Cloris Leachman, the decorated actress of stage and screen best known for her role as the annoyingly perfect landlady Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, has died

By Dave Quinn
Updated January 27, 2021 07:39 PM
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Cloris Leachman, the decorated actress of stage and screen best known for her role as the annoyingly perfect landlady Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, has died. She was 94.

Leachman's manager, Juliet Green, confirms to PEOPLE that the actress died Wednesday of natural causes.

"It's been my privilege to work with Cloris Leachman, one of the most fearless actresses of our time. There was no one like Cloris. 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," says Green.

"She loved her children and her grandchildren ferociously. A lifelong vegetarian, she was a passionate advocate for animal rights. The family requests that any donations in her name be made to PETA or Last Chance for Animals," continues Green.

According to TMZ, which first reported the news, she passed away at her home in Encinitas, California, with her daughter, Dinah, beside her.

The actress had a Hollywood career for the history books. Seven decades in the business. One of the original members of the famed Actors Studio in New York City. An Oscar. A Golden Globe. And over 20 Emmys nominations and nine wins — more trophies than any other television performer in history.

Born on April 30, 1926 in Des Moines, Iowa, as the eldest of three sisters, Leachman was bit by the acting bug at an early age — appearing in children's plays at Drake University when she was just 8. Her mother, also named Cloris, encouraged her daughter's early interest in entertaining and served as an inspiration for Leachman's sense of humor throughout her career.

"I knew from the very beginning that I didn't belong in Iowa," she told Playgirl magazine in 1972. "When I went into town for my first piano lesson, I took a streetcar to the teacher's studio. It was the staggering cultural shock of my life. There were all those gray people — the nine-to-fivers, sitting in a stupor. Right then I determined with every fiber in my being that I would never be grown down into a gray person."

By 15, Leachman had built up an impressive resume of radio appearances — even receiving a radio scholarship to Northwestern University. It was there as a college student that she would decide to give beauty pageants a shot — competing in the 1946 Miss America pageant as Miss Chicago.

While she didn't snatch the crown, Leachman used the money she did earn from the competition to move to New York City where her acting career would take off. She attended the Actors Studio in its founding years, studying acting under Elia Kazan with people like Marlon Brando, Eli Wallach, and Julie Harris. She said the education opened her up to roles she never dreamed she would have.

Leachman made her Broadway debut in the 1947 farce John Loves Mary, as an understudy. She'd work consistently on the Great White Way every year after for the next 12 years — sometimes in leading roles, like 1950's As You Like It opposite Katharine Hepburn, and others as replacements, like when she stepped into the shoes of Abigail Williams in Arthur Miller's The Crucible in 1953.

Cloris Leachman
| Credit: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

She was both in the original run of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific — taking over the leading role of Nellie Forbush after understudying it from original star Mary Martin.

At the same time, Leachman's television career kicked off with a slew of live broadcasts in the '40s and '50s — beginning with 1948's Night Must Fall on The Ford Theatre Hour. The live anthology TV shows — like SuspenseKraft TheatreDanger, and Matinee Theatre — would be a staple of her career. She'd often film them during the day before rushing to act in a Broadway show at night.

Gigs on LassieRawhideGunsmokeThe Twilight ZoneAlfred Hitchcock Presents, and Perry Mason (among countless others) carried her through the 1970s. Along the way, she cozied up to a few big-name costars — including soon-to-be President Ronald Reagan.

The big screen called, too — though the parts at first were small. Leachman's feature debut was as an extra in 1947's Carnegie Hall. She had a memorable scene in Robert Aldrich's 1955 classic Kiss Me Deadly, but it wasn't a speaking role. She worked with Paul Newman in 1956's The Rack and then again in 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (she played the prostitute).

In 1971, Leachman's performance in The Last Picture Show would prove to be her breakout — earning her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Competing alongside Ann-Margret, Ellen Burstyn, Barbara Harris and Margaret Leighton, it was the first time in the history of the Oscars an entire category was filled with first-time honorees. Leachman would go on to win the top prize.

"I'm having an amazing life, and it isn't over yet," she said in her acceptance speech, before thanking her parents and first piano and dance teachers by name. "Remember when Ben Johnson said in The Last Picture Show, 'I've fought my whole life against' whatever he said? I feel, I fought all my life against clichés. And look at me? I'm a hopeless cliché. … I am deeply honored by this."

It was an unexpected win for Leachman, who played Ruth — the depressed middle-aged wife of a high school football coach who has an affair with a senior on her husband's team. Leachman filmed the movie's pivotal scene, in which she confronts the boy (played by Timothy Bottoms), in just one take.

"I just did it once — I had just learned my lines on the way over there," she told CBS This Morning in 2015. "And then [director Peter Bogdanovich] said 'cut' and I said, 'Wait wait wait wait — I need to do that again.' And he said, 'no.' "

Though the big screen gave Leachman her breakout, television was where she'd find her most iconic role: as Phyllis Lindstrom on 1970's The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Snobbish and biting, Phyllis managed the apartment where Mary and Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) lived — and often clashed with Rhoda. Phyllis also had a tense relationship with Sue Anne Nivens (Betty White), who had an affair with Phyllis' husband.

"She's one of those geniuses who's capable of thinking on the spot and making it funny and making it truthful," Moore told GMA of Leachman in 2010. "I would go to no other person than she to ask for advice."

Cloris Leachman
| Credit: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Leachman earned two consecutive supporting actress Emmys for playing the role, in 1974 and 1975. While she appeared in all seven seasons of the CBS sitcom, Leachman also went solo with the character — leading a spinoff series titled Phyllis from 1975-1977. She'd earn a leading comedy actress Golden Globe award for the show.

During her Mary Tyler Moore Show run, Leachman would originate one of comedy's most cherished punchlines: Frau Blücher in Mel Brooks' 1974 classic, Young Frankenstein. 

The forbidding housekeeper of Dr. Fronkensteen's Transylvanian castle, costar and co-writer Gene Wilder played the sound of a horse's neigh every time Leachman's character's name was spoken — a joke he told the San Jose Mercury News he added when he learned "Blücher" translates to "a horse going to a factory and being turned into glue." (It technically doesn't mean that, but the joke still landed.)

To this date, it's one of the best-known running gags in movie history.

Leachman, who improvised the film's Ovaltine bit, said making the movie was one of her favorite experiences — and that she and Wilder laughed throughout its filming.

"I remember when we were shooting Young Frankenstein there was a scene where I had to get the group up the stairs immediately," she recalled to PEOPLE in August 2016 after Wilder's death. "I had to say, 'Shtay close to zee candles' and turn toward him. As I turned around I could see his face was in two pieces. We had to do our scene 14 times over because he'd be laughing so hard."

She'd reteam with director Mel Brooks (and Young Frankenstein costar Madeline Kahn) in 1977's High Anxiety and 1981's History of the World: Part I — and continue working on the big screen throughout the rest of her career. Notable roles included The Muppet MovieThe Beverly Hillbillies (as Granny), Now and ThenMusic of the Heart (playing Meryl Streep's mom), Bad Santa, Spanglish (a Screen Actor's Guild-nominated performance), The Longest Yard, The WomenThe Wedding Ringer and New York, I Love You (opposite Actors Studio-friend Wallach).

But it was on television where Leachman's career really blossomed, and she reinvented herself decade after decade in one hit role after the next.

From 1986-88, she played Beverly Ann Stickle on The Facts of Life — taking over for Charlotte Rae's Mrs. Garrett as Eastland headmistress. From 2001-06 Leachman guested on Malcolm in the Middle, earning two Emmys for her turn as the family's outspoken grandmother. Her most recent notable television gigs from 2010-2014, as the senile, wacky great-grandma on Raising Hope, and on 2019's Mad About You revival.

Cloris Leachman
| Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

She picked up Emmys for roles in A Brand New LifeCher, Screen Actors Guild 50th Anniversary Celebration, and Promised Land. Other TV appearances of note included The Ellen ShowTouched by an Angel, and Phineas and Ferb. 

There was also Leachman's first and only foray into reality television, as a contestant on season 7 of Dancing with the Stars. She was 82 at the time and came in 6th place.

Her wicked sense of humor carried outside of her many comedic roles. Asked what kept her in the business for so long during a 2014 appearance on Queen Latifah's talk show, the actress simply said: "the money."

She was known to get frisky as a guest on late night television too — notably sharing a long kiss with John Stamos during the Comedy Central Roast to Bob Saget, and with Andy Cohen and Jeff Lewis during an appearance on Bravo's Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen! 

In her personal life, Leachman married Hollywood impresario George Englund in 1953. The couple had four sons and one daughter together: Morgan, Adam, Dinah, George Jr., and Bryan (who died in 1986).

Their marriage wasn't without scandal. Early on, Englund became involved in a torrid affair with Dynasty actress Joan Collins. In her 2010 autobiography, Leachman called it "the most difficult time of my life," since she had just gone through a "terrible miscarriage." Years later, both women would talk openly about the conflict — and the time Collins phoned Leachman at 4 a.m. to say, "I'm in love with your husband — what are you going to do about it?"

They remained together, though Leachman would admit in her book that she too had flings with stars, including Gene Hackman and singer Andy Williams. They eventually divorced in 1979.

Vegetarian since the age of 35, Leachman lived outside a horse farm in the hills above Los Angeles. In her 2010 autobiography, she said she wanted to be remembered for how she approached everything in her life with full force.

"I've lived my life; I haven't trotted alongside it," she wrote. "I've opened the doors of opportunity wherever I've seen them. I've walked into discoveries and dreams, disappointments and death. I bear the scares of not having obeyed rules made by others, and I wear the deep satisfaction of knowing I never bent to conventions I didn't believe in."

Mostly, Leachman said she was proud for how she remained unique up until the end.

"I never wanted to conform," she wrote. "I haven't conformed. I've tried, but I couldn't. I've never put a label on myself. I find it distasteful that people put labels on other people and say that's who they are, that one thing. When I was 46, people said I was in middle age. I shrugged off that designation. I didn't want to be lumped into a group."