Spotlight On: Cloris Leachman
Recently we mourned the loss of a beloved veteran of film and television, Cloris Leachman. A former beauty pageant contestant, Leachman trained in the art of acting under the tutelage of legendary filmmaker Elia Kazan at the prestigious Actor’s Studio. From there she went from the stage to the screen embarking on a career which lasted decades. Through countless film and television shows, Cloris Leachman portrayed numerous memorable characters and won every award available. With her passing at age leaving a massive hole in entertainment, it is fitting today to shine the Spotlight On Cloris Leachman.
The Twilight Zone “It’s a Good Life” (1961): One of the most famous episodes of one of the greatest TV shows of all-time. A spoiled, self-absorbed, and arrogant child somehow finds himself with nearly omnipotent power and the adults in his community to failed to raise him properly now live in fear. Cloris Leachman was tasked with portraying the mother of this monster in child form. She is terrific as a woman whose entire existence is a Hellish nightmare, but she cannot show it or she risks a trip to “the cornfield”. Years later during one of the Twilight Zone revivals, Leachman returned to reprise her role in a sequel episode “It’s Still a Good Life”.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977): Hoping to start a new life in the big city and make it after all, Mary Richards moves to New York. She makes her home in a studio apartment where she gets to know her downstairs neighbor Phyllis. She is a nosey, self-absorbed busy-body but Cloris Leachman made Phyllis Lindstrom one of the most entertaining characters on television. In fact she proved so popular that in 1975, the actress was given her own spin-off Phyllis, which moved the character to San Francisco following her husband’s death. This role saw Leachman receive four Emmy nominations with a win in 1974.
The Last Picture Show (1971): When a director casts an actress in a film with the intention that the entire film would lead to an emotionally heavy climax which they would carry, the pressure is on. Not only did Cloris Leachman thrive under this pressure she won an Academy Award for her performance as Ruth Popper. In this Peter Bogdanovich classic, anyone living in the Texas town of Anarene is stuck in that fading community including, Ruth the bored housewife of the local high school gym coach. Married to a closet homosexual and nothing left to aspire to she begins an affair with one of her husband’s students Sonny. At the end of the film, a visit from Sonny causes her hit her breaking point. Captured in one take, Cloris Leachman goes on a tear-filled tirade full of rage and sadness before finally settling down the famous line “Never you mind, honey”.
Young Frankenstein (1974): Leachman was a frequent collaborator with comedy great Mel Brooks, but her most famous character in a Brooks film was the one whose name made horses crazy, Frau Blucher. Doctor Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced Fronk-en-steen) believes she is the strange housekeeper of his ancestral home. But he learns that she knows much more about this castle than where the Ovaltine is kept because his grandfather was ….HER BOYFRIEND!!!! Cloris Leachman made each scene of Young Frankenstein that she was in instantly memorable.
Crazy Mama (1975): A cool, kitschy and underrated film sees Leachman play Melba Stokes the owner of a family beauty parlor in Long Beach. When the parlor is repossessed, it starts Melba on a life of crime along the way to her old family home in Arkansas. At the end of the day this flick is dilled with hijinks and a killer rock n’ roll soundtrack, making Crazy Mama a fun film which deserves a boost in popularity.
Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006): In a recurring role in one of the funniest shows of the 21st century, Cloris Leachman introduced herself to a new generation of fans and picked up another Emmy award. As Ida Welker she is the conniving mother of Lois and grandmother of Malcolm, Francis, Reese, and Dewey. With every appearance she made, Ida had some hilariously evil new scheme from bringing a slave to wed Reese to stabbing Francis with a knitting needle to being openly racist to anyone who is not white, even withholding Christmas gifts. She proved an absolute terror to her family but a joy for the TV audience.
Raising Hope (2010-2014): As the matriarch of the dysfunctional Chance family, Cloris Leachman received her 23rd Emmy nomination as Barbara June AKA Maw Maw. When Jimmy finds himself having to care for the daughter which came from his one-night stand with a serial killer his entire family unit has to pull together if there is to be any success. This excludes his senile Maw Maw who needs just as much parenting as young Hope does. As the show’s wacky scene stealer Leachman proves absolutely hysterical forcing her family to adapt to her. The other characters look always look forward to her famed lucid moments when Maw Maw can dispense the maturity and wisdom the rest of them desperately need, but those moments are few and are between. Through its four season run, Raising Hope built a solid cult following and Cloris Leachman was a big part of its success.