Able to tackle comedy and drama with equal ease, Cloris Leachman (1926-2021) garnered a slew of awards over the course of her illustrious seven-decade career on both the big and small screens. Born in Iowa, she studied under Elia Kazan and made an early mark in live TV and on the stage. Though best known for her unforgettable comedic work, she proved able to tackle a wide range of challenging roles and is honored here with just a handful of her major career highlights.
Future Oscar winner Jonathan Demme was just starting out when he made this lighthearted crime saga for Roger and Julie Corman, with Leachman showing her wilder side as a Long Beach beauty parlor owner driven to a life of crime alongside her mother and daughter. One of the sunniest of the wave of period gangster movies that hit drive-ins in the ’70s, the film also features the film debut of Leachman’s actor son, Bryan Englund.
Leachman’s busy career as a voice actor includes many vibrant parts in such films as The Iron Giant (1999). One of her biggest animated roles came in this charming look at a prehistoric family in search of a new home, with Leachman getting plenty of choice moments as the feisty Neanderthal grandmother.
Leachman transformed beyond recognition for her second film with Mel Brooks, a wild tribute to the films of Alfred Hitchcock with Brooks himself starring as a psychiatrist on the run from the law in San Francisco after being framed for murder. Leachman plays the murderous Nurse Diesel, whose motto is “Those who are tardy get no fruit cup” as she runs a psychiatric institute with an iron fist.
It may be a small role, but Leachman’s first credited appearance on film is a powerful one as she launches the twisty plot of this Robert Aldrich film nor classic based on Mickey Spillane’s hardboiled crime novel. Introduced fleeing through the inky darkness late at night wearing only a trench coat, she grabs the audience’s attention, confirming the arrival of a major talent.
Leachman took home an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her searing performance as Ruth, a dissatisfied married woman in North Texas whose life becomes entangled with a group of teenagers including a young Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd. Peter Bogdanovich’s classic coming-of-age drama put him on the map as a young filmmaker to watch and ensured Leachman would remain in high demand throughout the decade, with the two reuniting for Daisy Miller (1974) and the sequel to this film, Texasville (1990).
An entire generation of Disney-watching kids discovered Leachman through her role in this ensemble comedy as Claire, a churchgoer who takes on the identity of the Phantom Fox along with her fellow parishioners to fight a crime ring in their quiet town. Part of Disney’s large number of live-action family comedies from the decade, it’s still a fun slapstick comedy ripe for rediscovery for all ages.
Leachman’s frequent work as a supporting character actor gave her plenty of unique opportunities, including this James L. Brooks dramedy that earned attention for its atypical leading role for Adam Sandler. Here Leachman shines as Evelyn, Sandler’s alcoholic mother-in-law who decides to clean up her act and save the bonds of her family before it’s too late.
Fewer films are more quotable than Mel Brooks’ iconic sendup of classic Universal monster movies, with Leachman stealing all of her scenes as the very dramatic Frau Blücher. (Cue the horses.) An outstanding ensemble featuring Gene Wilder, Teri Garr, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn and Peter Boyle made this one of the most beloved comedies of all time, with Leachman more than holding her own. Once you’ve seen Leachman’s “He vas my boyfriend!” scene, your life will never be the same.
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