Cloris Leachman, an Oscar-winner for her portrayal of a lonely housewife in “The Last Picture Show” and a comedic delight as the fearsome Frau Blücher in “Young Frankenstein” and neighbor Phyllis on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” has died. She was 94.
Leachman died in her sleep of natural causes at her home in Encinitas, California, publicist Monique Moss said Wednesday. Her daughter was at her side, Moss said.
A character actor of extraordinary range, Leachman defied typecasting. In her early television career, she appeared as the mother of Timmy on the “Lassie” series. She played a frontier prostitute in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” a crime spree family member in “Crazy Mama,” and Blücher in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” in which the very mention of her name made horses whinny.
In 1989 she toured in “Grandma Moses,” a play in which she aged from 45 to 101. For three years in the 1990s she appeared in major cities as the captain’s wife in the revival of “Show Boat.” In the 1993 movie version of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” she assumed the Irene Ryan role as Granny Clampett.
She also had an occasional role as Ida on “Malcolm in the Middle,” winning Emmys in 2002 and 2006 for that show. And in 2008, she joined the ranks of contestants in “Dancing With the Stars,” not lasting long in the competition, but pleasing the crowds by wearing sparkly dance costumes, sitting in judges’ laps and cussing during the live television broadcast.
Although she started out as Miss Chicago in the Miss America Pageant, Leachman willingly accepted unglamorous screen roles.
“Basically I don’t care how I look, ugly or beautiful,” she told an interviewer in 1973. “I don’t think that’s what beauty is. On a single day, any of us is ugly or beautiful. I’m heartbroken I can’t be the witch in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ But I’d also like to be the good witch. Phyllis combines them both.
“I’m kind of like that in life. I’m magic, and I believe in magic. There’s supposed to be a point in life when you aren’t supposed to stay believing that. I haven’t reached it yet.”