Academy Award-winning actress Cloris Leachman has died at the age of 94. The news was originally broken by TMZ who reported the actress passed away of natural causes on Tuesday night at her home in Encinitas, California. Leachman boasted nearly 300 credit in film and television, throughout her career, making memorable turns in “The Last Picture Show,” “Young Frankenstein,” “The Twilight Zone,” and “Raising Hope.”
Leachman was born in Des Moines, Iowa on April 30, 1926. She started acting as a teenager, and after graduating high school she enrolled at Northwestern University in its School of Education. Her classmates included fellow comics Paul Lynde and Charlotte Rae. In 1946, Leachman participated in the Miss America pageant where she placed in the top 16. She used the scholarship she won to attend the famed Actors Studio in New York City, learning under acclaimed director Elia Kazan.
It was quickly after working with Kazan that Leachman started working on Broadway, first as an understudy in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” and eventually appearing in the likes of “Come Back, Little Sheba,” and Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” where she was personally selected to co-star by Katharine Hepburn herself.
It wasn’t until 1955 that movie audiences saw Leachman on the big screen — she’d been appearing on various television shows for a few years prior — in Robert Aldrich’s gritty film and cynical “Kiss Me Deadly.” Her performance as the scared Christina opened the film and set the tone for the entire production. The following year she’d team up with Paul Newman and Lee Marvin for the feature “The Rack.”
But Leachman found the medium of television suited her better. She played Ruth Martin on the 1957 television series “Lassie” and regularly worked on several popular Westerns. In 1961 she became immortalized as one of the standouts actors in Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” when she played Mrs. Fremont, the mother of adorable, god-like murderer Anthony Fremont (Bill Mumy) in the classic episode “It’s a Good Life.” She’d reprise the role in 2003 in the “It’s Still a Good Life” episode of the short-lived “Twilight Zone” reboot on WPN.
Leachman worked steadily throughout the 1950s and ’60s, eventually returning to feature films. In 1969 she had a brief role in the Paul Newman and Robert Redford classic “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” It wasn’t until 1971 that she was placed in the role that would change her life. Director Peter Bogdanovich cast her in the role of Ruth Popper for his feature film “The Last Picture Show,” the story of three teens living in a dying West Texas town in 1951. Popper is the lonely wife of the high school football coach and engages in an affair with young Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms).
In a 2017 oral history of the feature, Leachman talked about wanting to redo a pivotal scene only to have Bogdanovich refuse. “I said, ‘Cut, print, you just won the Oscar,'” Bogdanovich said. “She [Leachman] said, ‘I can do it better.’ I said, ‘No you can’t.’ Because it was so fresh and she was shaking. I knew she couldn’t possibly do it better. She could hardly breathe.” Bogdanovich was right because Leachman would take home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the performance.
Bogdanovich told IndieWire by phone that Leachman was recommended to him by fellow director Bob Rafelson; he didn’t know her prior to that. When she came to the audition she arrived with three of her kids, “it was like the circus arrived,” Bogdanovich said. Dressed all wrong for the part, the director assumed she’d be wrong for Ruth. “When she read the scene she was brilliant,” he said. “I was surprised.” Rather than rehearsing the breakdown scene, he wanted her to perform it for the only audience that mattered — which was him, he said. The first take ended up being what audiences’ saw. In fact, he added that in speaking with co-star Jeff Bridges recently, Bridges revealed that Leachman was still apologetic to Bogdanovich, that if she could have done one more take it would have been better.
Though it was the only time she won an Academy Award, Cloris Leachman won eight Primetime Emmys and one Daytime Emmy. Overall, she was nominated for 20 Emmy Awards in her lifetime, predominately for her role as the snobby, self-absorbed Phyllis Lindstrom on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The character would get her own spin-off, “Phyllis,” running from 1975-1977 where Leachman would also win a Golden Globe.
One of Leachman’s regular collaborators was director Mel Brooks; the pair would work three times throughout her life starting with the 1974 Frankenstein movie, “Young Frankenstein.” She would return to the Brooks fold in 1977 for the Hitchcock parody “High Anxiety,” and Brooks’ 1981 film “History of the World, Part 1.”
Leachman is survived by her four children, six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.