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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Deeper Dish with Cloris Leachman

31 hilarious minutes of pure bliss. That's how I would describe my recent telephone conversation with the one and only Cloris Leachman, who was everything I imagined she would be - delightfully funny, a bit bawdy and very sweet. And I can't wait to see her perform Cloris! A One-Woman Show at Moraine Valley Community College on September 24 - I'm sure it will be a memorable evening filled with lots of laughs. She will probably cover all the highlights of her amazing life and career, including competing as Miss Chicago 1946 in the Miss America pageant, playing Nellie Forbush during the original Broadway run of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific, winning nine Emmy Awards - more than any other performer - with two for her role as Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and appearing in such films as Lovers and Other Strangers (1970), The Last Picture Show (1971) - for which she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress - Young Frankenstein (1974), High Anxiety (1977) and The North Avenue Irregulars (1979).

The 85-year-old actress has not allowed age to slow her down at all. In 2008 she became the oldest contestant to ever appear on TV's Dancing With the Stars, and she recently received her 22nd Emmy nomination for her role as Maw Maw on the Fox sitcom, Raising Hope. I am so honored to have the fabulous Cloris Leachman here on the Dish to discuss her career and answer a few pop culture questions.

Let’s begin with Cloris! A One-Woman Show. What inspired you to create it?

I don’t think this happened, but my daughter said I had some little mini-strokes about three years ago. I don’t really think that happened at all – but anyway she alerted the family, of course. My former husband, George Englund Sr., decided that I should write a book, do a one-woman show and do talks. And he proceeded to write them all. So that’s what I’m doing – the show that he wrote for me and directed - and I’m having a good time.

What has been the most memorable fan reaction to the show?

It’s supposed to last for an hour and a half, but frequently it’s two hours because I start playing with the audience. And one time I was on a cruise and I did the show for 2,000 people. I got two standing ovations and after the first one, I thought, “Oh my god, the show isn’t over yet. What am I going to do? Should I just end it now?” But I love the ending so I did it anyway - and I got another standing ovation.

What has been your favorite scene as Maw-Maw on Raising Hope?

I’m sitting on the sofa and the camera is behind me. I’m facing away with no clothes on above my waist and I’m clearly nursing the baby. I say, “Ow! No biting!” And the whole family runs in, and they all see what I’m doing and the grandfather starts to dry heave. Isn’t that funny?


You’re not laughing.

I am, too.

You are not.

Yes, I am.

There’s one coming up where the grandfather – Garret [Dillahunt] who plays Burt - he and I eye each other as we pass in the hallway. We don’t let our gaze fall - we just keep staring at each other because I think I swallowed my gold tooth and he wants to get it. And I don’t want him to go through my poo.

So you’re enjoying yourself on the show.

Oh sure. More than that. I hate that word “enjoy”. It’s just so cliché. “Enjoy your day, enjoy your night, enjoy your ride home, be safe on your flight”. It’s a wonderful word, but it’s used too casually.

So how would you describe your experience on Raising Hope?

Oh, it’s fantastic. I love it! I’m really enjoying it.

I thought you didn’t like that word.

I’d like it if it were not used so casually.

Now let’s go back to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. How did you end up with the role of Phyllis Lindstrom?

There was an incredible woman I met when I first went to New York when I was 20 years old. Oh, I can’t remember her name – but she worked for my agent at that time. She was an amazing woman. I think she cast all of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Do you have a favorite episode or scene of The Mary Tyler Moore Show?

They were all fun and funny – but I do. It’s where Rhoda has not been working for awhile – I don’t know what happens to her but she has some good reason for herself – and I’m just sick of it ‘cause she’s at Mary’s all the time and I just can’t stand her. I want to be Mary’s best friend so I’m very jealous of Rhoda. And I come in and there she is on the sofa all spread out with her hair in a big inflatable hair-dryer and I talk into the hose and say “RHODA!” and she practically jumps out of her skin. That was a fun one. Do you remember it?

I do. I’ve seen all of them - and I loved you on the show.

I had a wonderful time.

One of my favorite scenes of yours was when Rhoda was in the beauty contest and you’re up in her apartment looking through clothes and you start singing “Ten Cents a Dance”.

Well, I always wanted to sing and I kept asking the writer, “Please let me sing, please let me." Finally, he said, “Okay, next week you’re going to sing.” Oh thank you thank you thank you thank you – and when I finally sing it, nobody looks at me. Isn’t it funny?

I love that scene.

I do, too. It’s hysterical.

Now let’s move on to one of your more recent gigs - what made you decide to do Dancing With the Stars?

My son Georgie became my manager about three years ago and he said, “What would you like to do, Mom?” and out of my mouth came Dancing With the Stars. I’d seen five minutes of it once – that’s all – but the idea of dancing seemed really fun to me. But then they didn’t want me, so finally Georgie arranged for us to all have a meeting. I was there with five producers at some hotel in the afternoon, and I just remember swearing - every fifth word would be a swear word either for emphasis or rhythm or something. We really got along well and laughed our heads off. And at the end we were going to say goodbye and I said, “Wait a minute. I’m not going to be the only one here today who’s been swearing, so sit down and we’re going to do it.” So I made every one of them say a swear word before we’d go. So there was “fuck” and “bitch” and “cocksucker” and all those words and then we finally got to this one poor woman and she couldn’t swear. She said, “Shhhii - shhhii.” So all of us said “Shit!” real loud and she said “Shit!” And that was the end of it. We stood up and hugged and then I was on the show. I still had to have a lot of doctor’s appointments, and they put a shot in my knee before each show. A lot of people rehearsed for six hours. I rehearsed for about an hour and a half or two hours and we’d laugh so hard until I’d start to wet my pants. Then we’d go to dinner. I gained a pound a day.

So you gained weight while you were on the show.

Yes, I still have it on me. I’m trying to get rid of it.

What dance did you enjoy performing the most?

I just remember him coming toward me and I’m sitting and he grabs my hand and pulls me up. I liked that one.

Now let’s discuss some of your other television, film and stage performances over the years. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind about:

South Pacific on Broadway?

I tell about that in my show.

About being Mary Martin’s understudy?

I was not her understudy. I worked for Rodgers and Hammerstein when I first came to New York when I was 20 on the train from the Miss America contest. I read three months later for a comedy produced by them and I was in that. Then I studied voice for two years and then I called their executive stage manager and said I would like to sing for them. So I did and they arranged for me to do South Pacific. They said, “We want you to sing that part - do Nellie Forbush somewhere – either New York or London or the road company. We’ll call you in two weeks.” They called me the next day and said, “We want you to do it on Broadway." They already had a Nellie and an understudy so they didn’t need me – but two weeks later Dick Rodgers said, “This is for you.” They really gave me that opportunity. It was wildly insanely wonderful.

How long did you do the show for?

For four weeks.

One of my favorite films of yours is Lovers and Other Strangers.

Did you see that?

Oh, I love that movie.

We had a wonderful time. We laughed so much.

How did you end up with your role in The Last Picture Show?

He [Peter Bogdanovich] just wanted me.

He had seen you on The Mary Tyler Moore Show?

He just knew of me. He felt that any one of us could’ve played any one of the women’s parts. Ellen [Burstyn] turned down my part. He wanted her to play it, but she decided she wanted to play the other part – but I still got the award though.

Were you surprised when you won?

Yeah, because she’d won New York Critics. Margaret [Leighton] had won the Golden Globe. But I still bought a dress that could walk up the stairs to cross the stage.

How was Young Frankenstein?

Incredible. Gene [Wilder] would just laugh so much that we had to do take after take. I’d say “Stay close to the candles”, and I’d turn around on the stairway and his face was in two pieces - he’d be laughing. And then finally I would just take a breath before I’d turn and he was already laughing.

How about your TV series, Phyllis?

That was fun.

A lot of people would like to see that on DVD.

Why don’t they do it?

I don’t know why.

I’m going to find out.

You should find out.

I will.

Many people I know really like you in The North Avenue Irregulars.

Oh, I know. I get that, too. After I read the script and saw that I was in a beauty parlor when I’m called out to go find the bad guys, I said, “I have to have my hair halfway done”, so we put a cap on and pulled my hair through the holes in it. "And my nails have to be ruined", so they gave me nails and I said, “Well, something has to happen to them." I knew the Disney studio could rig anything so they rigged how I was able to lose my nails and my eyelashes. So that was my idea.

Did you work with George Clooney during your two seasons on The Facts of Life?

Once or twice.

Did enjoy the show?

Oh sure, I loved all of it. I enjoyed every single thing I’ve ever done. Even if it has problems – that’s what helps you grow. You are very grateful that you could solve something.

Then you were in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – but your part was cut.

It was way too long and they had to make some big cuts. Mine was a perfect one to cut because it didn’t hurt the story at all. It was just a wonderful character scene. I played an old Jewish woman and somebody comes to my door and I sign a bat for my sister. And then he went over there and got even with everybody who had ever hurt an American.

How was it working with Tarantino?

When we first met in his office, we were three feet from each other, sitting almost head-to-head. And right at that moment the earthquake happened in L.A., and it just seemed prophetic that I was going to be in this movie. Then when he told me that he had to cut it out, he said he was going to use it in the next film he writes about the beginning of that story. I don’t care one way or another, but it was nice of him to have done that.

Is there any role that you regret turning down?

I turned down one. It was a very good role, but I had already done one that was very similar to it. And so Carol Burnett did it – and I think she won the award.

So where do you keep your nine Emmys and your Oscar?

They are up in the loft on a counter wall-to-wall. I also have a Golden Globe and an English Academy Award and a lot of other ones.

What is your favorite comfort food?

Macaroni and cheese.

What TV shows do you never miss an episode of?

I love Everybody Loves Raymond. It’s so good, so funny.

What are three of your favorite movies?

I loved Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge. Robert Osborne - the host of Turner Classic Movies - invited me to choose three of my films and I remember choosing The Bridge on the River Kwai just because I’d never seen it. So I was like, “Good, I’ll get to see it” - and then I didn’t get to see it. The first movie I ever saw in my life was Babes in Toyland. It had Laurel and Hardy and it was just brilliant.

If you were asked to choose the Sexiest Man Alive, who would it be?:

My former husband George. He is so witty and funny and so intelligent and so sexy in a real mannish way, not a big handsome shirt model. Not like that. With character and great humor.

If you could have anyone in the world – living or dead – be a guest at your dinner party, what three people would you invite?

I think Winston Churchill – and Hitler. I have a few questions to ask him. I worked twice with Shirley Temple and often had lunch with her at her home in San Francisco so I’d like to just talk with her a little bit.

So Shirley, Hitler and Winston Churchill – that would be an interesting dinner party.

I don’t know if I’d let Hitler have lunch, but I want to ask him a few questions.

What's next for Cloris Leachman?

A reality show is in development.

Really? Your very own reality show?

Yeah – and all my darling grandchildren.

They’re developing it or they would star with you?

We have – what do you call it – a presentation.

That’s exciting. You also made a movie recently called Gambit. How was that?

Wonderful. Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz – they were darling to me.

Thank you for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish, Cloris - and I look forward to seeing you on the 24th.

I can’t wait.

To purchase tickets to Cloris! A One-Woman Show, which she will perform on Saturday, September 24, at 7:30 pm at Moraine Valley Community College's Dorothy Menker Theater (9000 W. College Pkwy. in Palos Hills, Illinois), click here. And to learn more about Ms. Leachman, check out her website at You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


Alan Scott said...

Awesome interview, Marc! I love her! Thank you for the posting.

Aaron said...

You lucky!! She's just about my fave...and I love that you talked about "The North Avenue Irregulars." My mom's favorite part was when she got her nails broken in the "demolition derby," then started driving after the bad guys, shaking her broken nails at them. "She's nuts--let's get away from her!" Great interview!

Marc said...

Thanks, guys, I'm glad you both liked the interview!

Kevin said...

Wonderful interview! Once I'm sure you'll remember for a long time. I wonder what the story is about her 25 year marriage to George Englund (who I didn't realize was the son of Mabel Albertson!). 32 years after their divorce, he's still working with her (as co-author of her memoir, author of her one-woman show...).

Damien Oz said...

Did you also know that she played Hyppolita - Queen of the Amazons - and mother to Wonder Woman???

Corny role but ANYTHING with Cloris in it is gold.

Marc said...

Kevin, I will remember my conversation with Cloris forever - and I have it on tape.

Damien, if I had had more time, I would've asked her about EVERYTHING - including Wonder Woman.