Cloris Leachman: She Made a Crowd Better and a Crowd Made Her Better

Of all the things Cloris Leachman did well, maybe what she did best was play with others.

Leachman, a grande dame of television who died at her California home this week at the age of 94, won an Oscar, eight Emmys and shelvesfull of other awards for her acting skills.

But when you think of the thousands of television programs on which she appeared from 1949 to 2019 — that’s 70, count ’em, 70 years — you almost never envision her by herself.

Mary Tyler Moore and Cloris Leachman.

She’s self-obsessed Phyllis Lindstrom, tossing catty remarks at Mary or Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She’s Maw Maw, the disengaged great-great-grandmother who lurches in and out of family conversations on Raising Hope.

She was the unmistakable grandma on Malcolm in the Middle and Dot Richmond, the old gal who came back home on The Ellen Show.

Years earlier she was Ruth Martin for a season on Lassie, though she bailed after realizing, she said, that the mother’s only dramatic contribution to a show about a boy and his dog was to bake cookies.

Leachman wasn’t born to play characters who baked cookies and never noticed Collie fur on the love seat. She was more of a camera magnet than that. She played the kind of characters you loved to see make an entrance, because you knew you were going to enjoy whatever unpredictable thing she was about to say.

Not by accident did she guest-star on half the shows on television over multiple decades, from Rawhide, Wagon Train, The Untouchables, 77 Sunset Strip and both Twilight Zone incarnations to Two and a Half Men and The Office.

She livened up a show just by showing up and chatting with whomever else happened to be there.

Over eight decades in show biz, she really stepped out front only once, with the Mary Tyler Moore Show spinoff Phyllis.

While Phyllis Lindstrom retained part of her scattered and acerbic personality, Leachman didn’t have the same engaging impact without a familiar ensemble to play off. Phyllis, which also had some bad luck with three actors dying, limped along for just two seasons before it was cancelled in 1977.

Leachman used the next few years largely to raise her kids, all five of them, though she was able to stay active in pet projects like the Mel Brooks repertory company. She appeared in his Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety and History of the World Part I.

Leachman as Ruth Popper.

As time rolled by she became best known for comedy, though the 1970 role for which she won her Academy Award was anything but comic. She played Ruth Popper, the lost-soul housewife who drifts into an affair with young Timothy Bottoms in The Last Picture Show.

Ruth Popper was a long ways down the road from the Miss America pageant, where Leachman competed as a college student in 1946 and placed 16th. Then in 2008 she moved back into personal performance competition, becoming the oldest competitor on Dancing With the Stars. She and her partner Corky Ballas placed seventh, not bad for a woman of 82.

Eight years later, at the age of 90, she joined her Mary Tyler Moore Show comrade Ed Asner and Florence Henderson in The Eleventh, a series of web shows that were produced by Hallmark and ran 11 minutes each.

Asked about this new-fangled experiment, Leachman said, “It’s a different way to tell a story. People’s attention span isn’t what it was, so when you can tell a story and get people intrigued in under a half-hour, I think you are doing something great.

“Change is hard. But I wouldn’t be here today, at 90 years old, if I wasn’t able to adapt.”

Besides being engaging and adaptable, Leachman also picked up a reputation for being a little wild and wacky, triggered by some of the characters she played and her seemingly unfiltered chat on talk shows.

Leachman in 2015.

Asked about that image in 2016, she gracefully brushed the notion aside. Probably the role that most stuck with her from the hundreds she played over the decades, she said, was Ruth Popper.

She also pointed to May Lemke in The Woman Who Willed a Miracle, an ABC After-School Special from 1983.

“It involved a baby and I was entirely responsible for its life,” she says. “I knew what to do every second.”

That said, it’s still no accident she spent much of her professional life in comedy.

“I make fun wherever I go,” Leachman told the Houston Chronicle in 2005. “If I go to a restaurant by myself, rest assured, people will be talking about it. I always have a great deal of fun being with people.”

That came across on screens large and small. It also apparently came across in person.

“Ed Asner just called me up,” she said in 2016, “and told me he loved me.”

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”