Cloris Leachman was convinced she was dead. “I felt the outlines of my body and nothing was in it,” she recalls. “I had no brains, no guts, no heart, no bones. This was heaven and I was dead and I was standing there.”
Of course, she’d just been flung horizontally into the air -- gripped by a single arm and leg -- and twirled around by her dance partner, Corky Ballas, in an encore performance of their “Dancing With the Stars” routine on the talk show “The View.” One could forgive an 82-year-old’s deathly fright under such circumstances. “It was too scary. It was really frightening,” Leachman says. “This time, he really got me. I went around eight times instead of two.”
Leachman’s unlikely seven-week stint as the oldest contestant ever on the hit TV show is just part of what the veteran actress calls her “master plan” for an octogenarian career comeback. Hatched about 18 months ago when her son George Englund Jr. became her manager, the rollout also includes a one-woman show that Leachman has been performing in theaters across the country and on cruise ships, and a new autobiography, “Cloris,” which publishes Tuesday.
There have also been many amusing, if seemingly addled, performances on such talk shows as Jimmy Kimmel’s (during which Leachman slipped off the chair and conducted her chat half-reclining on the ground) and an utterly profane appearance at a Comedy Central roast of Bob Saget. (“Here’s something you didn’t know about Mary,” she joked of onetime costar Mary Tyler Moore, “when she had an orgasm, she threw her hat in the air.”)
Leachman is giving Betty White a run for her money, with her new focus on becoming everybody’s favorite nutty grandma. (Teen star Miley Cyrus, who wasn’t even a zygote in Leachman’s heyday, just asked her to appear on her “Hannah Montana” show.) Yet the uninhibited shtick is just that -- the gleeful comic stylings of a longtime professional, who has nine Emmys and an Academy Award.
She’s not just going for laughs in this gonzo career comeback. She takes a serious turn in Quentin Tarantino’s war movie “Inglourious Basterds,” opening in August, and is also part of the all-star ensemble cast of “New York, I Love You,” an anthology of love stories also coming this year.
Leachman began a recent visit over the remnants of breakfast at her favorite Brentwood diner, but about five minutes into the conversation, she grew so sleepy that she stretched out in the booth and put her head on the table. Seems she’s been singing and playing the piano in her sleep (apparently, Broadway favorites from the ‘40s and ‘50s, which sounds kind of fun but actually makes for fitful rest).
She perks up again back at her Brentwood condo, after pulling up in a zippy silver Lexus and literally grabbing her purse between her teeth, so she can unzip it with one hand, retrieve her keys and carry in the newspaper. In corduroys and a gauzy pink blouse, oversize chunky stone necklaces and furry slippers, she wraps herself up in a blanket and stretches out on a chaise in her roof-top garden to continue the chat. She makes sure to point out her veritable army of awards standing guard on a shelf in her office, including an Oscar for her performance as housewife Ruth Popper in “The Last Picture Show.”
“Cloris” covers that film and more. It is a breezy tour of Leachman’s life, starting with her childhood in Des Moines, Iowa, and working through her early days in New York City studying at the famed Actors Studio (though she refused to take the Method seriously), her early theater success starring opposite Katharine Hepburn in “As You Like It,” her iconic TV role as Phyllis on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” her appearance as Frau Blucher in “Young Frankenstein” and her longtime marriage to producer George Englund and her five children. Perhaps not unexpectedly, Leachman had one credo: “Since my childhood I have disliked rules and for the most part have avoided them.”
There are perfunctory inclusions of her affairs, such as an “epic” fling with Gene Hackman -- “It was as if the cosmic wind enveloped us.” Yet much of the book evokes haute Hollywood of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when Leachman and Englund (ghostwriter of her book) hobnobbed and occasionally worked with such legendary figures as Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Elizabeth Taylor, Ronald Reagan, Charlie Chaplin, Paul Newman, the Kennedys -- the list goes on and on.
Even today, lucid tales drop out, usually with hefty dollops of self-deprecation, like a Fourth of July weekend in Hyannis Port, Mass. The Kennedys sent down JFK’s private plane, the Caroline, to fetch her from Washington, D.C. “The children were there and the people who take care of them. I immediately got sick to my stomach. Had to throw up. . . . I met Jackie Kennedy at lunch the next day. I had on this ancient 12-year-old muumuu. My hair had been brown for one [role] and a week later, I’d made it platinum for another part. It was falling out. I had been swimming all morning and my face was all” -- she squinches up her face as if she’d just eaten a lemon. The former first lady, of course, was as put together as ever.
And then there was Brando, a fellow student at the Actors Studio, who became one of Leachman’s husband’s closest friends as well as his business partner. The book is full of anecdotes, such as the time the couple rode shotgun with Brando during a date with the beautiful Italian actress Anna Magnani. As Leachman writes, “To start things off, Marlon farted loudly, which he could do at will, then rolled up all the windows so we had to suffer the stench.”
On her patio, she reminisces further. She and Brando ultimately had a falling-out, she says. “We were going to a Mexican restaurant and he and I were the first ones in. We sat opposite each other. He looked at me. It was a look that wasn’t sexual; it was almost evil. It was like rape except it wasn’t sexual. I just burst into tears. I never forgave him for it. It was cruel,” Leachman says, her eyes fixing on a point in the distance as she remembers being under Brando’s withering, insinuating stare.
“I think maybe he fell into what he does sometimes with women. He had no right to do that. I was helpless. I got mad at him, and I never talked to him again.”
Much of her life’s pain has been, if not exactly glossed over in the book, then seriously de-emphasized -- like her husband’s running off with Joan Collins and her son’s drug addiction and ultimate death. And even today, the longtime comic actress remembers to end it all with a laugh.
“I loved Marlon,” she says, shaking out of her reverie. “He loved me. We would talk for hours. One time we were talking [by phone] and he fell asleep and he was snoring.”
When her husband returned that night, she told him to pick up the phone and there was Brando, still snoring away on the line. In the morning, she woke up, and picked up the phone, and there was America’s greatest living actor still honking away in his sleep.