Tribute: Cloris Leachman

Posted on January 27, 2021 at 7:51 pm

I can’t say for sure but to the best of my recollection in the history of the Academy Awards, only one presenter had the presence of mind to bring — a letter opener. That was Cloris Leachman, the year after she won her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. While she is usually remembered today for her comedic roles, her Oscar was for a heartbreaking dramatic portrayal of vulnerability in “The Last Picture Show.”

Few people recognized her from her brief role as a cheerful prostitute in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Or as “Lassie’s Mom” in one season of the television series about the boy and his collie or a reliable guest star on 1950s and 60s television series, including “Lancer,” the one featured in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

But when she appeared as Phyllis Lindstrom, the very proper neighbor/landlady on “The Mary Tyler Moore” show, she became an instant household name, ultimately getting her own spin-off series.

The opening credits spoofed “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and any theme song that extolled the irresistibility of its star.

Leachman appeared in just about every form of entertainment, most recently providing the voice of the grandmother in “The Croods” and last year’s sequel. She was also known for being quirky, outspoken, and something of a hippie back in the day.

Cloris Leachman and my mother were in the same dorm at Northwestern University freshman year, until Cloris dropped out, and they stayed friends. My mother loved to tell us how Cloris got out of an exam by tearfully telling the professor about her boyfriend who had just been killed in WWII. (He wasn’t killed, in fact he didn’t exist.) Mom says she was a very believable actress even then.

In the 1970s, when my father was asked to give the graduation speech at Northwestern, he told the students that his roommate at the school was the journalist Sandor Vanocur and my mother’s was Cloris Leachman. “If only we were students now,” he said with mock regret. “I could have had Cloris Leachman as my roommate and my wife could have roomed with Sandy Vanocur.” This was considered rather racy and daring back in those days when many schools still had parietal rules limiting visitors of the opposite sex, and the idea of mixed-gender dorms was just beginning to be considered.

Cloris Leachman heard about the speech and wrote to my father. “I am deeply insulted!” she wrote. “How dare you suggest that I would have roomed with you at Northwestern! I would have roomed with Sandy Vanocur!”

May her memory be a blessing.

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