Known as “Leach” to many of friends, Cloris Leachman is the latest in a line of lost legends and she be sorely missed
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Another legend left us late last month, leaving many fans (especially this one) saddened. The passing of Cloris Leachman at 94 was a hard one to take given her unstoppable work ethic, which kept her in the public’s mind from the 50s until today. With two films currently in post-production, a slew of awards (including nine Emmys, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar) and a penchant for constantly seeking out roles to reinvent herself, Leachman left this world as one of the most prolific actresses of her generation.
There hardly any single film or TV lover who Leachman wasn’t able to win over with her talents. Her Oscar-winning work as a small-town Texas housewife in The Last Picture Show remains a staple and a watershed moment in 70s acting that continues to be studied to this day. It’s a far cry from Phyllis Lindstrom, the busybody landlady which has already brought Leachman fame thanks to her dizzying approach or Frau Blücher, the German housekeeper who could induce endless fear in any horse she met in Mel Brooks’ 1974 classic Young Frankenstein. Even as most actresses her age retired or struggled to find work, parts such as Malcom’s less than cuddly Grandma Ida on Malcom in the Middle and a ferocious cavewoman in The Croods film series solidified her staying power while endearing her to new audiences.
In celebration of this legendary actress, here are 5 classic roles which only an actress of Leachman’s skill and talent could bring to life.
THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (Hulu)
It’s no surprise that The Mary Tyler Moore Show would go down as one of the landmark sitcoms of all-time. The show tackled the shifting gender roles of the decade and provided plenty of solid comedy moments at the same time as it followed Mary Richards (Moore) as she navigated both her personal life and her career as a TV news producer in Minneapolis. The show provided one of the most delicious ensembles ever, which wouldn’t have been complete without Leachman. As Mary’s landlady and self-designated BFF Phyllis, the actress stole every scene she was in taking what could have been a throwaway sidekick and shaping her into a woman fully on her own wavelength. Phyllis’s monologue the day her daughter learns about sex, her crooning of “Two Cents a Dance” and her classic confrontation with Sue Ann (Betty White) made her an indispensable character which Leachman played to perfection for a whole seven seasons, including two on the character’s own aptly-titled spin-off sitcom, Phyllis.
NIGHT GALLERY (NBC)
What’s so great about Leachman’s career was the fact that her desire to work was so strong, that she embraced virtually any and every kind of project around if it meant a good part and the chance to stretch. While her three appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents is testament to this, it was Leachman’s appearance in another dark anthology series, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, which showed yet another side to the actress. In the 1972 episode, “You Can’t Get Good Help Like That Anymore,” Leachman played Mrs. Fulton, an upper-class society wife who buys a robot maid in human form (played by Lana Wood) whom she proceeds to abuse. The episode, written by Serling himself, touched on issues of class in a way typical of the writer/producer with long wraps of dialogue and a sucker punch finale. It’s Leachman really brings the message home, however. She plays Mrs. Fulton as the cold, sadistic one percent-er that she is, imparting a level of cruelty and panache as she inflicts her terror on her seemingly helpless victim. A departure, to say the least.
HIGH ANXIETY (Fubo)
Young Frankenstein and Frau Blucher may have been the role comedy movie fans may remember Leachman for the most, but one shouldn’t forget the magic she and writer/director Mel Brooks made three years later with the hysterical High Anxiety. Brooks lovingly and hilariously sends up the films of Hitchcock with this story of a nervous doctor (also Brooks) who gets roped into a mystery at an institute he is visiting. High Anxiety is a Brooks effort that deserves far more love than it’s gotten thanks to the level of spoof and overall commitment it maintains. The highlight of course remains Leachman as the sinister Nurse Diesel, who runs the institute with an iron fist (her firm rule of those who are late to dinner being denied a fruit cup kills!) Meanwhile, her penchant for bondage is matched only by a “will stop at nothing” fervor at getting rid of the meddling doctor who has come to throw a wrench in her plans. Leachman has fun twirling the proverbial mustache in all her scenes as she throws herself into the zaniness completely. High Anxiety is much better for it.
RAISING HOPE (Hulu)
You couldn’t keep Leachman away from a great sitcom, a fact I’m sure the makers of Raising Hope were thankful for. For four seasons, the story of a pair of former teen parents (Martha Plimpton and Garrett Dillahunt) living with their now-grown son (Lucas Neff) and his own daughter (the titular Hope) in the home of great-grandmother Maw Maw (Leachman) was too absurd and endearing to ever pass up. The team behind My Name is Earl and Yes, Dear struck gold with the Chance family and the pride of their working class roots. The sitcom went to some decidedly goofy and (occasionally) surreal places, yet never forgot about the heart at its center. Much like before, Leachman’s Maw Maw stole every scene and the actress ventured into comedy territory like never before, delivering slightly shocking bits of dialogue made all the more racy thanks to her delivery. Raising Hope wasn’t the actress’ final foray into the sitcom world, but, as her final Emmy nomination for the role can attest, it was certainly one of her finest.
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