Born in Des Moines, Iowa, on April 30, 1926, Cloris Leachman 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 just 11 years old.
At 15 she won a special summer drama scholarship to Northwestern University, and later, as an undergraduate, she won the school's best actress award in her sophomore year.
Leachman set off for Atlantic City, and as Miss Chicago, she was one of the finalists in the 1946 Miss America pageant.
"It was really fun," she told PEOPLE in 2008. "You had to get yourself together — do your own makeup, your own hair and what you were going to wear. My mother was with me the whole time. My father came the last two days [of the competition]."
From there she went to the Actors Studio in New York. 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 (pictured), to whom she was married for 26 years, from 1953 to 1979. Together, they had five children.
"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," she told PEOPLE in 1974.
Son Bryan died in 1986 of an overdose. "I think about him every day," she told PEOPLE in 2008.
Though she made several movies in her early years — including two with Paul Newman — TV was where Leachman found the most fame, appearing on series including The Twilight Zone (pictured) in the '50s and '60s.
The actress' big break came in 1970 with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, on which she played Phyllis Lindstrom. She won two Emmys for the part and later scored a spinoff series, Phyllis. For that, she won a Golden Globe.
Funnyman Mel Brooks relied on Leachman's comedic skills in three of his films, including 1974's Young Frankenstein (pictured), High Anxiety and History of the World: Part I. She also appeared on his 1989 TV series, The Nutt House.
Leachman worked exhaustively through the rest of her life, appearing in everything from The Muppet Movie and Facts of Life (pictured) to The Ellen Show and Malcolm in the Middle, for which she won two Emmys.
In her later years, Leachman took on voice work on series including Justice League Action, Elena of Avalor, Creative Galaxy and Phineas and Ferb. Her last major on-screen TV role was on the 2019 Mad About You reboot.
On Jan. 27, 2021, PEOPLE confirmed the TV icon died at the age of 94. A proud grandmother and great-grandmother, she was also tied with Julia Louis-Dreyfus for the most-awarded actress in Emmy history, with eight wins and 22 nominations.
"There was no one like Cloris," her manager, Juliet Green, told PEOPLE. "With a single look she had the ability to break your heart or make you laugh till the tears ran down your face. You never knew what Cloris was going to say or do and that unpredictable quality was part of her unparalleled magic."