Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Cloris Lines - A Conversation with Cloris Leachman
Expanded Edition of 5-23-09 Chicago Tribune Interview
by Richard Knight, Jr.
The autobiography cover, clutching her Oscar, with son George Englund, Jr., with Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper, playing her
beloved piano, as Frau Blucher (which means "glue" in German) and with her "Dancing with the Stars" partner Corky Ballas
If all you know about 83 year-old Cloris Leachman is her wacky but determined turn on last season’s top rated reality show “Dancing
with the Stars,” her multiple Emmy award winning appearances on television (including the iconic sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore
Show”), and her comedic turns for Mel Brooks in Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety, her recently released memoir is an eye opener.
From school days at Northwestern with classmates Paul Lynde and Charlotte Rae, starring on Broadway in “South Pacific” after
auditioning for Rodgers & Hammerstein themselves, to famous friendships with everyone from Marlon Brando to the Kennedy clan,
the death of her son Bryan after a long bout with drug addiction, to her insights into her acting process which she credits with helping
her to win an Oscar for her performance in The Last Picture Show, “Cloris: My Autobiography” lives up to that shopworn phrase: it’s a
Even over the phone from home in California Leachman is clearly a whirlwind of energy who rarely stops laughing. During the
interview she announced that she was dressed and made up to film a dance spot with her “Dancing with the Stars” professional
partner Corky Ballas to promote her one woman show; she found time to move a bed by herself, identify some family photos for a
relative who’d just stopped by, take a few other phone calls, make several pitches for her new clothing line (www.clorisline.com) and
when prompted, found time to sit down and play a mean Chopin.
KNIGHT AT THE MOVIES (KATM): First of all, you wrote the book with your ex-husband. Have you remained good friends in order to
CLORIS LEACHMAN (CL): No, we’re not good friends. We adore each other (laughs). He felt that too many people didn’t know
about me and thought I should write my book and do a one-woman show and have a clothing line so I have all three as of this
KATM: Let’s talk about the clothing line, then.
CL: I love it very much. It’s very exciting and new and very useable, easy to care for. It’s chiffon and it kinda comes down to your
knees and if you want to go to the beach, it looks adorable, then you tie it up below your waist and put some jewelry on and you can
go out for dinner and still look adorable.
KATM: So this is a little step up from the Snuggie – the little blanket with sleeves you wear while watching television.
CL: (laughs) That’s wonderful – well we could make it if you’d like.
KATM: I know that you and Mary Tyler Moore are both on the road right now promoting books. Can you talk about working with her
and that amazing cast and crew?
CL: Well, you couldn’t have asked for anything more fun or more well organized, it was more darn fun working with people you love
and respect and admire. And she admired us which was the most amazing thing. She was like a fan to Val (Harper) and me. That
KATM: Of course that show was on at the same time as “Maude” with Bea Arthur – a national treasure who we just lost.
CL: I wanted to do a Movie of the Week with her. It was a really funny idea. I said, “Would you do a Movie of the Week with me?”
and she said, “Only, if I can slap you” (laughs hard). Isn’t that funny? She was supposed to have been my dresser in my story.
KATM: How ironic because in the movie version of Mame that’s what happens to her – her dresser slaps her in the face.
CL: (laughs) Oh my God, isn’t that something?
KATM: Tell me about your role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds Is it a Frau Blucher kind of part?
CL: No, I’m an old Jew woman and somebody comes to my door in Brooklyn – even though we shot it in Berlin – and asks me to do
something and I do it. We met in L.A. of course in an office and Quentin and I were about two feet from each other talking avidly
and just then the earthquake hit.
KATM: So it was kismet.
CL: Hubbabubbamet (imitating earthquake sound).
KATM: “Dancing with the Stars” is down to the finals – do you have a favorite you’re rooting for this season?
CL: No I don’t. I haven’t been watching – not because I don’t want too, I don’t know quite when it’s on or what station and I’m busy
during those hours, it seems to me. I’ve missed everything.
KATM: Speaking of “Dancing with the Stars” – what is it with the lap thing?
CL: I don’t always do it – I just did it once.
KATM: But you talk about doing that in the book on other occasions.
CL: Oh my God, that’s right. I said, “Who makes decisions around here?” and they pointed to this man and I went right over and
sat in his lap (laughs). Turns out it was (“Mary Tyler Moore Show” co-creator-writer) Jim Brooks.
KATM: It’s like your secret weapon. I love how you don’t sit on ceremony – when you went on Bonnie Hunt you immediately started
doing her hair.
CL: (laughs hard) It needed doing, though, good God. She needed to be picked up to this decade.
KATM: She’s a Chicago gal which brings us to your Chicago connection – you were Miss Chicago of 1946 and attended Northwestern.
What are some of your memories of Chicago and school and that period?
CL: Well, you know everybody went to war when I went to college. The day I got there Charlton Heston had just left to go to war.
Anyway, another girl who lived in the same dorm I did, she and I would double date with two guys from the Navy school up there.
The four of us would go down to Chicago on Saturday night and have a wonderful time and then we’d rent a hotel room with twin
beds and we’d sleep together – twos and twos – and nothing ever happened. Isn’t that amazing? We’d get up and put on our
Saturday night clothes Sunday morning and get on the el and go home (laughs hard). Isn’t that funny? She had a black velvet
dress with white ermine tails that tied at the neck in a bow and I went to Yonker Brothers in Des Moines over Christmas vacation and
don’t you know they had a black velvet suit – a jacket and a skirt – with ermine tails on the pockets. Well…it was $25 on sale so of
course I signed it under “Mrs. B. C. Leachman,” my mother (laughs) and we wore our matching outfits (laughs hard). Sound icky?
Isn’t that funny? Oh God…I lived at 1313 Ridge Avenue in Evanston in the attic for $7 a week with no air conditioning. Oh my God,
through the summer, can you imagine?
KATM: I know you were supposed to do “Young Frankenstein” on Broadway but sadly it closed before you got there. Can you talk
about working with Mel Brooks?
CL: Well, of course he’s a genius and we worked very fast and very hard when we shot pictures. We’d run and see the playback but
then we’d quickly go back and do it again. Everything was lighthearted and he was brilliantly funny but we worked all the time. In
High Anxiety we had about 20 minutes while they were fixing the lighting for the next scene so all of a sudden, I don’t know who
started it, somebody started a circus and Harvey Korman immediately became the ringmaster and I, of course, had penciled on a
little mustache with a black pencil so I decided that I was a mustachioed lady though I was just furious because I wanted to be a
trapeze artist and they wouldn’t let me do it because they thought I was the bearded lady and nothing more (laughs). Then Mel
realized what we were doing and he grabbed a mop and started cleaning up after the elephants (laughs hard). We put on a whole
movie in about 15 minutes. It was hilarious. I wish we’d had that photographed.
KATM: What was it like to work with the great Madeline Kahn?
CL: She was just darling and brilliant and then she died too early.
KATM: So many of your contemporaries have gone…
CL: Oh God, so many. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve loved so much have died. I think, “Oh what if they could come
through the door again just one more time.” My mother, my son, my father, Mabel Albertson and wonderful friends. Oh God,
breaks your heart.
KATM: Yes, you’re right and it does get worse.
CL: Yes. I lost my son, I don’t know when, ’89 or something, it’s just worse. I think about him every other minute all day long.
KATM: Well, let’s move on a little bit…You’re husband and his best friend Marlon Brando went on a double “date” with Jackie
Kennedy and her sister – her first night out after the President’s assassination while you were working on the east coast.
CL: Yes he did and I never heard the end of it and he never said a word to me about it.
KATM: And then six months later you found yourself alone with Jackie in a room at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port where
you were visiting.
CL: All I could say was “Oh my God, there’s the most wonderful book for children and you should get it” and I went on and on about
this book. That’s not at all what I wanted to talk about. I kept running off at the mouth (laughs).
KATM: Did she say anything back?
CL: Not anything. She was just completely fresh and beautiful and I looked terrible in my old muumuu and this scarf over my
KATM: Was there something about the character of Ruth Popper in The Last Picture Show that revealed something in you that the
public hadn’t seen before which led to your Oscar?
CL: I think the secret is that Peter (Bogdanovich) let the camera roll after the scene was over. He didn’t say, “Cut” and you keep
going until the director says “Cut” and he never did so I just kept going and I credit him with doing that because I wouldn’t have had
an Academy Award without it.
KATM: What was the Oscar experience like?
CL: Oh my God. I couldn’t believe I’d win it anyway because Ellen Burstyn had won New York Critics and Ann Margret had won
Golden Globe I think so certainly I wasn’t going to win and when I got a dress I remember saying, “This dress has to walk – walk up
the steps and across the stage” and it did (laughs). It had an opening in the front and the back – isn’t that funny?
KATM: I’m a pianist and when you thanked your piano teacher I remember turning to my parents and saying, “See what can happen
when you take piano lessons?”
CL: I couldn’t have been an actress without piano and dancing, both.
KATM: Why are those two things so important to acting?
CL: Well, the music – there’s voicing, there’s timing, it’s all there and highs and lows and fast and slow and with the dancing –
especially with “Mary Tyler Moore” I’d say, “Oh, Mary, you’ve got to wear my earrings. I’m going to run up and get them” and I ran
up and got them and then I decided if anything happened to them I would just be devastated. I mean, they’d been in the family
and she takes them off and gives them back to me and I say, “Thank you Mary” (laughs). But when I ran up to get them I kinda
raised up on my toes and ran up to get them and then swoop back down and go back to her. Normally, you just run, turn and run
back but because I’d had dancing I could use my body to rise up and swoop rather than just turn. Things like that made the
character more fun.
KATM: Music also allows yourself to open yourself emotionally – certainly when you’re playing an instrument. Don’t you find that
pianos are like magnets? When you see one in a room you just want to sit down and play no matter where they are or what you’re
CL: I always do and people have to wait while I’m doing that (laughs).
KATM: Do you have a favorite piece?
CL: You know I discovered boys when I was 15 so that was the end of my piano career (laughs).
KATM: Me too! (also laughing)
CL: You discovered boys?
KATM: Yes – though maybe I was a little older.
CL: Well, hang on…
The phone drops and the sound of the piano is heard. She plays several measures of Chopin’s “Polanaise” flawlessly.
CL: Isn’t that pretty? That’s all you get (laughs).