I hesitated before deciding to interview Cloris Leachman. Of course, her resume is intimidatingly impressive. The “Raising Hope” star has won an Oscar (for “The Last Picture Show”) and nine Emmys (eight primetime, one daytime). She has played some of the most memorable roles in recent memory, including Phyllis on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and Frau Blucher in the film “Young Frankenstein.” She’s been the oldest contestant on “Dancing with the Stars,” and heck, she even competed in the Miss America pageant (she was Miss Chicago). But her credits weren’t what almost deterred me.
No, Leachman is known to be a free spirit, and creative minds don’t always cotton to the tedium of the interview process. The fine art of plugging the product at hand isn’t much fun, and at 87, Leachman isn’t interested in wasting time on self-promotion. I’ve read plenty of interviews with the star in which she talks about everything but what, I’m sure, her publicist wants her to. Sometimes she doesn’t say much at all. Who can blame her, really?
So, I hesitated — but only hesitated, because I suspected Leachman would be a hell of a lot of fun. And guess what? Damn straight she was. While much of our interview time was spent laughing, she was happy to talk and I was happy to let the conversation go wherever she wanted it to. To her credit, even Cloris Leachman’s tangents are interesting.
Leachman called me from a hotel room twenty minutes late, apologizing for her tardiness. “I was watching Marilyn Monroe,” she said, explaining that a documentary about the star was on HBO. While she admitted she didn’t know Monroe personally, she said, “I was in the first group of the Actor’s Studio, then two years later, Lee Strasberg [who famously coached Monroe] took over and I couldn’t stand him.” Still, she was more interested in talking about Monroe. “She was so fragile. It’s too bad.”
While lots of stars can disingenuously talk about how little they care about winning an award, Leachman doesn’t seem the type to fake it. Of the fact she could win a tenth Emmy if she gets a nod on Thursday, she only said, “It would be a round number, which is a good idea. That’s the best idea, really.”
What she was more interested in talking about is a performance that few people got to see. “I just did ‘My Fair Lady’ with Jonathan Pryce and Michael York at the Lincoln Center [in New York], and they wanted us to do it again here in Santa Barbara. It’s over now, but the tears just keep coming. It was so wonderful, better than you can imagine.” Was it taped? Will we get to see it? “I’m not sure, but I hope so. It really was wonderful.”
Even after all these years, it’s clear that Leachman still loves to work. When asked if she’d ever consider retiring, she laughed. “They’re gonna have to hit me with a tire iron. The oldest living person is what, 116? I don’t want to get that old. I just want to be young!” It’s no surprise when I ask her which character she’d love to play but hasn’t yet, she doesn’t hesitate to say, “Peter Pan.”
It’s hard to argue that Leachman seems a lot younger than she is, though not everyone thinks so. When she auditioned for a Broadway production of “Young Frankenstein,” Mel Brooks reportedly dismissed her as too old — a decision he later retracted after her stint on “Dancing with the Stars,” though the production closed before Leachman could take the role. “I was very sick when we all got together to read for the producers. I had a terrible bought of the flu. I shouldn’t have gone, really, but I did. Still, he was afraid I was going to die. But I just had the flu!”
It’s no surprise Leachman’s hoofing on “DWTS” caused Brooks to have a change of heart. Leachman, though hardly a natural, made up for a lack of natural talent with wackiness — sitting on the dance floor, losing her wig and executing some moves that would have most women her age breaking a hip. “I did have to get a knee operation,” she admitted. “We laughed so hard, though. We’d laugh until I’d start to wet my pants, and then we’d go out to dinner.”
Though Leachman proved she was tough enough to survive “DWTS,” on “Raising Hope” she had the challenge of playing her character Maw Maw’s own mother. “The make-up took a couple of hours. That was no big deal. But I kept saying to Greg [Garcia[, everybody on the show has a mother but me. I need a mother! I need a mother, and I wanted Carol Channing to play her. Wouldn’t that have been great? About five or six weeks later, I said to Greg, we talked about me having a mother, so what do you think? And he said, I thing you should, but I want you to do it.” Though Maw Maw’s mom died at the end of the episode, Leachman has more ideas. “They were thinking maybe I could have a brother next, and I could play that, too. I think that would be fun.”
I was curious about how Maw Maw went from being a largely silent character in the first season due to dementia to having a seemingly miraculous recovery the next. “They just told me it was going to be changed the next year,” she admitted. I didn’t even know about it.”
Not that she minded the switch. As Leachman says of what motivates her to take a job, she joked, “Money,” before busting up laughing. “No, I say I’ll go anywhere they feed me.”
She doesn’t even need a make-up artist in the deal, either. “I’ve been made up so many thousands of times,” she sighed. “Now I say, hurry up! Put my eyelashes on, make them face forward, and let me go already. I don’t give a shit, really. I’m done in 20 minutes, tops.” Let the make-up artist who gussies her up for the Emmys, and it seems likely one will be on deck for her, take heed. I’m betting she’ll be walking across the stage, too.