Some icons seem stiff, formal – ethereal. That was never the case with Cloris Leachman, the queer icon and legendary actress who died at 94 on Jan. 27 at her home in Encinitas, Calif. Leachman was as earthy as your granny, as eccentric as your wacky, but beloved aunt and sassier than any diva you ever met.
To me and her many other aficionados, aged eight to 80, it feels as if we’ve lost the actress who could tear your heart out (in movies like “The Last Picture Show”) one minute, and leave you rolling on the floor laughing (as in “Young Frankenstein,” the hilarious Mel Brooks horror spoof) the next.
It’s a hoary cliche to say that someone’s a life force. But, how else to describe Leachman? Born in Des Moines, she acted in children’s theater when she was 7. After becoming a Miss America finalist, Leachman studied at the renowned Actor’s Studio. In 1950, Leachman appeared on Broadway in “As You Like It” with Katharine Hepburn.
Decades later, she went back to the stage. In 1989 and 1990, she appeared in theaters across the country in “Grandma Moses: An American Primitive.”
Some Boomers remember Leachman as Ruth, the mother in the 1957-58 season of the TV show “Lassie.” Leachman told interviewers that the show’s powers-that-be had to remind her that the star of the show was Lassie, not her.
You wonder how Leachman could have the energy, stamina, and talent to do all that she did in her lifetime. She won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her heart-rending portrayal of the lonely coach’s wife in “The Last Picture Show” and eight Primetime Emmys (for her work on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Cher” and other shows).
Leachman flipped the bird to ageism. Until, the end of her life, she defied stereotypes about getting old. At 82, she appeared on “Dancing with the Stars.”
In 2009, “Cloris,” her autobiography (written with her ex-husband, the late George Englund), came out. From it, we learn that Leachman, among her many accomplishments, cooked chili “that was given four stars by both Elizabeth Taylor and the volunteer firemen of East Rochester.” (Englund sponsored a theater in East Rochester, N.Y.)
In her 80s and into her 90s, Leachman played zany, bawdy, demented grannies on “Malcolm in the Middle” and other shows.
At age 94, the last year of her life, she appeared as a frail, but energetic, grandma in the queer family drama “Jump, Darling.”
“At that age, most people are either long since passed or snoozing all day in front of their televisions,” Glenn Gaylord wrote in “The Queer Review” of her performance in the movie. “Cloris, however, is still at the top of the Call Sheet, showing up for work, and delivering powerful performances.”
Like many of my generation, I came to love Leachman as Phyllis, the bonkers, exasperating, but lovable, and in her way, loving friend on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” In college, we watched Mary (Mary Tyler Moore), single and the only woman, navigate the newsroom in fictional TV station WJM in Minneapolis. Rhoda (Valerie Harper) was her BFF. Yet, in many episodes, Phyllis (played fabulously by Leachman) was the highlight of the show.
As I’ve written in the Blade before, one episode of the program in 1973, “My Brother’s Keeper,” was groundbreaking in its queer representation. The show treated being gay as a normal part of life. Phyllis is dismayed that her brother Ben, who’s visiting, is hanging out with Rhoda. “I’m not going to marry, Ben,” Rhoda says, “he’s not my type.”
“Why not?” asks Phyllis, “he’s educated, he’s successful…”
“He’s gay,” Rhoda says.
At a time when being gay was thought to be a mental illness, the show helped us to come out to ourselves.
Thank you, Cloris, for your wonderful work and fearless life. R.I.P.