In an industry in which many women complain of a dearth of roles after they leave their 30s, Cloris Leachman is living proof that there's life after 40. And 50. And 60. At 78, Leachman is one of the most sought-after actors working today. She has no fewer than five films set to be released over the next year, and that's not counting her recurring, Emmy-winning role as the world's worst grandmother on the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle. After working for years onstage and in the golden age of television, Leachman hit her stride in the 1970s with her iconic role as self-absorbed Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show—and its spinoff, Phyllis—and unforgettable performances in several classic films. She was in her 40s when she won an Oscar for her poignant turn as neglected housewife Ruth Popper in The Last Picture Show, delivering a searing performance that was the polar opposite from her television persona. Even further from Ruth was her pair of beloved characters from her two '70s collaborations with Mel Brooks: Young Frankenstein's wonderfully creepy Frau Blücher (insert horse sound effect here) and High Anxiety's ramrod-stiff Nurse Diesel.
In such roles, Leachman was usually forced into unflattering prosthetics and costumes that hid her natural beauty. So it's interesting to note that she is a former beauty queen who was a finalist in the Miss America pageant before she went to study with luminaries such as Elia Kazan at The Actors Studio in New York. In person she is radiant, looking far younger than her years, with a pair of the brightest green eyes I've ever seen. These eyes sparkle and dance as she recounts tales from the Hollywood studio system, advice from co-stars such as Katherine Hepburn, and how she's kept her longevity in a business that thrives on the flavor of the month.
She is also enthused to be talking about her new film, Spanglish, which reunites her with Mary Tyler Moore creator James L. Brooks. It's a tale of an affluent Los Angeles couple (Adam Sandler and Téa Leoni) who experiences a culture clash when they hire a Latina housekeeper (Paz Vega). Leachman steals scenes as Leoni's blunt, salty mother. A former jazz singer who is rarely seen without a drink in hand, Leachman's Evelyn is a specialty of the actor: the somewhat-reprehensible matriarch you can't help but adore. It's a role that has already generated strong awards buzz for the actor, who, in addition to her Oscar, holds a record-breaking eight Emmys for her body of work.
Back Stage West: How did you originally get into performing?
Cloris Leachman: My mother. She would get a monologue from Samuel French Publishing House, and she would coach a few young women way out in the country outside of Des Moines. She got one for me one time, when I was about 7. That was the first time. And then I did a little radio. [My mother] said, "Why don't you go down to the filling station about a half-mile down the road, and see if you can get a ride into town to Drake University. They're trying out for a children's program." About 20 minutes later I got a ride on a coal truck into town and got to Drake, tried out for it, and got the lead role of The Little Princess in a radio program, which I did for about a year. Then I started reading the funny papers at a station in Des Moines. By the time I was 17, I had my own radio show in the summer during the war.
From there I did a little theatre. It didn't occur to me that I was "trying out." I would just go get the part. I did a play when I was 17 at what is now called The Des Moines Community Playhouse, and a man came to town; it turned out he was the director of a short Warner Bros. was going to make about the WACs: Women at War. He saw me in the play and wrote a part in for me. That was the very first film I ever made.
BSW: Did you ever consider a career other than acting?
Leachman: Oh, sure. I had to make a career book when I was 14, and I was either going to be a concert pianist, a social worker, an architect, or I was going to marry an architect. [Laughs.] But I had the smell of sawdust in my nose, not greasepaint, because my father worked at a lumber company. And I love the smell of fresh-sawed lumber and fresh-cut grass.
What happened, though, was that somebody would see me do something and ask me to be in something else. I was in another play at the playhouse, and the director of the NHSI [National High School Institute] at Northwestern University—it's called the Cherub program—saw me. I think 75,000 people apply and not very many get in, and I got a scholarship there. And later a scholarship to Northwestern University.
BSW: You had a lot of success early on in theatre. How was it making the transition to films?
Leachman: One time I came out here, and they said they could offer me a seven-year contract, or I could go back to New York and stay in the theatre and do live television. They said I might be too old for Hollywood. I was 23. But the thought of having a seven-year contact and knowing where I was going to be for seven years—it was the only depression I've ever known in my entire life. I was plunged into a black depression at the thought. I'm so glad not to have gone through the studio system. At the same time, I wish I had had that kind of support that the studio system gave people, because I've always been on my own. I didn't have anybody telling me what to wear or how to do my hair and makeup. I had to learn it all on my own.
BSW: When did you realize you had a flair for comedy?
Leachman: There was no place in comedy for women. I had about seven different things offered to me at one point. One was to be Dick Van Dyke's new wife, one was to be Andy Griffith's new wife, and one was to be in the Henry Fonda film Sometimes a Great Notion. And I chose the Mary Tyler Moore Show because it was a comedy.
BSW: You were also fortunate to have a fan in Mel Brooks. How did your collaboration begin?
Leachman: Several years before we worked together in films, I had done an episode of The Andy Williams Show. It was a comedy sketch written for Tony Randall by a young man named Mel. Tony kept saying that I was stealing the scene—in a very complimentary way, not complaining. It was great fun, and Mel asked me out a little bit, but I was already going with somebody. But I know he remembered me, and he called me on the set of Mary Tyler Moore with his first role for me. He called and said, "I've written another part for you."
BSW: He wrote some great parts for you, but it seemed like he always went out of his way to obscure your beauty.
Leachman: I always had a mole. Hairy ones, too. And every time I was in another picture, the mole would be bigger and the hair would be longer. One time I was eating scrambled eggs, and the makeup man was putting the mole on me, and he dropped it. And, you know, we never found that mole.
BSW: You worked with Spanglish director James L. Brooks on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. How was it working with him all these years later?
Leachman: When I read for this role for Jim Brooks—I know him, and there's no reason I would need to read for him—what I realized was that he wanted me, but he wasn't sure, because he had pictured a 60-year-old. Well, I'm 78. For him to go with a 78-year-old is a big stretch. After I read for him, I said, "What do you think?" He said, "That was great. But I think you're too old." We looked at each other, like, "Well, now what do we do?" He asked me to come back the next day, and Téa read with me, and we played around a bit. I gave him a big hug and left, and, two days later, they called me to come for a fitting, and I was in the picture. Later he said he had had a definite idea in his brain, and he was so glad he had to change his mind like he did.
He's such a lovely man; you just want to do more than you can do to please him. The best directors, they create a very safe place and run it so respectfully. There's expectation of you, but not like a dare. It's top-drawer and makes you want to be better than you've ever been. Sometimes I've walked to set and just learned my lines on the way before doing a take, like on Lassie. But then you get something like Spanglish, and you go to the set, and it's so wonderfully set up, and there's so much to work with, and it's remarkable. He's a remarkable person. I've known him a long time, but I haven't really known him. I mean, he's up there. I'm the actor down here, just trying to please him.
BSW: As in Spanglish, you seem to excel at making us care about characters that can be pretty unlikeable. Is there a secret to that?
Leachman: You can't judge them. They think they're right. My character in Malcolm in the Middle is the grandma from Hell, she's from the Old World, and she's got to teach her grandson to have some guts and bravery. So she throws rocks at them and cold-cocks him in one scene. I even stabbed one of them in the thigh with my big long knitting needle. And when he flinches, I twist it. Isn't that horrible? But she believes she's in the right. Same in Spanglish; my character says some horrible things. But they're great lines, so much fun.
BSW: How did you go about creating that intimacy with Téa Leoni, your on-screen daughter?
Leachman: She's remarkable. I felt very easy about playing mother and daughter; it was instant. Sometimes it's like that.
I noticed when I was younger and had to play a married couple, you didn't tend to touch each other or be familiar with each other in the ways married people really would. I did a Frank Sinatra show once where I played his wife, and it was a big to-do. The director wanted to rehearse for two or three days, and Frank's middleman said, "Oh, he doesn't rehearse." So the director said, "OK, we'll just come in early and work," and the guy said, "He doesn't come in till 11." So the director said, "Uh, OK, we'll just do it on film," and the guy said, "One take." So we rehearsed two or three days with a stand-in, and finally the director got so frustrated, he took [the stand-in] by the neck and threw him offstage and read the lines himself. So finally the day arrives, and Frank is due in at 11, and I'm being made up when the makeup man gets a call. I could tell from the way he kept saying "Yes, sir," that it was Frank. So I said, in my best B-dialogue mode, "Is that Frank? Well, you tell him that his leading lady is used to having a dozen roses delivered to her dressing room every day. I'm going to lunch." I came back from lunch, and there were two dozen long-stemmed roses with a note saying, "Welcome. Frank." Of course I just melted into him when we met. It was an instant familiarity.
But one time I worked with Henry Fonda on a stage play where I played his daughter-in-law, and he was living in my house, and he was in a wheelchair, and I was supposed to be taking care of him. And do you think I could touch that man? I was so intimidated that I just couldn't; I just couldn't bring myself to handle him. It finally occurred to me to ask the prop department for a lap robe. I folded up the lap robe and put it on the back of the wheelchair, and at one point I wanted to show the audience that I take care of this man, I'm in charge, and I'm not intimidated. So I took the thing off, and I shook it and snapped it very smartly and put it back on. That showed I did it all the time, I was familiar with him, and I was in charge. And I never did have to touch him. And it worked.
BSW: So you were using props to help convey your character?
Leachman: Using those objects to show the audience things about your character are things I learned at the Actors Studio. And I'm always looking for things to do like that. They just enliven and illuminate your character.
I remember my first entrance, I had no lines. I was supposed to walk across the stage and put ice in an ice bucket. Well, that's pretty boring. And I was sure I was going to get fired. I finally figured it out, that I should be trying to pep things up instead of dissolving into the background. So I walked across the living room with the ice bucket, went by the sofa, and, as I was going across the stage, I kicked the cushions on the sofa to plump them up. It got a big laugh and a hand, and we were off to the races.
In that same play, John Lithgow played a character who brings his dippy girlfriend to the house. I remember I hardly had any lines, but my character clearly just can't stand her. Well, how do you show that? I needed something, but I didn't know what. The prop department was, like, "What do you need?" I said, "I don't know … candy?" They said, "What kind? Hard, soft, chewy?" I said, "Hard." They said, "Wrapped or unwrapped?" I said, "Wrapped." They said, "In a bowl, a stem glass? Cover or no cover?" I said, "Covered." So when her character came on and started babbling, the audience saw me take the cover off the candy dish, slowly unwrap the candy, put it in my mouth, and it was a jawbreaker. And as she's going on and on, you hear, "Crash." I bit, and it cracked so loud. A laugh and a hand. It was perfect. Again, an object gave me something to do.
BSW: You won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress a little more than 30 years ago, and now your performance in Spanglish is generating the same kind of buzz. How does it feel to be back in this place three decades later?
Leachman: Well, with The Last Picture Show, I didn't think I had enough time on-screen when I was making it. It didn't feel like there would be a full enough character to qualify. With Spanglish, it's comedic, so I don't know if that will qualify in terms of awards [consideration]. But as far as making it and loving it, I'm so thankful that I got to be in it with all these wonderful people. It's a rare, rare experience, and I feel sorry for myself that I won't likely have a chance to have this kind of experience again. BSW