Read an Excerpt: 'Cloris'

After The Last Picture Show, complexity came into my life. On the heels of that role I joined The Mary Tyler Moore Show to play Phyllis, a woman as far from Ruth Popper as you could meet in a round-the-world journey. For three years, I lived as Phyllis, the high-handed zany who saw the world as responsible for quickly meeting her needs and wishes. I'll come back to Phyllis in a minute. First, I want to give an illustration of how characters you play live inside you and appear when you think you're just out in the world, being you.

My next acting challenge was to be Frau Blucher in Mel Brooks's 1974 film Young Frankenstein. When Mel sent me the script, I don't think I read it all the way through. I don't like to read scripts, because it takes too much hard work. I'm left-handed, so I have a tendency to read things backward. From what I did read, it was obvious this was high comedy, even farce. I wanted to be funny, but I also wanted to have some reality, to be someone you wouldn't forget. I didn't know what I was going to do with the role till I got on the stage the first day.

To begin with, I'd never done a German accent, and I had no real idea what it should sound like. I went to everybody on the set, trying to find someone who knew German. Mel Brooks's mother was there, and she saw my consternation and offered to help. I couldn't have found anyone better. She knew German and led me through my initial contact with the language. In the film, I pronounce my first line, "I am Frau Blucher," very carefully because I was still a little unsure about the accent.

I then figured out how my hair should be, how I should use make-up to shape my face, and what my attitude toward the other characters should be. For me, Frau Blucher was not the kind of character to whom you apply the Stanislavsky method. She mostly sprang full grown on the set.

Being between Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder was a brand-new and vivid experience. They are two of the funniest, most off-the-wall men not only in show business but in the world. The whole shooting schedule bubbled with their humor.

I think some of my best lines are not in the picture, because Gene couldn't control his laughter when I said them. Every time I'd say a line, he'd break up, so we'd have to shoot the scene again. And again. I had a little better control than he did but the same thing would happen to me. Gene would say a line and I'd look at him with that hat he had on, at his surprised eyes, his consuming naivete, and I couldn't help but laugh. Oh, it was fun to work with the two of them.

Frau Blucher was probably the most outlandish role I have ever played. Even today I can go to my table in a restaurant and suddenly hear someone make that whinnying sound of the horses. Incidentally, there's a little joke about that, which I don't think many people know. In German the word Blucher means "glue," so in the film, when the horses hear the name Frau Blucher, they think they're going to be sent to the glue factory. That's why they get up on their back legs and whinny in protest.

I've even had a waiter come up to me as I've been perusing my menu and say, "You would like a little warm milk . . . Ovaltine?" Walking down the street, I've heard a voice call out, sometimes from the other side, "Yes, yes, he vas my boyfriend!" I'll look, and somebody will be giving me a big wave.

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