I would love to be an old lady like Cloris Leachman. She’s still going. She’s brash and bright and funny, and when she wanted to be on Dancing With the Stars, she went on Dancing With the Stars. She was 82 at the time, the oldest person ever to go on the show. She’s 93 now and has two TV shows and three movies in production. It’s pretty impressive, really. And even if I don’t really even want to get out of bed some days, I do like the idea of doing what you love because you love it until you basically just drop dead still doing it.
She got her start as a teenager doing local drama. In 1946, she was Miss Chicago and went on to compete in the Miss America pageant. (That year’s winner, Marilyn Buferd of California, had her own minor movie career.) She placed in the Top 16, and the scholarship she won was apparently enough to let her study at the Actors Studio under Elia Kazan. She went on to Broadway, where she was a replacement for the role of Nellie Forbush in the original run of South Pacific and part of the original cast of Come Back, Little Sheba. Which she left before it got to Broadway because Katharine Hepburn asked her to join a production of As You Like It, and how do you say no to Katharine Hepburn when she asks something like that? Her earliest movie credit is from 1947; her earliest TV credit is from 1948.
I mean, she has a seriously amazing career. She was on Lux Video Theatre! Not only has she been on a ton of the Touchstone TV Career Shows of the last six decades—she was on the original movie of The Love Boat—she has also been in a wide array of movies, winning an Oscar in 1971 for The Last Picture Show. She’s never, to my knowledge, brought up in discussions of people who might EGOT, but I feel like there’s no good reason not to suggest her. She’s halfway there, after all, and with the way she’s going, why not? Mel Brooks didn’t want her to reprise her role as Frau Blucher in the stage production of Young Frankenstein because he said she might drop dead onstage—which she wasn’t thrilled with—but eventually relented; unfortunately, the show closed before she could. But come on, get on that, producers!
Do I then still think of her first as Phantom Fox from The North Avenue Irregulars? Well . . . yes. But I didn’t get into The Mary Tyler Moore Show until fairly recently, when I got it from the library, and while I saw Lassie as a child, I didn’t like it. Whereas I don’t know how many times I’ve seen The North Avenue Irregulars. And as an adult, I’m a bit sympathetic to the character in a way I wasn’t as a kid. I’m not thrilled that they make her attempts to hold onto her youth a joke, but after all, she was in her late forties when the movie came out, and it’s pretty clear that life has passed her by, and she’s afraid of dying alone. Virginia Capers, who played Cleo, was a year older than she, but seemed more together. Patsy Kelly’s Rose, of course, was sixteen years older—but married. Phantom Fox—Claire—was still single and didn’t have much to do with her life.
Cloris Leachman will probably keep acting the rest of her life. It’s obviously too late to hope that it will be a long and healthy one, given that it has been. She’s 93, as I said, and appears to be in great shape. Possibly better than I am. But I would say that if you only know her from one role, or even just two or three, you should familiarize yourself with more of her career. Watching all of it would take a very long time, but it wouldn’t be difficult to find more of it and get to know her better.