Cloris Leachman, Oscar Winner and TV Comedy Star, Is Dead at 94

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Cloris Leachman, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of a neglected housewife in the stark drama “The Last Picture Show” but who was probably best known for getting laughs, notably in three Mel Brooks movies and on television comedies like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Malcolm in the Middle,” died on Wednesday at her home in Encinitas, Calif. She was 94.

The death was confirmed by her son Morgan Englund, who did not give a cause.

Ms. Leachman entered the spotlight as a Miss America contestant in 1946 and was still in the public eye more than 74 years later, portraying offbeat grandmothers on television and film and competing with celebrities less than half her age on “Dancing With the Stars.” In between, she won admiring reviews for her stage, film and television work, as well as Emmy Awards for performances in both dramas and comedies.

Her movie career began in 1955 when she played a doomed hitchhiker in “Kiss Me Deadly,” a hard-boiled detective film based on a novel by Mickey Spillane. She was already a seasoned stage and television actress by then, and throughout the rest of the 1950s and the ’60s she appeared in big roles on the small screen — she preceded June Lockhart as the mother in the 1957-58 season of “Lassie” — and small roles on the big screen, including as a prostitute in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969).

But she did not become a star until Peter Bogdanovich cast her in “The Last Picture Show,” his 1971 adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel about life in a small Texas town in the early 1950s. Her nakedly emotional portrait of a lonely middle-aged woman who has a brief affair with a high school football player won her the Oscar for best supporting actress.

“I’m at a point where I’m free to go out and have a little fun with my career,” she said after winning. “Some Oscar winners have dropped out of sight as if they were standing on a trapdoor. Others picked it up and ran with it. I’m going to run with it.”

She did, and more awards and acclaim quickly followed. She never received another Oscar nomination, but between 1972 and 2011 she was nominated for 22 Primetime Emmys and won eight.

A number of those Emmys were for dramatic work, including her performance as a woman who finds herself pregnant at 40 in the made-for-TV movie “A Brand New Life” (1973). But comedy was her forte.

She was nominated four times and won twice for her performance on the hit CBS sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” as Phyllis Lindstrom, the scatterbrained landlady of Mary Richards, the plucky TV news producer played by Ms. Moore. She went on to play the same role from 1975 to 1977 on the spinoff series “Phyllis,” for which she received another Emmy nomination and won a Golden Globe.

Although her focus for the rest of her career was on television, she also had some memorable movie roles, notably under Mel Brooks’s direction. In his beloved horror spoof “Young Frankenstein” (1974) she was the sinister Transylvanian housekeeper Frau Blücher, the very mention of whose name was enough to terrify any horse within earshot. She played similarly intimidating women in Mr. Brooks’s “High Anxiety” (1977) and “History of the World, Part I” (1981). She also co-starred with Harvey Korman in Mr. Brooks’s short-lived sitcom “The Nutt House” (1989).

Ms. Leachman worked with Mr. Bogdanovich again in “Daisy Miller” (1974), as the mother of the title character (Cybill Shepherd), and in “Texasville” (1990), a sequel to “The Last Picture Show,” in which she reprised her Oscar-winning role.

Cloris Leachman was born on April 30, 1926, in Des Moines to Berkeley and Cloris (Wallace) Leachman. Her father worked at his family’s lumber company. She began acting in children’s theater when she was 7 (her younger sister would also become an actress, under the name Claiborne Cary) and went on to study drama at Northwestern University, which would award her an honorary degree in 2014.

After a brief foray into the world of beauty pageants — she became Miss Chicago and then a Miss America finalist — Ms. Leachman moved to New York, where she studied with Elia Kazan at the recently established Actors Studio and had a small part in the studio’s first Broadway production, “Sundown Beach” (1948).

Ms. Leachman appeared frequently on Broadway over the next decade, most notably in a 1950 production of “As You Like It” that starred Katharine Hepburn. She briefly played Ensign Nellie Forbush, the role made famous by Mary Martin, in the original production of “South Pacific” in 1952, and replaced Kim Stanley in a 1959 revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Touch of the Poet.” But by the end of the 1950s she had left Broadway behind.

She did periodically return to the stage, however, memorably in 1989 and 1990, when she toured the country in the title role of “Grandma Moses: An American Primitive.” It was the beginning of the grandmother phase of her career.

Ms. Leachman was tough-as-nails Granny Clampett in the film version of the hit TV series “The Beverly Hillbillies” (1993) and the benignly oblivious grandmother of a naïve young boy in “Bad Santa” (2003). She won Emmys in 2002 and 2006 for her work on the Fox sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle,” as a grandmother every bit as frightening in her way as Frau Blücher.

Her later film roles also included the mother of a dedicated violin teacher (Meryl Streep) in Wes Craven’s “Music of the Heart” (1999) and the mother-in-law of a stressed-out chef (Adam Sandler) in James L. Brooks’s “Spanglish” (2004).

Ms. Leachman’s marriage to the producer George Englund ended in divorce in 1979 after 26 years. Mr. Englund died in 2017. Their son Bryan died in 1986.

In addition to her son Morgan, she is survived by two other sons, Adam and George Englund; a daughter, Dinah Englund; and seven grandchildren.

Ms. Leachman remained in show business almost to the end of her life. (“They are going to have to take a lead pipe and beat me over the head with it to get me to stop,” she told an interviewer in 2011.) In 2008, she finished seventh out of 13 contestants on “Dancing With the Stars,” the popular ABC competition pairing celebrities with professional dancers. At 82, she was the oldest contestant to take part in that competition.

More than a decade later, Ms. Leachman was still working, with a recurring role on the revival of the series “Mad About You” (2019) and in several films in production in 2020.

In 2010, a year before she was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame, she began touring the country with a one-woman show — titled, like her 2009 memoir, simply “Cloris” — and making occasional appearances, as yet another grandmother, on the Fox sitcom “Raising Hope.”

She became a full-time member of the “Raising Hope” cast in the 2011-12 season. Her billing in the opening credits paid tongue-in-cheek tribute to her longevity: “ … and introducing Cloris Leachman as Maw Maw.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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