She’s just full of surprises

Special to The Times

Cloris Leachman was relishing the opportunity to play Tea Leoni’s mother, Evelyn -- a retired, alcohol-soaked jazz singer in the new dysfunctional-family comedy “Spanglish” -- because “I thought I was going to be drunk and sing.”

But instead of getting a number to herself, you know, something boozily melodic and fabulous to show off her musical training, writer-director James L. Brooks placed Evelyn on a couch teaching her grandson the lyrics to “Lush Life” as a sleeping ritual against nightmares.

“I was so upset and hurt and just haranguing everybody I could talk to,” Leachman recalled recently during an interview at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, a persimmon-colored sunset visible from her balcony. Finally, she took her complaints to Brooks: “ ‘Please, I want to be good! Let me do what I know!’ He said, ‘Cloris, it’s about the boy.’ ”

Elegantly attired in high heels and a dress of ruffled silk, Leachman happily pokes fun at her willful pleas to showboat. But this isn’t the first time in her many decades in show business that this Academy Award winner (for her Texas housewife Ruth Popper in 1971’s “The Last Picture Show”) and eight-time Emmy winner has been asked to reel it in. There was that famous series she was on in the ‘50s, for example: “They used to tell me, ‘No, Cloris, it’s all about Lassie.’ ”

What Leachman didn’t get to do in “Spanglish,” though, is moot.


Her singular achievement is taking the dual stereotypes of “drunk” and “mother-in-law” and imbuing them with enough witty, unexpected compassion and grace to make a wholly original creation.

It helps that she has some of the movie’s best lines -- subtly insulting scraps of wisdom, such as telling her emotionally floundering daughter, “Lately, dear, your low self-esteem is just good common sense.”

But Brooks says there’s something else going on with Leachman that can get overlooked behind her impeccable timing.

“The joy of her work can draw you away from the fact that she’s deeply and classically a great actress,” says Brooks, a colleague of Leachman’s going back to her Emmy-winning role as Phyllis Lindstrom on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which Brooks executive-produced.

“If you came up with 20 things a great actress needs to be -- in the moment, responsive to other people, going deep inside for truth -- and then that she can spin all that out into comedy -- wow,” he said. “If she were English, they’d have given her a title. Lady Leachman.”

Leachman is pro enough that she joined “Spanglish” on short notice to replace Anne Bancroft, who took ill and had to leave the production only two weeks from completing the role.

Bancroft’s husband, Mel Brooks, was pleased to see the scene-stealing Frau Bleucher from his 1974 hit “Young Frankenstein” step in.

“That was a great choice,” the director said recently by phone. “Cloris’ genius is that she never plays comedy for laughs. She’s deadly serious as the character. She’ll do the work and get it done like a fine artisan.”

Leachman remembers arriving at the set of Mel Brooks’ 1977 Hitchcock spoof “High Anxiety” to play sinister psychiatric ward overseer Nurse Diesel and being concerned that she was simply expected to reprise Bleucher’s ridiculous Eastern European accent and stern countenance. So she penciled in a light mustache, added extra shoulder padding, raised the costume’s torpedo-shaped breasts to just below her chin, and talked out of the side of her mouth.

The whole chameleonic effect -- like some transgender martinet -- even gave the notoriously zany Brooks pause, but Leachman stood her ground: “My intention is not to do something I’ve done before.”

Her versatility is the kind that has accentuated her youthfulness when necessary -- though in her late 40s, she turned Phyllis Lindstrom into a blur of blond hair, kicky fashion and constant motion that belied middle age -- or has helped her age decades to play countless matriarchs and grandmothers.

It only seems now that her 78 years dovetail with her characters, and yet ... “Why can’t I play a niece or a young cousin, for heaven’s sake!” she says, only half-joking with her trademark punctuated “Hah!” laugh.

In fact, watch her bound around a hotel room, playing the part of her 10-year-old grandson Jackson in a few charming anecdotes, and you realize who she identifies with in that cherished relationship. (She has five grandchildren from the four sons she had with ex-husband George Englund.)

Her brilliant sense of play is deep enough to be a lifeblood, and she grouses about aging like a disgruntled office worker. “Who decided we were supposed to get old? Or die? That was a dumb ... idea.”

Perhaps it’s why she balances age-appropriate roles like the irascible granny Ida on “Malcolm in the Middle” (one of her Emmy winners) with gonzo turns such as her upcoming warden’s secretary in “Spanglish” co-star Adam Sandler’s raunchy remake of “The Longest Yard.”

“I’m all but naked in this gigantic bra and garter belt and skimpy things,” she said.

What Leachman enjoys most is a sense of imagination, of taking into consideration all possibilities and points of view.

Once, when she was 6, her mother took her to the site of an old barn down the highway from their Des Moines, Iowa, house. “She got out a sketchpad and pencils and said, ‘If you were a bird flying over that barn, what do you think it would look like?’ She drew a rectangle with a line down the middle, and that was the roof. And I thought, ‘Isn’t she smart to teach me this way? To make it so fun, figuring out what a little bird would see?’ ”

A $1,000 scholarship for being a Miss America pageant finalist -- a line on her resume she cherishes because she got to sing -- took her to New York, where she landed a Rodgers and Hammerstein-produced musical and eventually made her way into the bounty of ‘50s live television.

For a fearless actor in love with immersion, it was like her version of summer stock.

“Every week I would be another character on ‘Suspense’ until they finally said, ‘Cloris, next week we can’t use you, ‘cause it’s a Chinese girl,’ ” she recalls. “I said, ‘I could be a Chinese girl!’ A little makeup and a black wig later, I did it.”

Perhaps it’s a given that Leachman perpetually keeps her directors on their toes. For a scene in “Spanglish” where Evelyn is called upon to stop Leoni’s character from exiting a bedroom, Brooks got an eyeful of in-the-moment, Leachman style.

“I can tell you when I saw Cloris hurl herself across a room and tackle her daughter on the bed, that was a surprise,” he said.

Did she ever second-guess her stunt, or consider reeling it in?

Leachman looks almost confused at the question.

“I don’t think so,” she says. A moment of silence. “It didn’t occur to me.”