Cloris Leachman, best known for her role as Phyllis Lindstrom on the 1970s sitcoms “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spin-off “Phyllis,” died Wednesday at her home near Los Angeles. She was 94.
Her manager, Juliet Green, confirmed Leachman’s death in her sleep from natural causes, and remembered her as “one of the most fearless actresses of our time … 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.”
The Oscar- and Emmy-winning Leachman was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1926. She attended Illinois State University and Northwestern University, where she majored in drama. Before moving to New York, she was crowned Miss Chicago 1946 and acted with the Des Moines Playhouse.
Her television career took hold in the late 1940s and early 1950s with appearances on “The Ford Theatre Hour” and “Bob and Ray.” She made her movie debut in 1955 playing femme fatale Christina Bailey in the classic noir film “Kiss Me Deadly.”
Leachman was primarily a TV actress in the 1950s and the 1960s but appeared in several movies including “The Chapman Report” (1962) with Shelley Winters, Jane Fonda and Claire Bloom and in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) with Robert Redford and Paul Newman. She won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in 1971’s “The Last Picture Show.” Director Peter Bogdanovich reportedly predicted during the movie’s filming that she would win an Oscar for her performance as an adulterous high school gym teacher’s wife.
She also appeared in three Mel Brooks movies including 1974’s “Young Frankenstein,” in which the mention of her character’s name, Frau Blücher, elicited a horse’s loud neighing; 1977’s “High Anxiety”, as crazed psychiatric nurse Charlotte Diesel; and 1981’s “History of the World: Part I” in which she played Madame Defarge in a parody of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”
But it was in television that she gained most of her fame.
Leachman received five Emmy nominations, and won two, for her role as Phyllis Lindstrom, Mary Tyler Moore’s landlady and nosy neighbor on CBS’ “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the spin-off series “Phyllis.” She won a Golden Globe for her work on “Phyllis.” In all, she won eight primetime Emmys.
Moore died in 2017, and Valerie Harper, who co-starred as Rhoda Morgenstern and got her own more successful spin-off, “Rhoda,” died in 2019.
Her first Emmy, in 1973, was for her leading-role performance in the TV movie “A Brand New Life.” She won two more awards for her supporting role as Grandma Ida on “Malcolm in the Middle” in 2002 and 2006, and played a demented grandmother on Fox’s “Raising Hope” from 2010 to 2014.
She also played Beverly Ann Stickle from 1986-88 on NBC’s sitcom “The Facts of Life.”
In recent years, the seemingly tireless actress appeared in the Lifetime miniseries “Beach Girls” with Rob Lowe and Julia Ormond, two movies starring Adam Sandler, and “Sky High,” a comedy starring Kurt Russell. In 2008, she cha-chaed her way into the hearts of millions when at 82, she became the oldest contestant on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.” Other recent credits include Starz’s “American Gods,” Spectrum’s “Mad About You” limited series revival and voice work in animated shows and films including “Elena of Avalor,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “The Croods 2” and “Justice League Action.”
She was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 2011.
In 2009, she published “Cloris: My Autobiography.” Her ex-husband director/producer George Englund was a contributor. They were married from 1953 to 1979 and had five children. She was also a lifelong vegetarian, Green said.
In “Cloris,” she talked about her marriage (including her husband’s affair with Joan Collins) and the death of her eldest son, Bryan, as a result of a drug overdose in 1986, and shared anecdotes about friends and co-stars including Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, Sissy Spacek and Diane Keaton.
Contributing: Gary Levin, Patrick Ryan, Cydney Henderson