Cloris Leachman may be the world’s only 48-year-old wood nymph with five children. She is one of those stars who is always on and, just possibly, a little off. In broad daylight, at the comparatively staid Universal lot, she will mutter, “How do you get out of this whorehouse,” or soar into song. “SunSHIIINE on my SHOOOUULders makes me HAAAP-py!” It is said that even Mel Brooks, whose Blazing Saddles’ stock company of loonies was augmented by Cloris for his next film Young Frankenstein, came to despair of her wacko off-camera doings. But never, never of her on-camera professionalism. In three short years, after three decades in the business (she even played the replacement mother in TV’s Lassie), Cloris Leachman has established herself as one of Hollywood’s most versatile and sought-after actresses.
Her award-winning roles are the proof of her virtuosity. The big one, of course, was her grindingly accurate rendition of the coach’s wife in The Last Picture Show, which won her an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress of 1972. She has won an Emmy for the character of Phyllis, Mary Tyler Moore’s unladylike landlady. There is a second Emmy for yet another sort of role, the glamorous, upper-middle-class housewife who finds herself 40 and pregnant for the first time in the made-for-TV movie, A Brand New Life. It was her only leading actress award, a fact of nomenclature that galls Cloris. “That’s wrong,” she declares. “I think it should be called ‘Best Leading Actress in a Supporting Role.’ I didn’t grow up saying to myself, ‘Hey, someday I want to be a supporting actress.’ ”
She most certainly grew up wanting to act though, and pursued it as avidly as anyone can in Des Moines, Iowa. At age 11 she hitchhiked a coal truck, with her mother’s encouragement, to nearby Drake University, where she auditioned for—and won—a part in a children’s radio show. At 15 she won a special summer drama scholarship to Northwestern. Later, as an undergraduate, she won the school’s best actress award in her sophomore year. About that time her attractively aquiline features and estimable figure sent her to Atlantic City, and as Miss Chicago she was one of the finalists in the 1946 Miss America pageant.
From there she went to the Actors Studio in New York, where she was told by a serious young classmate named Julie Harris, “If I had your bust, I would rule the world.” Bust or no, Cloris was better known for her irreverent and aberrant behavior. In 1953, moments before she was to begin shooting a live TV drama, she turned to a startled actor and asked, “Should I marry him?” “Him” was producer George Englund, to whom she now has been married, more or less, for 21 years. They have had four sons, a daughter, two major separations and a few minor ones.
“We split up every 10 years for a couple of years,” she recounts cheerily. “Now we’re back together again, this time permanently, I think. He said to me, ‘You’re the mongoose to my cobra. You’ve finally worn me down to the point where I can’t think of anything but you.’ ” Would she prescribe a cobra-mongoose marriage for the folks in the cheap seats? “I think husbands and wives should live in separate houses,” she announces, with a gleam in her gray-green eyes. “If there’s enough money, the children should live in a third.” Then she adds, “The family is the center of my existence. I put all my hopes and caringness and deepest feelings into it. That’s why I feel no resentment at arriving so late as an actress. I chose to have children early, and I don’t regret it.”
So what else is going on in her life, besides being Helpmeet and Mum of the Year in her seven-room house in Mandeville Canyon? Well, she played mother to Cybill Shepherd’s lamentable Daisy Miller. As it turned out, Cloris was the only one to escape from Peter Bogdanovich’s exploded petard without a sliver of shrapnel. Most critics loved her, hated the movie and the star. Says Cloris, “If Peter wanted to make Cybill Daisy Miller, I think we should take the French attitude—vive I’amour. Cybill is an intelligent woman whom I admire, but I think perhaps Daisy Miller might have needed an actress with more levels.”
Explaining her own remarkable reach and her various causes (vegetarianism and stamping out smoking, among others), Cloris says, “It keeps me from being bored to death.” That fate is not bloody likely. She is appearing in three Mary Tyler Moore segments this season, naturally showed for the wedding on Rhoda, did a couple of TV movies, a PBS drama, has shot two different pilots (shelved for now, at least) of her own TV series, and has sung at local fund-raising functions and on Sonny Bono’s short-lived variety hour. The other day, while finishing up a TV movie, she sat down at the makeup table and suddenly turned sober and philosophical. “We’re having to learn to deal with people rather than conventions,” she observed. “We’ve tried to shoehorn marriage into conventional molds and actors and actresses into categories. We’ve got to have the bravery to break away from that.” The makeup man went unconcernedly about his work; and without warning Cloris burst into, “How ya gonna KEEEEPEM down on the FAARRM…” How, indeed.