Television can be a seductive force.
How else can you explain the owner of one Oscar and six Emmys with no lack of major film roles signing on as a regular on NBC's "The Facts of Life"?
"It's a very honoring, acknowledging business deal that I have," said Cloris Leachman from a cozy alcove in her Mandeville Canyon home. "It's a considerable amount of money."
Leachman won her Oscar for her serious work in "The Last Picture Show" but is perhaps best known as Phyllis Lindstrom, the dingy landlady on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
Leachman said she didn't really know what "The Facts of Life" was until she was offered the role. "All the names of these shows are so similar. . . . I can't tell them apart," she said.
That statement may reflect much of the critical response to "Facts," a series that receives mere alms of attention compared to the riches heaped NBC's Thursday night sitcom powerhouse of "The Cosby Show," "Family Ties," "Cheers" and "Night Court."
But the fact is, "The Facts of Life," produced by Embassy Television and now in its eighth season, is the longest-running prime-time show currently seen on NBC, a consistent ratings winner in its Saturday 8 p.m. time period. It's about four young women who began as classmates at a boarding school and now, having graduated, run a novelty store.
So when NBC programming czar Brandon Tartikoff suggested that Leachman join the cast as the resident chaperon in place of the departing Charlotte Rae, "we had to take the offer seriously," Leachman said.
"If you don't keep your TV-Q up," she said, referring to a survey that ranks personalities by how well the public knows and likes them, "the guys at the top, these faceless wonders, make decisions based on this."
A renewed presence on TV, she reasoned, would earn her movie-of-the-week roles, help pack 'em in to theaters when she does plays and even help her secure more movie roles.
"I thought, it's time to get back and say 'Cloris is here.' "
Speaking of herself as a brand name of sorts may not be far off the mark. As Beverly Ann--the sister of Mrs. Garrett (Rae) who arrived during "Facts' " one-hour season opener last month--Leachman draws heavily on her own persona.
It's one that often defies description.
What do you say about an actress who shows up in her own living room clutching a place mat to her chest because she only has on a bra underneath? (Her blouse was being ironed.)
Or, in the middle of an interview, launches into a full minute's performance of a Viennese folk song--in German?
Or asks an observer to press her buttocks as proof of what good shape she's in despite the fact that she doesn't exercise?
Or prances across a room to demonstrate how dance lessons that began at age 7 have improved her comedic skills?
Uninhibited isn't quite right. Energetic doesn't seem to tell the whole story, either.
Leachman herself isn't too fond of the term nutty, which turned up in the headline of an out-of-town newspaper's interview with her. "There's more to me than nutty ; there's more to me than energy ," she said, still seeking the right adjective to describe herself.
Leachman's body of work leaves no doubt that there's a strong personality behind it, one that's hard to sum up with a nice adjective.
She calls her characters "outsized." They include the warty Frau Blucher from Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," whose very name made horses neigh irritably; Nurse Diesel, a torpedo-breasted torturess from another Brooks film, "High Anxiety"; Ernie Kovacs' memorably odd mother in the TV-movie about the comedian's life; and recently, Grandma Moses in a one-woman stage production in Denver.
The off-beat quality holds true for her upcoming film roles: as the mother of Christopher Lloyd and Howie Mandel (the latter raised by wolves) in "Bobo the Dog Boy," as the witch in Cannon Films' production of "Hansel & Gretel" and in "Shadow Play" opposite Dee Wallace Stone.
That work, however, rarely suggests the range of Leachman's real-life experience.
Starting as a self-proclaimed "genderless little squiggle" in Des Moines, Iowa, Leachman went on to become Miss Chicago and then a finalist in the Miss America pageant in the '40s. At one time she was headed for a career as a classical pianist, but by the time she was stealing laughs from the host on "The Barry Wood Show," one of TV's early live shows in New York, the acting and comedy route became clear.
Leachman's longest-running role has been that of mother--to daughter Dinah, 20, and sons Morgan, 23, George Jr., 29 and Adam, 33. (A son Bryan died.)
That role has had perhaps the most effect on her new TV work. As she does with her own daughter, Leachman sees her "Facts" role not as a supervisor of the characters played by Lisa Whelchel, Kim Fields, Mindy Cohn and Nancy McKeon, but as a cohort.
"None of us really knew who I was going to be," Leachman said. "Then, once I was cast, I think they looked in on me. My own fun that I have in my own life with whatever I'm doing--they're catching that in my character."