Television has given Cloris Leachman her widest audiences, as Mary's antic sidekick Phyllis on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," then as the star of the successful spinoff "Phyllis," and now replacing Charlotte Rae in the long-running sitcom "The Facts of Life."
Yet, the roles she has done that I remember most vividly were a world and a half apart from these skittish uptown chores. I think of her as the drained, affection-starved Texas woman in a chenille bathrobe, clutching at Timothy Bottoms in Peter Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show." She won an Academy Award for the performance, as she should have.
I think of her too as the mother in the late Tom Gries' superb television drama "The Migrants," about farm workers who follow the eastern crops. Sissy Spacek was in the cast, as was Ed Lauter as Leachman's husband and Ron Howard as the son desperate to break out of the family's no-win cycle.
The script was by Lanford Wilson and it was an early demonstration of television's power to deal uncompromisingly with a contemporary social issue. Leachman, fighting to hold the family together and keep it on the road, was a wiry symbol of the human spirit trying to transcend its circumstances.
Leachman is being honored tonight at a party at Chasen's observing her 40th year in entertainment, dating (evidently) from her first Broadway engagement. She had been cast in "John Loves Mary," but was bounced, apparently because the producer found she had been in a beauty contest. Tonight's party is being given by Embassy Television, which not very coincidentally does "The Facts of Life."
It is probably true that the uptown characters are closer to Leachman's own ebullient, original, outspoken, energetic and achieving personality than the hard-used losers.
Unlike most celebrities who have been interviewed a great deal, she finds horror instead of comfort in retreating to preset answers. She struggles instead for nuances of meaning, digs for relatively unfamiliar snippets of autobiography, prowls for conversational paths not taken. It does not always make for coherence, but it is always invigorating.
Of going into "The Facts of Life," she says, "It was like falling backwards into a warm bath." On acting, she says, "I like to be inexact," meaning, I think, that she likes to move against obvious expectations in a scene, trying the fresh and unconventional. "I am never prepared," she adds, meaning, I believe, that she tries to preserve spontaneity and open reactions so far as they can be. "The girls (in the cast) do it all so easily; they're such pros."
She wanted to be an architect, she says. "And I think of acting as a kind of architecture, being a matter of how to fill space."
Leachman grew up outside Des Moines, or, as she says, "on Route 6 between Altoona and Des Moines near the Lone Tree Filling Station. We had cows and a creek (pronounced 'crick')." Her father ran the Leachman Lumber Co. and bought a new black Buick every year.
Her mother seems to have been as much a free spirit as the circumstances permitted. She and Cloris once hitched to a mysterious destination, which proved to be a $2 plane ride, Cloris' first. Another time the mother roused Cloris and her two sisters in the black hours before dawn and bustled them off to another mysterious destination. That time it was the Des Moines freight yards, to watch the circus animals unload.
Another journey ended at the Shrine Auditorium in Des Moines to see Katharine Hepburn in "Jane Eyre." A few years later, Leachman played opposite Hepburn in a production of "As You Like It."
She and the sisters slept in the attic of the house, up creaky stairs. At the time of the national anxiety over the kidnaping of the Charles Lindbergh baby, she lived in wakeful fear of every house noise in the night. "My mother said, 'Who'd want you ?' and that was that." It was rude but comforting, and it taught a good lesson, she adds: "There's nothing like straight simple talk in dead earnest."
Her early dreams were conditioned by the chilly attic. "At first I wanted nothing more of life than to be carried around in a white blanket. Later I just dreamed of a chenille robe and a hot water bottle." She identified with the chenille robe in "The Last Picture Show" and thought it a perfect touch for the character.
Her mother encouraged her in the arts, but more for pleasure than for gain. She took piano, as we used to say, and when she was in the Miss America pageant (becoming one of the five finalists), she played part of the Grieg piano concerto as her talent offering. At one point not long ago, she had five pianos in her house in Mandeville Canyon, two uprights and three grands. She is down to one grand, which she plays a lot.
"Mother called me 'Sparkly Cloris'; it became a tag, a sort of family joke." In her tradition of straight talk, mother said Cloris had a "mobile" face, which daughter interpreted glumly as a euphemism for not outstandingly pretty. Mother also said that Cloris was "interpretive" rather than "creative," an analysis that took the actress a while to redefine to her satisfaction. "I think I'm very creative," she says with a slight touch of defiance, after all these years.
She and her mother hitchhiked to Des Moines so Cloris could try out at the Drake University radio station. The audition worked, and in her teens she had a talk show, inspired casting. She also acted in the Kendall Community Playhouse, which led to a scholarship to Northwestern, where she felt more overwhelmed than anything else. But this led, geographically, to the beauty pageant and a $1,000 scholarship, which she used to take her to New York, where she became a member of the Actor's Studio.
She made her screen debut in 1955 in "Kiss Me Deadly," the Mickey Spillane thriller. By then she had married producer George Englund and in time they had a son and four daughters. She and Englund are divorced but congenial, and some of the children are interested in acting careers.
"For 10 years," she says innocently, "I fought against being a star because of all the paperwork it would entail. And I was right. There is a terrible lot of paperwork."