Cloris Leachman, the award-winning actor whose career spanned seven decades, died Tuesday of natural causes. She was 94.
Her manager, Juliet Green, said in a statement that Leachman was a fearless actor.
"There was no one like Cloris. With a single look she had the ability to break your heart or make you laugh till the tears ran down your face," Green said. "You never knew what Cloris was going to say or do and that unpredictable quality was part of her unparalleled magic."
Best known for her roles in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Malcolm in the Middle, and Young Frankenstein, Leachman was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1926. The eldest of three daughters, she entered show business after her mother encouraged her to audition for a radio show at Drake University when she was 11 years old. In 1946, she competed in the 20th Miss America pageant while attending Northwestern University and won a $1,000 scholarship.
Leachman used the pageant money to move to New York City, where she studied under Elia Kazan at the Actors Studio and worked steadily in both theater and television. She replaced the lead in the original 1949 run of South Pacific on Broadway, starred opposite Katharine Hepburn in 1950’s production of As You Like It, and appeared in multiple television shows including Suspense and Kraft Theatre. In 1955, she appeared in her first leading role in a major film, Kiss Me Deadly, directed by Robert Aldrich.
Leachman won the Academy Award and BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress for her work in The Last Picture Show in 1971. During her Oscars acceptance speech, she thanked her first piano teacher, her dance teacher in her hometown of Des Moines, her father for paying the bills, and her mother for her imagination and sense of humor. Leachman’s most notable film credits include the Mel Brooks comedies Young Frankenstein (1974), High Anxiety (1977), and History of the World, Part I (1981), as well as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and many voiceover credits from animated films, including Castle in the Sky (1986), The Iron Giant (1999), and The Croods (2013).
Leachman continued to work primarily in television for most of her career and currently remains tied for the record for most Emmys won by a single performer with Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Two of Leachman's wins were for her work in The Mary Tyler Moore Show playing Phyllis Lindstrom from 1970 to 1977, a character who was given her own short-lived spinoff, Phyllis, in 1975. Though the show ended in 1977, it earned Leachman a 1975 Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Television Series — Musical or Comedy. When Mary Tyler Moore died in January 2017, Leachman tweeted a touching tribute to her former costar, writing, “The picture that we all have of Mary, that’s how she was — sweet, kind, so tender, so delicate. She was America’s sweetheart. We loved you.”
At age 35, Leachman became a vegetarian, and she partnered with PETA on multiple campaigns during her later years. In 2010 she advertised the importance of spaying and neutering pets by opening a condom with her teeth, and in 2009 she wore a vegetable dress to promote PETA’s “Let Vegetarianism Grow on You” campaign. Following her death, her children and grandchildren requested any donations in her name be made to PETA or Last Chance for Animals.
She published an autobiography in 2009 titled Cloris: My Autobiography and was a self-proclaimed atheist. In 2012 Leachman told the Huffington Post, “I don’t believe at all in God and I’m very relieved that I don’t.”
Never one to adhere to convention, in 2008 Leachman became the oldest contestant to participate on Dancing With the Stars at age 82 — after being passed over twice by ABC. In 2016, when asked if she had ever thought about retiring, her response was “Fuck you.” She continued to act through 2020.