It really did seem like Cloris Leachman could do it all. The accolade-laden actress—who died Tuesday of natural causes at the age of 94—bounced from dramatic turns in project like Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 drama The Last Picture Show (for which she won an Oscar) to playing for laughs on sitcoms The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Malcolm In The Middle (for which she won four of her eight Primetime Emmy Awards), to busting out an aria with the Muppets or a cha-cha on Dancing With The Stars. Leachman was the consummate performer—performing even the bawdiest of roles with class and grace. As we look back on her career, which spanned seven decades and includes two roles in films yet to be released, The A.V. Club asks ourselves and our readers: How will you remember Cloris Leachman?
The Last Picture Show is a bleak, beautiful movie, depicting a tiny Texas town in decline. Director Peter Bogdanovich’s use of black and white, seen as artistic in 1971, only heightens the dramatic dreariness, but one of the film’s few actual bright spots is Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper. The neglected dowdy wife of the football coach, Ruth springs to life through her affair with Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), who’s recently graduated from high school. Leachman launches her character, butterfly-like, from utterly forgettable to unforgettable, as Ruth is transformed by love—then equally devastated when it ends. Leachman later recalled that she’d memorized the heart-wrenching speech that ends the film—in which a destroyed Ruth somehow still manages to offer compassion to Sonny—on the way to the set that day. When she finished the shot, she asked to do it again, saying that she didn’t do it well. Bogdanovich refused, telling her, “You’re going to win the Academy Award.” He was right. The scene closes the film, showing that even in the pit of despair, human connection can save us, which Leachman’s performance personifies in aching detail. And, in a single take. [Gwen Ihnat]
Not long ago, I wrote just a few sentences about Young Frankenstein and its importance in my family’s inside jokes. Now, there are no weak links in that particular ensemble, but even next to the likes of Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn, Chloris Leachman’s Frau Blücher (Neeeeeeeigh!) stands out. Leachman enlists every part of her face—eyes, mouth, forehead, even her chin is acting in this movie—and pulls them as tight as the bun on top of her head, contorting them into absurd, rubbery shapes that make for a hilarious contrast to her reserved posture and husky, vaguely Eastern European accent. The interplay between Leachman and Wilder when Frau Blücher offers the good doctor some Ovaltine offers a master class in eye acting and comedic timing, but her skillfully controlled performance reaches its greatest heights when she throws open her arms and triumphantly shouts, “He was—my boyfriend!” [Katie Rife]
Cloris Leachman makes such an impact as landlady Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show that it’s easy to forget she was only ever a recurring presence on the series. But my how crucial she is to the calibration of the 1970s’ best sitcom ensemble: The splash of vinegar to the title star’s sweetness, casually insulting Mary Richards’ tastes and exchanging passive-aggressive barbs with Rhoda Morgenstern—a depiction of Midwestern nice that could only come from a native of Des Moines. It wasn’t the type of thing that could sustain a show of its own, but Leachman’s departure for Phyllis in 1975 required the full-time recruitment of no less a comic bruiser than Betty White to maintain Mary Tyler Moore’s delicate balance. Consider it a soufflé—like the one Phyllis aggressively flattens in the season-four premiere, “The Lars Affair,” just before Leachman is allowed to sling one of her character’s most unguarded gibes at White’s Sue Ann Nevins: “You’re bananas, you know that?” The face Leachman pulls when she delivers the line is something to behold. [Erik Adams]
When faced with the problem of how to cast the mother of the show’s resident mom from hell, the producers of Malcolm In The Middle hit on an inspired answer: Cloris. Thickly accented, utterly unflappable, and rock-solid stubborn, Leachman’s Ida was a regular injection of mean-spirited energy into the Fox sitcom, the one force on earth capable of cowing her daughter, Jane Kaczmerak’s Lois. In a show where the meanest mind usually won, Leachman (who won two Emmys for the role) was the queen of carefully crafted cruelty, a perfect explanation for how Lois became the iron-willed woman she was, and regularly the funniest element of any episode in which she appeared. [William Hughes]
Everyone has already shouted out the Leachman roles that made her an indelible part of my childhood—Frau Blücher and Phyllis Lindstrom—as well as her unforgettable turn in The Last Picture Show that I still think about at least once a month. So I thought I’d pay homage to the more mischievous side of the actor, by noting what is, hands down, one of the filthiest roles I’ve ever seen any actor take, let alone an Academy Award winner—and that is really saying something: Patricia Holmes, the mysterious mother of the professor failing every member of the football team on campy sitcom Blue Mountain State. The show is not without its problems (ironic or sexist? Maybe both?), but good god, what a force of nature Leachman was. In the season one episode, “Midterms,” Professor Holmes agrees to give Cs to the members of the team if they each take his aging mother out for a night at the movies, in order to get her off his hands now and then. Turns out, Patricia is a bit of a nympho; and the rest of the episode finds Leachman gleefully delivering vigorous and enthusiastic handjobs to every single player who escorts her to the cinema, often after convincing them it’ll be fun. It’s crass, and appalling, and you can tell Leachman is loving every minute of it. It’s the kind of vanity-free, go-for-broke commitment that made just about everyone who worked with Leachman fall in love with her; and it’s the kind of cringe-inducing image that you will never forget, even as you admire the gutsy actor who dove into the performance. It probably won’t make her In Memoriam reel at the Oscars this year, but it’s a damn sight more memorable, for good or ill. [Alex McLevy]
Leachman was 84 years old when she made her debut as Maw Maw on Raising Hope, and even as the elder stateswoman on set, Leachman was often the most nimble—and funniest—actor on the Fox comedy. Playing a great-great-grandmother to the titular baby, Leachman’s Maw Maw suffered from dementia, a disease played for laughs in 2010 in a way that probably wouldn’t fly on network TV a decade later. Leachman was never afraid to look silly or get dirty for the sake of the comedy, and she proved that time and time again, as the clip above shows. But, as always, Leachman found way to make her character also the heart of the comedy—snapping her character back into reality to impart some essential wisdom (though it was even more impressive whens he pulled off that task during one of Maw Maw’s flights of fancy). I’ll also add: She looked damn good when playing decades younger in Hope’s frequent flashbacks. Maybe laughing does keep you young. If so, Leachman certainly added years to our lives. [Patrick Gomez]
Throughout her 70-plus-year career, Leachman held her own against the likes of Paul Newman, Gene Wilder, and Gregory Hines; starred in her own TV series; and collaborated with directors like Peter Bogdanovich, Mel Brooks, and James L. Brooks. So the Oscar winner was the perfect choice to play Zorya Vechernyaya, an old god who’d seen it all (including the future), in Starz’s American Gods adaptation. A keeper of the stars, Zorya Vechernyaya was able to cut through all of Odin’s (Ian McShane) bullshit, leaving his flattery to wither on his tongue. Leachman exuded both world-weariness and a sense of otherworldiness as the Evening Star (as Zorya Vechernyaya was also known), who takes up with Odin’s camp for her own reasons; to relive her glory, not his. Leachman and McShane’s verbal sparring was as much a thrill to watch as their onscreen kiss, which has the rare honor of being one of the sexiest scenes in a Starz prestige drama, where getting it on is practically the order of the day. [Danette Chavez]