Academy Award winner, and eight-time Emmy Award winner Cloris Leachman, died Tuesday from natural causes at her home in Encinitas, CA. She starred in six television shows and earned 22 Emmy nominations over her exceptional seven-decade career. She was 94.
Her longtime manager Juliet Green confirmed the news in a public statement.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its 1975-77 spin-off, Phyllis created the character Phyllis Lindstrom which skyrocketed Leachman’s career. She also famously played the cigar-chewing, violin-playing, over-accented and hilariously funny Frau Blücher in Mel Brooks’ 1974 classic horror spoof, Young Frankenstein.
She also won an Emmy Award among four nominations for Mary Tyler Moore, and a Lead Actress nomination for Phyllis.
She reunited with Brooks to play Nurse Diesel in the 1977 Alfred Hitchcock satirization High Anxiety, and as French revolutionary Madame Defarge in the undervalued 1981 film History of the World, Part I.
She more recently earned an Emmy nomination for playing Maw Maw in Fox’s sitcom Raising Hope, and earned two Emmys and four other nominations for her role as Grandma Ida in the network’s 2000s sitcom, Malcolm in the Middle, opposite Bryan Cranston and Jane Kaczmarek.
Born on April 30, 1926, in Des Moines, Iowa, Leachman launched her career in show business after competing in the 1946 Miss America Pageant, and began with guest appearances on such early TV shows as The Ford Theatre, Suspense, Actor’s Studio, and The Bob & Ray Show. She continued to work in television with roles in such classic series as The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, The Untouchables, Route 66, Wagon Train, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 77 Sunset Strip, and a recurring role on over two dozen episodes of the classic TV series Lassie.
She also began an accomplished Broadway career in the postwar era. After several understudy and smaller roles, she was cast as a replacement for the starring role of Ensign Nellie Forbush in the original run of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, South Pacific. Leachman went on to appear in eight other Broadway shows during the 1950s, including As You Like It, King of Hearts, and Masquerade.
Leachman began focusing on feature films and the emerging TV-movie genre in the early ’70’s. On the big screen, she played Ruth Popper, the lonely middle-aged wife of a closeted-gay high school football coach who began an affair with one of the players (Timothy Bottoms) in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. Her incredible performance earned a Supporting Actress Oscar win.
Leachman went on to costar in John Milius’ Dillinger (1973), and reunited with Bogdanovich and Shepherd for Daisy Miller (1974). Later that year, Leachman would nearly steal the show in Brooks’ cult classic parody, Young Frankenstein.
Her character was delightfully over-the-top as was the black and white movie, set in Transylvania that also starred Gene Hackman, Teri Garr, Marty Feldman, and Madeline Kahn. A recurring gag throughout the gag-filled film saw often unseen horses nervously whinnying at the mere mention of her name. The film remains among the most hilarious movies ever made.
Leachman continued to recur on The Mary Tyler Moore Show throughout the mid ’70,’s. It earned Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy nominations for its first four seasons before winning the category back-to-back-to-back from 1975-77.
Leachman appeared in the high-rated wedding episode of Rhoda in 1974. Following Rhoda’s success, the Eye Network spun off Leachman’s character for the 1975 sitcom, Phyllis which wrapped in 1977, and Rhoda followed suit a year later. Leachman earned an Emmy nomination for the first season of Phyllis a year after winning back-to-back awards for the role in Mary Tyler Moore.
She continued her lengthy film and movie career throughout the 1970s and ’80s before landing her second regular role as a replacement for longtime star Charlotte Rae in NBC’s hit sitcom, The Facts of Life. Leachman took over as the female lead in 1986 for the final two of its nine seasons, playing Beverly Ann Sickle, the chatterbox sister of Rae’s Edna Garrett.
Leachman then started in The Nutt House, a short-lived NBC sitcom created by Alan Spencer and Brooks in which she played a double role opposite fellow High Anxiety and History of the World castmate Harvey Korman. The series about a once extravagant hotel that had fallen on hard times lasted only a handful of episodes.
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NBC paired Leachman with another popular star, Stacy Keach, for Walter and Emily, a multigeneration comedy that ran for one season in 1991-92. That same year she also had a guest appearance voice role in The Simpsons, and she had a brief but memorable voice role in the 1996 feature Beavis and Butt-head Do America where she played an elderly woman who ran into the boys on the road multiple times, referring to them as “Travis and Bob.”
Leachman continued to work in the 1990s, by then well into her 60s and even her 70s. She earned another regular role as Ellen DeGeneres’ fussy mom in CBS’ The Ellen Show, which aired in 2001-02. Around the same time, she first appeared as Grandma Ida in Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle for about a dozen episodes across multiple seasons, earning her a pair of Guest Actress Emmys and six total nominations
In 2012 Leachman voiced a couple episodes of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, which led to her voicing Gran in the 2003’s toon feature The Croods as well as the sequel The Croods: A New Age.
In 2014, the octogenarian secured a recurring voice role in the Amazon animated series Creative Galaxy, and Leachman became an in-demand voice-over actor. She would voice roles in the series Justice League Action and Elena of Avalor, the latter of which wrapped with a primetime special in 2020.
In 2019, at age 93, Leachman was cast as Mrs. Mendelbaum in Spectrum Originals’ revival of the 1990s Paul Reiser-Helen Hunt sitcom, Mad About You where she appeared in 10 episodes.
Leachman would steal other shows in the mid-2010s, serving as a presenter at the Annie Awards with Tom Kenny. Leachman warned winners during ASIFA-Hollywood’s 2014 trophy show, “We don’t have very much time, so hurry up,”. But she also courteously reminded the winners to be careful on their way to the stage because, in her best Frau Blücher voice, “The stairs can be treacherous.”
Cloris Leachman was also a tireless advocate for animal rights. “It was our honor to present her with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her efforts to help animals great and small,” PETA president Lisa Lange said in a statement. “From orcas at SeaWorld and elephants in circuses to caged birds in retirement homes, and we will always treasure her legacy of compassion.”
She was married to filmmaker George Englund for 25 years before they divorced in 1978. Her son Bryan died in 1986, and Englund died in 2017, and she is survived by her children Adam, Morgan, George Jr., and Dinah as well as seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
From Lyda Carter to Adam Sandler, there was an outpouring of reactions to Leachman’s passing on Twitter. Here is a sampling: