Sitcom star Cloris Leachman grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, where her love of performing began. She honed her skills as a drama major at Illinois State University and Northwestern University, then broke into the entertainment industry in 1946, when she won Miss Chicago and went on to compete in that year’s Miss America beauty pageant.
The pageant provided her with the scholarship she needed to relocate to New York City and study under famed acting coach Elia Kazan. There, Leachman discovered method acting, a technique that would deeply influence her mightily successful onscreen career. In the 1970s, Leachman was cast as Phyllis Lindstrom, Mary Tyler Moore’s overbearing, nosy landlady on hit sitcom, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The role was so well received that Leachman would go on to star in the popular spin-off series called “Phyllis,” further developing her comedic chops while strengthening her dramatic appeal.
After the sitcoms wrapped, Leachman continued to work in film and television. Throughout her 60+ years on screen, Leachman has won both an Oscar and eight Primetime Emmy Awards, the most of any performer in television history. Her resume includes leading roles in “Young Frankenstein,” “The Last Picture Show” (for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1971), “The Facts of Life,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Spanglish,” and a recent appearance in the television reality competition, “Dancing with the Stars.”
Finding the Comedic within the Serious
For award-winning actress Cloris Leachman, studying under acting coach Elia Kazan at the famous Actors Studio gave her the tools to apply serious, dramatic acting to her comedic pursuits. “What I think is fun is to bring comedy to serious things, and bring serious things to comedy,” explained Leachman, reflecting on her diverse career.
Through the years, Leachman has been careful not to play stock comic characters. Instead she works to make each performance one of a kind. Her unique ability to infuse comedy into drama allowed her skills to stretch and develop over time and made her suitable her for a varied array of onscreen roles. As such, Leachman’s acting skills were so strong, she could pull off both an over-the-top comic role in “Young Frankenstein,” and then an intensely serious role in “The Last Picture Show.”