Cloris Leachman, a multifaceted Oscar-winning actress who gave a tour de force performance as a desperately lonely Texas housewife in “The Last Picture Show” and a tour de farce portrayal of the grim-faced Transylvanian housekeeper Frau Blücher in “Young Frankenstein,” died Jan. 27 at her home in Encinitas, Calif. She was 94.
Her manager, Juliet Green, confirmed the death but did not give a precise cause.
Leachman began her astonishingly prolific eight-decade career performing radio plays as a child in Iowa. She appeared in Shakespearean comedy and Eugene O’Neill melodrama on Broadway in the 1950s, was a television mainstay from the dawn of the medium and, at 82, became the oldest female contestant on “Dancing With the Stars.” In the industriousness she displayed into her senior years, she was matched perhaps only by comedian Betty White.
Lissome and alluring in her prime – she had been a Miss America finalist at 20 – Ms. Leachman often played down or even grotesquely obscured her looks on-screen. She donned hairy warts, dominatrix outfits and ludicrously conical breasts for films under director Mel Brooks, including the 1930s horror-film sendup “Young Frankenstein” (1974), the Alfred Hitchcock parody “High Anxiety” (1977) and the madcap “History of the World: Part I” (1981).
“I was madly in love with Cloris right from the beginning,” Brooks later wrote of their collaboration on “Young Frankenstein.” “She could do anything.”
Leachman won eight Primetime Emmy Awards and one daytime Emmy – for years, a record for an actress – for roles as varied as the flamboyantly overbearing landlady Phyllis Lindstrom on the 1970s CBS sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and a foster mother of a musically gifted disabled child in the ABC after-school special “The Woman Who Willed a Miracle” (1983).
She received other Emmys for playing a 40-year-old woman unnerved by her first pregnancy in the ABC-TV film “A Brand New Life” (1973), her 1975 singing appearance on the CBS musical variety series “Cher” and as the insensitive grandmother on the early 2000s comedy series “Malcolm in the Middle” on Fox.
In 1974, she portrayed an itinerant farmworker struggling to keep her family together in the CBS film “The Migrants,” based on a Tennessee Williams story. “She disappears into the role; we are never conscious of any acting,” arts critic John Leonard wrote in the New York Times.
“The Last Picture Show” (1971), directed in black and white by Peter Bogdanovich and based on a Larry McMurtry novel set in a desolate north Texas prairie town in 1951, was a showcase for Leachman’s dramatic range.
As the neglected wife of a high school football coach, she depicted the longing of a middle-aged woman seeking emotional connection. The search leads to an affair with one of her husband’s players (Timothy Bottoms), a sensitive youth who briefly abandons her for a fling with the town beauty (Cybill Shepherd). Leachman’s portrayal, weaving resignation, lashing anger and ultimately tenderness, was a master class in the rendering of wounded pride.
The character, she told the Houston Chronicle, recalled for her a cow going to slaughter. “There’s not a lot of fight in them,” she said. “Pigs, they’d squeal and thrash around. They’d fight. It’s almost as if cows don’t know they have a choice. Not that they don’t panic, but they do so in a quiet way. . . . They’re frozen. Like Ruth is.”
Leachman won an Academy Award for her supporting part and later reprised the role in a tepid sequel, “Texasville” (1990).
It was “Young Frankenstein,” however, that delivered her enduring place in film history. The movie was bursting with brilliant visual and verbal gags that paid irreverent tribute to Universal Studios horror films such as “Frankenstein” with Boris Karloff and “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi.
The cast included Gene Wilder (who co-wrote the script) as Frederick Frankenstein, the highly strung American grandson of Mary Shelley’s mad scientist. He tries to rebel against his heritage (“that’s Frahn-kahn-STEEN”) but is inexorably drawn back into his grandfather Victor’s work making a monster in his eerie mountaintop laboratory. Marty Feldman played his cheeky manservant, Igor (“that’s EYE-gor”).
To play Frau Blücher, Leachman tied her hair in a tight bun, affixed a chin mole and gave her skin a sickly pallor with makeup – she was made to resemble Judith Anderson’s severe housekeeper Mrs. Danvers from “Rebecca” (1940). But the pièce de résistance was her German accent and her fearsome glare. Horses whinny in horror at the mention of her name.
Leachman made the deadpan most of her deliciously cockeyed lines. “Stay close to zee candles,” she says, holding an oversized candelabra with unlit candlesticks as she climbs a shadowy staircase. She overdoes her offer of a nightcap to an increasingly angry Frankenstein, first proffering brandy, then “varm milk . . . perhaps?” and, finally, the chocolate malted kid’s drink Ovaltine. Later, she confesses to a dark secret: “Yes! Yes!” she shouts of Victor Frankenstein. “He voss my boyfriend!”
Three years later, when Brooks asked her to play the bondage-loving Nurse Diesel in “High Anxiety,” she said he essentially imagined a reprise of Frau Blücher in a psychiatric institution.
To avoid duplicating the role, she sported what she described as “torpedo-shaped breasts” that jutted to her chin. She penciled in a light mustache and spoke through pursed lips and the corner of her mouth, sounding like the TV host Ed Sullivan.
“My intention,” she told the Los Angeles Times, “is not to do something I’ve done before.”
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Cloris Leachman was born in Des Moines on April 30, 1926, and grew up in a lonely rural patch of land beyond the city limits. Her father, a lumber company owner, was taciturn and remote, she recalled in her self-titled memoir. Her mother, she said, was determined to light a creative spark in her three daughters, of whom Cloris was the oldest. (Her sister Claiborne Cary became an actress and cabaret singer.)
Leachman attended Northwestern University on a drama scholarship, did modeling and won the Miss Chicago beauty contest, which propelled her to the 1946 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City.
“I had the good sense not to win,” she told the Toronto Star a half-century later. “I wanted $1,000 cash as runner-up.”
She went to New York, where she studied at the fledgling Actors Studio workshop under director Elia Kazan, and was a replacement for Mary Martin as Nellie Forbush in the original Broadway run of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “South Pacific.”
Leachman made a strong critical impression as the capricious Celia in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” (1950), which starred Katharine Hepburn as Rosalind, and in a series of other short-lived Broadway plays, including a 1958 production of O’Neill’s “A Touch of the Poet” as the headstrong daughter Sara Melody.
Television work provided a secure paycheck – except when Leachman, known for her tart tongue, indulged in flouting industry protocol. She was fired in 1958 as the young mother on the TV show “Lassie” because she refused to do promotional work for the sponsor, Campbell’s Soup. “I make my own soup,” she snapped. “I don’t eat yours.”
Her movie debut had been in “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955), based on the Mickey Spillane thriller, in which she made a memorable entrance running barefoot on a lonely highway, wearing only a raincoat. She later had a small part as a long-haired prostitute in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969).
She was a perpetual guest star on TV shows ranging from “The Twilight Zone” to “Rawhide” before “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” made her a household name in the early 1970s and earned her two Emmys for her supporting role. A spinoff, “Phyllis,” aired on CBS from 1975 to 1977, featuring her as a decidedly ungrieving widow in San Francisco.
Leachman continued to bring great sensitivity to her dramatic roles, including her long-running one-woman stage show about the painter Grandma Moses; her Emmy-winning guest turn in 1998 as a dying matriarch in the CBS drama series “Promised Land”; and her portrayal of the supportive mother of violinist Roberta Guaspari (played by Meryl Streep) in “Music of the Heart” (1999).
She also replaced Charlotte Rae in 1986 as the housemother to a group of female adolescents on “The Facts of Life,” staying with the NBC sitcom until its cancellation in 1988.
But for the most part, she embraced unorthodox, aggressively undignified parts. She was Tea Leoni’s alcoholic jazz-singing mother in the comedy “Spanglish” (2004), portrayed an inappropriately frisky prison secretary in “The Longest Yard” (2005) opposite Adam Sandler and was the sausage-loving grandmother in the raunchy “Beerfest” (2006). She spouted vulgarities as a guest on Comedy Central’s roast of actor and comedian Bob Saget in 2008 and later played a kooky grandmother on the Fox sitcom “Raising Hope.”
An uninhibited interviewee, Leachman spoke about her longtime open marriage to producer-director George Englund, whom she later divorced; her one-night stand with “feisty lad” Gene Hackman; and her on-set flirtations with “Mary Tyler Moore” co-star Ed Asner, with whom she agreed to an assignation if he lost 32 pounds. “He got to 29 pounds, and he went back up,” she told the Bergen Record. “I don’t know who was more frightened, he or I.”
She had five children from her marriage, including Bryan, who died of a drug overdose in 1986. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Despite a litany of physical ailments, the aging Leachman underwent an excruciating training regimen to compete on “Dancing With the Stars.” The judges were charmed by her moxie but not impressed with her moves. Although voted off the show, she jokingly refused to leave, basking in a standing ovation from the live audience.
“Courage is something not generally associated with acting,” she wrote in her memoir. “For me, it’s a crucial element.”