Today an award-winning actress and activist turns 86 years young. Still going strong and looking great, let’s celebrate Cloris Leachman. Born in Des Moines, IA, she majored in drama at Illinois State University and Northwestern (where she was classmates with Paul Lynde). She launched into early success in pageants, winning Miss Chicago and competing in Miss America 1946. From there she moved into her acting career.
Leachman attended Elia Kazan’s Actors Studio, where she met life-long friend Marlon Brando. She began a Broadway career, including being asked by Katharine Hepburn to co-star in As You Like It. She also started what would become a highly celebrated television career at this time with many cameos and guest appearances on 1950s series. Her film career began with a bit part, but she soon took on starring roles, working opposite Paul Newman in her third movie, Kiss Me Deadly. In 1971 she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her stunning performance in The Last Picture Show. A very different role than the comedic performances for which she is best known, it is one of the finest supporting actress performances of all time and shows the true depth of her talent and quite honestly her performance left me in awe. Just to prove her versatility, perhaps her other best-known movie role is as the scene-stealing Frau Blücher in Mel Brooks’ finest comedy, Young Frankenstein. (“He vas my…BOYFRIEND!”)
Cloris Leachman became best known for her role in the Mary Tyler Moore Show in the early 70s. Appearing in several episodes in the first five seasons as Phyllis Lindstrom, Mary’s nosy and opinionated neighbor and landlady, she was nominated three times for best supporting actress (winning once) and rewarded with her own spin-off series, Phyllis. My very favorite episode features the introduction of Betty White as Sue Ann Nivens, who has an affair with Phyllis’ invisible husband, Lars. (Enjoy this clip of the Lars Affair, featuring my favorite Phyllis speech about The Life of the Bee at 4:15.) In the forty years since, Leachman has had numerous guest and starring roles on TV, including a fantastic run as Ellen’s mother on the short-lived but delightful The Ellen Show. She has amassed a record-setting eight prime-time Emmy awards and one daytime Emmy.
Not content to have a successful career, she is also an outspoken activist. She is best known for her work for animal rights, working closely with PETA and mounting campaigns to retire elderly animals from their public careers (in circuses and the like). She is an outspoken vegetarian, appearing in this all-lettuce dress. An honest woman who is proud of her body and her age, she also advocates for respect for the elderly and fights ageism by proving you can look great and be happy and still look your age. She interviewed with InTouch magazine in 2009 about living healthy and naturally, including admitting to one brief, unhappy flirtation with Botox. Asked if she’d ever do it again, she replied
No! It was ridiculous. You can’t just have part of your face not moving and the rest moving everywhere. That doesn’t work.
Leachman’s honesty, energy, and wit make her an effective champion for many causes. She advocates for women’s rights and LGBT equality as well, including serving as Grand Marshall of the 2010 San Diego Pride Parade. Here’s to Cloris Leachman! Who can guess what the next decade will bring?