear, with award-winning roles as the hilariously self-important Phyllis Lindstrom on the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" (CBS, 1970-77) and the subsequent spin-off, "Phyllis" (CBS, 1975-77). She forever held a place in film comedy history for her tightly wound, strangely accented characters in Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" (1974) and "History of the World, Part 1" (1981) - a strength she introduced to a new generation of fans in the role of grandma Ida on Fox's quirky "Malcolm in the Middle" (Fox, 2000-06). The octogenarian became the reality competition's oldest contestant when she joined the cast of "Dancing with the Stars" (ABC, 2005- ) in 2008, then trotted on to the sitcom "Raising Hope" (Fox, 2010- ), as the semi-lucid...
With a career that spanned a staggering six decades on stage and screen, actress Cloris Leachman was one of primetime's funniest comediennes and a favorite player in the classic film satires of Mel Brooks. A former beauty pageant winner who began her career on the Broadway stage, Leachman's first high profile achievement was her Academy Award-winning performance in Peter Bogdanovich's stark drama "The Last Picture Show" (1971). From there, the over-40 actress' career kicked into high gear, with award-winning roles as the hilariously self-important Phyllis Lindstrom on the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" (CBS, 1970-77) and the subsequent spin-off, "Phyllis" (CBS, 1975-77). She forever held a place in film comedy history for her tightly wound, strangely accented characters in Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" (1974) and "History of the World, Part 1" (1981) - a strength she introduced to a new generation of fans in the role of grandma Ida on Fox's quirky "Malcolm in the Middle" (Fox, 2000-06). The octogenarian became the reality competition's oldest contestant when she joined the cast of "Dancing with the Stars" (ABC, 2005- ) in 2008, then trotted on to the sitcom "Raising Hope" (Fox, 2010- ), as the semi-lucid grandmother "Maw Maw" Chance. With more than 40 years of film and television work under her belt, Leachman made it clear she was far from ready to retire, and had plenty more laughs to impart to appreciative fans of all ages.
Cloris Leachman was born on April 30, 1926, in Des Moines, IA where her father owned a lumber company. A self-admitted perfectionist as a child, Leachman made great strides towards her goal of acting with countless stage roles with the Des Moines Playhouse and appearances on local radio by the time she was a teenager. Her impressive achievements earned her a scholarship to the drama department at Northwestern University, where her classmates included future stars Charlton Heston, Patricia Neal and Charlotte Rae. While a student, Leachman entered the Miss Chicago beauty pageant and went on to place as a finalist in the 1946 Miss America competition. She bid college goodbye and used her $1,000 prize money to move to New York City, where she was invited by Elia Kazan to join the Actors Studio. Under their auspices, she made her TV debut as a recurring player on the drama series "Actors Studio" (ABC, 1948-49) and went on to appear in numerous live television dramas during the 'Golden Age of Television' in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Leachman also worked continuously on Broadway, playing Nellie Forbush in the original production of Rogers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific," sharing the stage with Katherine Hepburn in "As You Like It," and earning a Drama Desk nomination for "A Story for a Sunday Evening" in 1951.
While her acting career barreled ahead, Leachman married actor George Englund and together the young family headed to Hollywood. Englund launched a career as a film producer and director and Leachman made her film debut as the desperate woman found by the roadside in the opening sequence of Robert Aldrich's landmark film noir "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955). Despite her beauty queen past, the actress was not considered a conventional Tinseltown leading lady, and her sharp features, Midwestern accent and incisive acting skills marked her for offbeat character parts. During the late 1950s, Leachman had a regular TV role playing Timmy's wholesome, Midwestern mom on the series "Lassie" (CBS, 1954-1973) and was seen in countless guest spots on Westerns and live dramas while occasionally returning to Broadway. After nearly a decade of steady work on all the dramas and comedies of the day, including recurring characters on "Dr. Kildare" (NBC, 1961-66) and "77 Sunset Strip" (ABC, 1958-1964), Leachman made a memorable impression as a jittery lady of the evening in the Best Picture Oscar nominee "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969).
She followed up with big screen performances in a pair of scathing middle-America commentaries, "WUSA" (1970) and "The People Next Door" (1970), before a recurring role on the groundbreaking sitcom "Mary Tyler Moore" turned Leachman into a household name. The character-driven show, which starred Mary Tyler Moore as a thirty-something single professional and uniquely independent woman, featured Leachman as Mary's on-site landlady - a self-absorbed busybody who fancied herself an intellectual and progressive woman. As Phyllis Lindstrom, Leachman unleashed a sparkling, multiple Emmy-nominated comedic talent. The following year, she affirmed her versatility with a heartbreaking turn as a lonely, neglected housewife who begins an affair with a high school senior in Peter Bogdanovich's near-perfect adaptation of Larry McMurtry's "The Last Picture Show." The flinchingly honest portrayal earned the 45-year-old actress an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She went on to offer a string of award-winning performances on the small screen, beginning with "A Brand New Life" (ABC, 1973), where she played a middle-aged woman facing an unwanted pregnancy, and "The Migrants" (CBS, 1974), where she portrayed the matriarch of a family of fruit pickers.
Another Bogdanovich effort, "Daisy Miller" (1974) proved disappointing, but Leachman rebounded and became a member of Mel Brooks' unofficial stock company with "Young Frankenstein" (1975) and her classic supporting turn as housekeeper Frau Blucher, known for frightening all horses within earshot. She enlivened the early Jonathan Demme mob effort "Crazy Mama" (1975) and finally landed her own TV series, the spin-off "Phyllis" (CBS, 1975-77), which found her now-widowed character moving to San Francisco with her teenage daughter and re-entering the work force. The show was cancelled after two seasons (and one Lead Actress Golden Globe Award) and the same year that "Mary Tyler Moore" left the airwaves. But Leachman remained an in-demand comic player, reteaming with Brooks' to play skilled S&M dominatrix Nurse Diesel in the Hitchcock spoof "High Anxiety" (1977). She enjoyed character roles in madcap comedies like "The Muppet Movie" (1979) and "Herbie G s Bananas" (1980) and joined Brooks a third time to play an innkeeper in "History of the World, Part 1" (1981).
Following starring roles in several made-for-TV movies, Leachman returned to series television in "The Facts of Life" (NBC, 1979-1988) where she took over the "mentor" role vacated by former classmate Charlotte Rae for the show's final two seasons. Beginning in 1989, Leachman began a decade of touring in a one-woman play written for her in which she portrayed American primitive painter Grandma Moses. On the big screen, she reprised her "Last Picture Show" role in the disappointing Bogdanovich sequel "Texasville" (1990) and seemed to be having fun stepping into Irene Ryan's boots to play Granny Clampett in the feature version of "The Beverly Hillbillies" (1993). Not one to consider retirement, the 70-year-old actress spent nearly three years playing Parthy, the captain's wife, in a touring production of "Show Boat" before returning to series grind as a feisty, lusty oldster in the CBS summer sitcom "Thanks" (1999). The very busy Leachman provided a character voice for the acclaimed animated feature "The Iron Giant" and supported Meryl Streep in "Music of the Heart" (1999).
A whole new generation of sitcom viewers was introduced to Leachman when she was cast as Ellen DeGeneres' mother on the CBS sitcom "The Ellen Show" (2001-02) and began a recurring guest turn as the chain-smoking, tough-talking grandmother Ida on Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle." Her repeat performances throughout the series history earned Leachman annual Emmy nominations and delivered awards in 2002 and 2006, the same year she was also nominated for a supporting role in the HBO original drama movie, "Mrs. Harris" (HBO, 2005). Leachman continued to offer comedic big screen outings, taking on matronly roles in such films as "Alex & Emma" (2003) and "Bad Santa" (2003), where she played the half-dead grandmother of a portly misfit who rises only occasionally to make sandwiches. She received some of the best reviews of her career when she appeared as Tea Leoni's alcoholic mother in writer-director James L. Brooks' "Spanglish" (2004).
After a small role as a school nurse with X-ray vision in the family superhero comedy "Sky High" (2005), Leachman appeared in Peter Segal's weak remake of the classic 1974 Burt Reynolds film "The Longest Yard" (2005) and delivered a hilarious turn in the popular franchise "Scary Movie 4" (2006). In 2008, Leachman began a national tour of her one-woman autobiographical stage show "Cloris!" and appeared as part of the outstanding ensemble cast of the chick flick "The Women" (2008). She supported her latest efforts by joining the fall season of "Dancing with the Stars" (ABC, 2005- ) where at age 82, she became the oldest contestant in the show's history. She next landed a supporting role on the irreverent hit comedy "Raising Hope" (Fox, 2010- ), playing the Alzheimer's-afflicted great-grandmother of a 23-year-old new father (Lucas Neff) who is utterly clueless about raising his infant daughter. Leachman was one of several highlights on the show and earned herself an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.
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"I played it with my own body, my skin, my face. I wanted that scorned look to come out through my skin rather than my mouth."---Cloris Leachman, on her performance in "The Last Picture Show"
"I would like to correct one description that they put on you, which is, 'She CLUTCHED her Oscar.' It's NOT because you clawed your way to the top, [but because the trophy is so heavy, you might] fall to your knees. If you're in a long gown, you don't want to do that, so you have to quickly clutch it."---Leachman quoted in Premiere, April 1990.
"I remember as a child never wanting to become an embittered old woman who had nothing but a career. Here I am, far from it, with all my children and grandchildren. The end is not in sight."---Cloris Leachman quoted in People, August 9, 1999.
"I've always, all my life since I was little, wanted to be perfect. Be a good girl and be perfect."---Leachman quoted in Los Angeles Magazine, November 2004.
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