TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of film, "Young Frankenstein")

Ms. CLORIS LEACHMAN (Actress): (as Frau Blucher) I am Frau Blucher.

(Soundbite of whinny horses)

(Soundbite of horse hoofs)

Mr. WILDER (Actor): (as Dr. Frankenstein) Steady. How do you do? I am Dr. Frankenstein. This is my assistant. Inga, may I present Frau Blucher.

(Soundbite of whinny horses)

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) I wonder what's got into them?

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Your rooms have been prepared Heir doctor, if you will follow me.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) Igor, would you bring the bags as soon as you're finished, please?

Mr. MARTY FELDMAN: (as Igor) Yes master. After you, Frau Blucher.

(Soundbite of whinny horses)

GROSS: That was my guest, Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher with Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein in the scene from the Mel Brooks movie, "Young Frankenstein." Leachman also co-starred in the Mel Brooks movie, "High Anxiety." She won an Oscar for her performance in the 1971 film, "The Last Picture Show." On "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Cloris Leachman played Mary's neighbor and landlady, Phyllis, which led to her own spinoff series, "Phyllis," in 1975.

More recently, she co-starred in the 2004 film. "Spanglish." And last year, she became something of a phenomenon when at the age of 82 she became the oldest contestant ever on "Dancing with the Stars." Cloris Leachman has written a new autobiography, which includes a section on "Dancing with the Stars."

GROSS: You write that you had to pass a three-hour rehearsal, and to list physical problems which for you included osteoporosis, asthma, 28 percent lung capacity, a bad knee, and high blood pressure. Your doctor didn't think your knee was strong enough to do "Dancing with the Stars" and he wouldn't sign off on you doing it, so you just found another doctor. So what was it like when your partner did that lift and spin thing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: It was - I wouldn't do it. It was too scary. It was so scary...

GROSS: Describe the move?

Ms. LEACHMAN: He grabs my right hand and my right foot, and then you let go of your life, and oh, it's all right when you're a child. You don't have the kind of weight you do as an adult. To give that up is just you know you're going to die, there's no doubt about it.

GROSS: And you did it? I mean you went through with the move.

Ms. LEACHMAN: And I died. And it felt like I was dying. I, I had to do it on "The View" after I was voted off in the seventh week, and he did it twice on the show because we didn't do it correctly. I don't know we lost about six measures the night of "Dancing with the Stars." And he said, do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. So I said okay. And I put my arm and my leg out and we did it. But we had already lost six measures so he was only able to throw me around twice. But on "The View" we did it the proper amount of time, which was eight measures. So I went around eight times and I, when I go up I knew, I knew that I was dead. There wasn't any doubt about it. And they saw how I was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ...and they brought me a chair. And it took me about you know five or 10 minutes to recover.

GROSS: I want to talk about some of your movies. You've made what, two or three movies with Mel Brookes. The first was "Young Frankenstein," in which you played Frau Blucher.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: Blucher.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And just, I want to play a scene from this. So just to set it up, Gene Wilder plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who is the...

Ms. LEACHMAN: Frankenstein.

GROSS: Franken, Frankenstein.

Ms. LEACHMAN: Frankenstein.

GROSS: Frank...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And he...

Ms. LEACHMAN: Igor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And he's the grandson of the famous mad scientist who created the monster. And then he...

Ms. LEACHMAN: He vas my boyfriend.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ... then he learns he's inherited the Frankenstein estate so he goes to the mansion in Transylvania. And your character, Frau Blucher, is one of the servants there and she was in-love with the mad scientist.

Ms. LEACHMAN: I...

GROSS: And in this scene Gene Wilder, the young Dr. Frankenstein, goes to the lab...

Ms. LEACHMAN: Frankenstein.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ... with his two assistants, where he finds you releasing the monster from his restraints. Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of film, "Young Frankenstein")

Mr. GENE WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) Frau Blucher.

(Soundbite of whinny horses)

(Soundbite of running)

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Stop. Don't come closer.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) What are you doing?

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) I'm going to set him free. No. No you mustn't. Here.

(Soundbite of feet running)

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) Are you insane? He'll kill you.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) No he won't. Not this one. He is as gentle as a lamb.

(Soundbite of screams)

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) Stand back. Stand back. For the love of god, he has a rotten brain.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) It's not rotten. It's a good brain.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) It's rotten I tell you. Rotten.

(Soundbite of screams)

Mr. MARTY FELDMAN (Actor): (as Igor) X-nay on the ooten-ray(ph).

(Soundbite of heavy sigh)

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) I'm not afraid. I know what he likes.

(Soundbite of growl)

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of growl)

(Soundbite of whimpering)

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) That music.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Yes. It's in your blood. It's in the blood of all Frankenstein's. It raises the soul when words are useless. Your grandfather used to play it to the creature he vas making.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) Then it was you all the time.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Yes.

Mr. WILDER: as Dr. Frankenstein) You played that music in the middle of the night...

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Yes.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) ... to get us in to the laboratory.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Yes.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) That was your cigar smoldering in the ashtray.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Yes.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) And it was you, who left my grandfather's book out for me to find.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Yes.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) So that I would...

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Yes.

Mr. WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) Then you and Victor were...

Ms. LEACHMAN: (as Frau Blucher) Yes. Yes. Say it. He vas my boyfriend.

(Soundbite of growl)

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest, Cloris Leachman with Gene Wilder...

Ms. LEACHMAN: Oh god, can you believe it's the same one who played on Raymond, "I Love Raymond?"

GROSS: Oh, Peter Boyle who plays the monster, yes.

Ms. LEACHMAN: Isn't it remarkable to be the same person who was doing those very divergent roles?

GROSS: Yes. Oh yes. He was a great actor. He was a great actor. Well how did you...

Ms. LEACHMAN: Mm. He was.

GROSS: ... figure out how to play Frau Blucher, Blucher?

Ms. LEACHMAN: Blucher. I didn't know. I had a wonderful hairdo by Mary, the head of the hair department and at 20th, and a wonderful costume they made it fit me perfecting and wonderfully designed. And that's all I knew. And I was made up. Now I go on the set and I don't have any idea how to be Frau Blucher or have any German accent. I'd never done one before. So all the time when they're, they were shooting, I kept saying...

(Soundbite of whispering)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ...do you know how, do you know a German accent?

(Soundbite of whispering) Ms. LEACHMAN: Hello? Excuse me? Do you know a German accent, to everybody and about three people there thought they may be they, they didn't know for sure. They try, and I think one of them was Mel Brooke's mother. I think she helped me the most. And...

GROSS: Was she from Germany?

Ms. LEACHMAN: I don't know anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: When I first came out the door and say I am Frau Blucher. And I think it's said with such measurement. I was so careful to try to do it right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: That's why it's so slow. Otherwise, I'd say, I am Frau Blucher. But I said I am Frau Blucher.

GROSS: The running gag in "Young Frankenstein" is whenever anybody say Frau Blucher the horses whinny.

Ms. LEACHMAN: Mel told me a few years ago that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ... Blucher meant glue. I'm not sure that's true, but it sure is funny. So...

GROSS: So it was like they're threatening the horses with the glue factory.

Ms. LEACHMAN: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So what do you learn about comedy working with Mel Brookes?

Ms. LEACHMAN: Hmm. I'll tell you one thing, I was going up the steps with Gene and the other two.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: Remember in the castle I'm going to show them around? And I had a Candelabra with the candles not lit. And I turn, I say, stay close to the candles. The staircase can be treacherous. And then Mel came up to me, climbed up the steps and whispered in my ear, and it was a line reading, and here it is, stay close to the candle. The staircase can be treacherous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: Which means we've already lost a couple of people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest is Cloris Leachman. She's written her autobiography. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Cloris Leachman. She writes about her stage and screen career in her new autobiography. When we left off, we were talking about her role in the Mel Brookes film, "Young Frankenstein."

I want to play a scene from another Mel Brookes movie that you were in, "High Anxiety." I love this film. This is a parody of a lot of different Alfred Hitchcock films. And Mel Brooks plays a psychiatrist who's become the new director of the Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. And...

Ms. LEACHMAN: Dr. Ashley felt that color...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ...has a great deal to do with the well-being of the emotionally disturbed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And you're the very severe Nurse Diesel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And in this scene Mel Brookes, the new head of the institute is in his room at the institute and he hears screams coming from your room. And he's very concerned so he knocks on your door. And you come out in a hooded terrycloth robe. Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of film "High Anxiety")

(Soundbite of knocking)

Mr. MEL BROOKES (Writer, Actor, Director): (as Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke) Is everything alright in there? Nurse Diesel.

(Soundbite of knocking)

Mr. BROOKES: (as Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke) Are you all right?

Ms. LEACHMAN: (Nurse Diesel) Yes.

Mr. BROOKES: (as Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke) We heard some weird noises emanating from your room. We were worried.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (Nurse Diesel) Weird noises. It was the TV. Sorry it disturbed you. Turned it down. Is there anything else? It is rather late.

Mr. BROOKES: (as Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke) No. We were concerned. Good night.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (Nurse Diesel) Good night. Good night.

Mr. BROOKES: (as Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke) Good night.

GROSS: And as the scene continues, Nurse Diesel, played by my guest Cloris Leachman, goes back to her room, takes off her bathrobe, and underneath the robe she's in full dominatrix regalia. She's wearing a policeman's hat and shirt, leather shorts, high leather boots. She opens her closet and inside is Dr. Montague, played by Harvey Korman, hanging from chains in full bondage.

(Soundbite of film "High Anxiety")

Mr. HARVEY KORMAN (Actor): (as Dr. Montague) Who was it?

Ms. LEACHMAN: (Nurse Diesel) It was Thorndyke. You're making too much noise.

Mr. KORMAN: (as Dr. Montague) I can't help it. You're hurting me. You're going too hard tonight.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (Nurse Diesel) Oh get off it. I know you better than you know yourself. You live for bondage.

(Soundbite of groaning)

Ms. LEACHMAN: (Nurse Diesel) ... and discipline.

(Soundbite of groaning)

Mr. KORMAN: (as Dr. Montague) Too much bondage. Too much bondage. Not enough discipline.

Ms. LEACHMAN: (Nurse Diesel) You want discipline?

(Soundbite of groaning)

Mr. KORMAN: (as Dr. Montague) Yes.

(Soundbite of slapping)

Mr. KORMAN: (as Dr. Montague) Yes. I'm sorry. Yes. The sound of it so good.

(Soundbite of groaning)

GROSS: That's such a funny scene.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest, Cloris Leachman with Harvey Korman and Mel Brookes as "High Anxiety." It must've been so much fun to shoot that scene. Was it hard to go through it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I mean to like open the door and see Harvey Korman hanging there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: Oh no, we were all serious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: Just playing our parts. There's another scene that is so hilarious to me. I'm just sick that they had to cut it out. But, Princess of Monaco, Princess Grace...

GROSS: Grace Kelly?

Ms. LEACHMAN: Yes. She was going to see that movie that night at 20th and he was worried about including this scene, so he cut it out, and forgot to put it back in or they didn't have time. But to me, it's hysterical. I again take off my hood and I'm in snakes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ... and they're wrapped around my big, huge breasts, then right between my legs is a long panel, and I have very high heels on, and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: I go to my closet, open the door, hang up my hooded, you know, robe, and make my way to my bed in these high heels. I throw myself in the bed on my back with my arms and legs out, and you hear...

(Soundbite of creaking)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ...and you see, you're the camera now, and the camera starts from the floor up to the bed, and I'm lying there, it keeps going higher, higher, higher, higher, higher, higher, finally...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ...you stop on the ceiling and there's Harvey Korman hanging from chains over me...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ...exactly my shape, arms and legs out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: And he says something funny. But he thought it was a little racy to show. I'm sorry. I hope he puts it back in sometime or includes in a, you know, with a DVD.

GROSS: So he really took it out so as not to offend Grace Kelly?

Ms. LEACHMAN: Yes. I mean she was a little rabbit. I don't know why he thought she was a...

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You mention your big breast in the movie. You have these big fake like conical breasts underneath your clothing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And so you have these big pointy protrusions...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: Yes.

GROSS: ...sticking out of your clothing. Describe the look that you came up with for Nurse Diesel.

Ms. LEACHMAN: Well when I walked into their wardrobe department, they put this dress on me and zipped it up and it for perfectly with these big conical breasts, and but I looked like an unborn gosling. My, I looked...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: ...it didn't fit me, my, whoever the personality was. So I said let's put a little something on my back, a little, fatten that up, gave me a little, you know hump on my back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: And that balanced the breasts better, if you want to call them breasts. And then I said I'd like to have a shortened neck you know they, so they put some, they put some padding in my shoulders. But it was on the sides and it didn't work so we took that out. And then I had them put it right on top of my shoulders and that raised these breasts up under my chin, and so we, it was wonderful.

GROSS: We've been focusing on your comedic roles but you won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for a dramatic role in the movie "The Last Picture Show," which is from 1971 - is that 1971?

Ms. LEACHMAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And in this you play a kind of depressed middle aged housewife who is neglected by her husband, who is the high school basketball coach and may be gay. She wants to experience love and have an affair. She has an affair with a teenager played by Timothy Bottoms, but he has been getting involved with a girl his age and neglecting you. And in this scene he comes to your door and asks for a cup of coffee. You're in your bathrobe, you pour the coffee with very shaky hands and then throw the cup against the wall.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Last Picture Show")

(Soundbite of coffee brewing)

(Soundbite of cup shattering)

Ms. LEACHMAN: (As Ruth Popper) What am I doing apologizing to you? Why am I always apologizing to you, you little bastard? Three months I've been apologizing to you without you even being here! I haven't done anything wrong. Why can't I quit apologizing? You're the one that ought to be sorry! I wouldn't still be in my bathrobe if it hadn't have been for you. I'd have my clothes on hours ago. You're the one made me quit caring if I got dressed or not! Just because your friend got killed. You want me to forget what you did and make it all right? I'm not sorry for you. You'd have left Billy too, just like you left me. I bet you left him plenty of nights, whenever Jacy whistled. I wouldn't treat a dog that way. I guess you thought I was so old and ugly you didn't owe me any explanation. You didn't need to be careful of me. There wasn't anything I could do about you and her, so why be careful of me? You didn't love me. Look at me. Can't you even look at me?

GROSS: And that's Cloris Leachman in a scene from "The Last Picture Show." Was it at all awkward to be starring in a film opposite a teenager?

Ms. LEACHMAN: Strangely no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: But I think he was very embarrassed. He didn't say anything at the time but later he said, I was in bed with a middle aged woman, you know. I was 45 years old.

GROSS: Did you talk about this kind of stuff before?

Ms. LEACHMAN: No, no, no not a word. But we went into the bedroom, the little room in the house to do that scene and he said, I ain't taking my clothes off for this scene.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: Peter and I looked at each other.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: Okay, well so we started to design the scene without taking our clothes off. So there were two closets one on either side of this dresser. And so I went in to the first one and he went in to the other one. We took off our outside clothes, I left on my bra and panty and he had shorts on and we made our way to the bed and each got in his own side. Then they planted some underwear in there for us to throw out. So it looks as if we took it off under the covers. And now with action - and all the lighting was done, we did - I just described you and we got into bed. And I took my underwear off and threw it out, I forgot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: I forgot to keep it on and throw out what was planted there. I mean I was playing my part. So we had to do as we can.

GROSS: That's from the scene that won you the Oscar.

Ms. LEACHMAN: Oh, no doubt. And the producer called him, before it came out. They had to cut it - it was too long. And they'd cut it as much as humanly possible. And finally the producer calls in, Peter I have the perfect answer, because they had to cut some more. He said when Timmy drives away in his pickup, that's when we should end the picture. And all the credits can come under his driving away, it will be really good. Peter said no, no. And he insisted, and fought for, and kept my scene in and that's of course why I won the Oscar.

GROSS: My guest is Cloris Leachman and she's written her autobiography. You know, I went through a list of all of your movie and TV credits. And I realize looking at that list that you guest starred on just about every TV show I grow up with. I'll - I will now read an abridged copy of that list. "Lassie," "Perry Mason," "Dr. Kildare," "Mr. Novak," "The Defenders," "77 Sunset Strip," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Wagon Train," "Laramie," "Route 66," "The Untouchables," "Twilight Zone," "The Donna Reed Show," "Gunsmoke," "Hawaiian Eye," "Checkmate," "Wanted: Dead or Alive" and "Rawhide." Wow, how did you manage to guest star on so many TV shows.

Ms. LEACHMAN: Well, I was always building my house and improving it and fixing it up…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEACHMAN: …making it more beautiful. So I always needed money to do that and that helped me. I don't know I think I tried not to do the same kind of role every single time. One time I was doing "Suspense," he would hire me every week to do something. So this one time I got a part, I said oh this is just like I did, you know, four weeks ago to myself and I thought no I don't want to do the same thing. And I had to find other aspects of the same kind of character which was tricky, you know, it's difficult. But I did it and I was very happy about it and I think that was a basic decision for the rest of my life. I would never be the same way twice.

GROSS: Well, thank you. Thanks for talking with us and…

Ms. LEACHMAN: You are very welcome. It was very good, thank you.

GROSS: Okay. Cloris Leachman has written her autobiography. Coming up some newly released rare recordings by the late saxophonist Lucky Thompson reviewed by our Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead. This is FRESH AIR.

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