AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Cloris Leachman, the blonde who portrayed women of wit and sass over seven decades, has died at age 94. She won eight Primetime Emmy Awards and an Oscar, and her career was relentlessly inventive, from serious film dramas to reality TV. Jacki Lyden has this remembrance.
JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: Cloris Leachman may be best remembered for playing Phyllis Lindstrom, the kooky, nosy landlady on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Phyllis sure wasn't ready to go.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW")
CLORIS LEACHMAN: (As Phyllis Lindstrom) My husband and I are into cryonetics (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What's that?
LEACHMAN: (As Phyllis Lindstrom) Well, when Lars and I go, we will be frozen. Then, of course, when they discover a cure for whatever it is that made us go, we will be defrosted.
LYDEN: She won an Emmy twice for that role. Cloris Leachman was born April 30, 1926, in Des Moines, Iowa. By the age of 11, she was working with the Des Moines Playhouse. At 17, she had a radio show in which she gave style advice to women. She was a beauty. After college, it was off to New York and the Actors Studio. She met and married the Hollywood impresario George Englund. They had five children.
Leachman worked tirelessly on the stage, on TV and in film when her children were young. She was 45 when she gave a wrenching, Oscar-winning performance in the classic film "The Last Picture Show." Her character is Ruth Popper, a married woman having an affair with a high school senior, played by Timothy Bottoms, in a dying Texas town. In this scene, he's returned after ditching her.
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LEACHMAN: (As Ruth Popper) 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. You didn't love me. Look at me. Can't you even look at me?
LYDEN: In 2009, on NPR's Fresh Air, she talked about how the scene almost didn't make it into the movie. Director Peter Bogdanovich not only saved it; he made it the film's final scene, changing the producer's mind.
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LEACHMAN: 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'll 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.
LYDEN: In her memoir "Cloris" and in interviews that she did, Leachman made a point of saying that she wanted to reach people through the characters she played, but she wasn't the characters, like this memorable role in Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN")
LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) I am Frau Blucher.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE NEIGHING)
LYDEN: Leachman seemed game for anything, like competing on "Dancing With The Stars" when she was 82.
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LEACHMAN: One, two - oh no. I don't want to prove anything. I just want to be the best jive dancer I can be.
LYDEN: She told a New York Times reporter, people got to know me, and I think they know that I'm honest and truthful and real. I'm just a simple person with a silly bone. Silly, serious, hardworking and very, very long working - those are the qualities that made her one of Hollywood's most decorated and versatile performers.
For NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden.
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