Read an Excerpt: 'Cloris'

Check out a chapter from beloved actress Cloris Leachman's new book.

ByABC News via logo
March 31, 2009, 3:07 PM

April 1, 2009 — -- Cloris Leachman captured the hearts of TV viewers during her turn as Phyllis on the "Mary Tyler Moore Show," a role that earned her two Emmys.

Since then, Leachman has not slowed down one bit. She has appeared in more than 50 films and more than 130 television shows.

Most recently, she played the most charming character of them all, herself, on "Dancing With the Stars."

Now, for the first timer, Leachman looks back on her wild life in a candid new book.

I said at the beginning that I wasn't going to write my book in chapters. That also meant I wouldn't always set things down in a chronological line—as evidenced by what I've written so far.

Actors have to submerge themselves in their roles, lose their own identity, and actually become the character they're playing. They must think, eat, drink, and go to the bathroom as the character does. That can bring confusion to life.

For instance, in the 1971 film The Last Picture Show, which is based on a novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry, I played Ruth Popper, a spare, lean woman who lives an emotionally barren life in Texas. She is married to the high school football coach who is always away and, it seems, probably gay. That is Ruth Popper's life on the outside. Inside of her is a full-fledged female who wistfully retains the hope that romance might yet come her way. There were no frills either in the production or in my performance. The film was shot in black and white, and I wore no make-up.

Being Ruth Popper as her dormant emotions are awakened by a boy in his late teens was a deeply human experience. It radiated through my life. In preparing for the filming and during it, I not only came to look, walk, and talk like that sensually undernourished woman, but to become her. The rewards, both personal and professional, were extravagant. I won the Oscar for that performance.

I didn't read or audition for the role. The producers called my agent and said they wanted me to play the part. Their "firm offer," as it's called in the business, included where and when I'd be working and what the compensation would be. My agent brought the offer and the script to me. I read the script and told him I'd like to do the part.

Peter Bogdanovich was the director, and the preproduction process began with a reading of the script at his house. On that first occasion, Bogdanovich said something surprising: he thought Ellen Burstyn and Eileen Brennan and I were interchangeable, we could all play each other's parts. He asked Ellen first which part she would like to play. He said he thought it should be Ruth Popper. Ellen said no. She didn't want that role, so it came back to me. In truth, I would have been happy with any of the three roles, though I did like the part of Ruth Popper best.

Soon the production was under way. As we moved through the weeks Ellen and I became very close. Jeff Bridges, who played the part of Duane, proved to be not only a terrific actor but a wonderful man. All us ladies in the cast loved him and were attracted to him. It was my impression that Timothy Bottoms, who played my teenage lover, didn't really want to be in the picture. He had just done the film Johnny Got His Gun, and that was the kind of role he wanted, not this one. He wasn't part of us; he would come in and do a scene and then be gone. Rumors were, I don't know if they were true, that he was smoking a lot of pot.

Polly Platt, Peter's then-wife, contributed greatly to the success of the picture. As the production designer, she was meticulous in the selection of wardrobe elements. From what she presented, I chose my coat, my hat, my bra, and my little white panties, and I feel strongly that these things were mine, Ruth Popper's. Polly's wardrobe helped me to know exactly who I was.

During the filming, Ellen, Eileen, and I became involved with the people we met in the restaurant in town called the Golden Rooster. We'd eat there almost every night and hear their real life stories. One day the owner of the restaurant began ranting that her lover had left her. She was married, and we thought she was upset because her husband had gone away, but that wasn't the case at all. It was her lover whom she was publicly moaning for. That sort of story was going on all around us in that little town. It was fascinating because we were actually portraying those people. Larry McMurtry had written his novel, The Last Picture Show, about the very people we were talking to.

Peter Bogdanovich was a different kind of director. I wasn't used to the way he directed. He'd come over and say some of my lines quietly in my ear. Good directors don't give actors line readings, but I realized as we went along Peter didn't mean to be giving me line readings. He wanted to suggest the quality of the scene. Bogdanovich was good. He knew what he was doing, and he knew what he wanted.

When we shot my major scene, the long one that, in my opinion, earned me the Oscar, Peter printed the first take. I wanted to shoot it again; I thought I could do at least the first part better. Peter said, "No, you're going to get the Academy Award for that scene." I thought, Yeah, sure. I didn't know I'd done it that well. Acting is so subjective. Sometimes you think you were splendid, and you get lukewarm reactions; sometimes you're almost rueful at what you did, and people tell you how brilliant you were. Anyway, I didn't think I'd done that scene as well as I could have.

I replayed the scene while I was in bed this morning, and I believe I did it better. Particularly, I did the early part better, where I say to Timothy, who's just arrived at my house, "I wouldn't have been in my bathrobe. I would have been dressed hours ago."

The night I won the Academy Award was one extended thrill. I couldn't have imagined that after accepting it, I wouldn't work for a full year. I don't know why that happened, whether it was because, as some have suggested, producers thought I'd be too expensive, or because I didn't have a manager at the time, or whether it was the "Oscar curse." A story comes to mind about the "Oscar curse." Many years ago, after winning the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as O-Lan in The Good Earth, after enjoying the applause and the standing ovation, Luise Rainer didn't work again for months. It was okay with me that I wasn't working. I would've been happy either way.

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.

Frau Blucher got inside me, and in the months after the picture was finished, she would appear when she hadn't been sent for. She'd take over my face, my posture, and I would have to move over for her. At dinner with George one night, I felt her rise in me.

"Honey, hold on," I said.

"What's up?" George senses when a visitation might be coming.

"Zis will have to stop!" My face was now Frau Blucher's face.

"What has to stop, babe?"

"Ich bin no Babe. Ich bin Frau Blucher." I fixed him with the Frau Blucher look.

"Right, babe, er, Frau."

"Zis eating of food must end."

"Right. Foul idea. We'll quit."

"Jawohl," I murmured.

I slid back into Cloris, and we continued our dinner.

"I thought we might need an exorcism," George murmured.

Another time I played the mother superior of a Catholic order in a television film called Dixie: Changing Habits. Suzanne Pleshette was Dixie, a whorehouse madam who, having been convicted three times, was sent to our convent instead of being imprisoned. There I was to show her a better way of life. In one scene we were shooting, I was supposed to reveal to her the beauty in the prayer of St. Francis. When the director said, "Action," I spoke my lines.

"The prayer, Dixie, begins, 'Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith ...."

The director called, "Cut!"

He and Suzanne were staring at me. It wasn't me talking; the voice of one-hundred-year-old Grandma Moses was saying the lines. I'd played her in a one-woman show the year before, and it was her voice reciting the prayer. The eyes of Suzanne and the director had been stapled to me as I'd cackled out the sacred words.

"Where'd that voice come from, Cloris?" the director asked, the eeriness of the experience showing on his face.

"I have no idea," I said. I was as startled as they were.

Suzanne began to laugh and pointed knowingly at me. She had experienced that phenomenon. Finally, all three of us were in stitches at the way that antique larynx had taken over and wheezed out, "Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace." That is the kind of schizophrenia that can go on inside you when you've played several very different women in a row.

At another point in the story, I was showing Dixie what we convent members did on our farm. I'd given her a few religious things to think about, and now I wanted her to see the benefit of growing things. I was driving a tractor, and she was standing on the flatbed trailer behind it, still dressed in her madam's fancy clothes. As we talked and I showed her where we grew the corn and the cabbages, I turned off the dirt road and into a field that had recently been plowed.

I knew very little about driving a tractor, and Suzanne knew even less about how to hang on in a flatbed trailer being dragged along behind a tractor. I didn't slow down as I made the turn, so when I hit the first row of hard dirt, Suzanne was tossed on her derriere. I didn't realize it, and I kept on driving and playing the scene, until the assistant director raced up and waved me to a stop. Suzanne tried to laugh, but she was in real pain and had to be carried to the nurse's vehicle. It turned out she was so badly bruised, she couldn't work the next day. Losing a day's shooting on a TV film is a very big deal.

I want to say a word about Suzanne. She and I were not intimate friends, but we were fellow travelers in the acting world. We knew its ins and outs. We'd run into each other at parties or at one of the networks, and we'd always have a wonderful exchange. Suzanne had her own special sparkle. Sometimes she seemed almost tough, but that was on the outside. Inside was a dear, dear person, a girl I loved. When Suzanne became seriously ill, I tried to contact her, but it was too late. She was past the point where she could respond. I miss her. I miss the color, the originality, the special way of being a woman and an actress that was hers.

All right. Back to Phyllis—a confession first. I'm always late; I've been late all my life. My father drove me to school every day when I was little, and we would almost always arrive late. I don't know if that's when my habitual tardiness got started. It could be. I could just have adopted being late as the way you did things. But I think my lateness comes from something else.

From my earliest days, I saw myself as an artist, therefore, I should be concerned with things essential to the life of an artist. Being punctual isn't one of them. Neither is living by the rules. Since my childhood, I have disliked rules and, for the most part, have avoided them.

The day I auditioned for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I arrived late, probably twenty-five to thirty minutes after the appointed hour. When the receptionist brought me to the inner office, the producers and writers and Mary were sitting in a loose semicircle. They all greeted me, Hi, Cloris. Thanks for coming. That sort of thing.

I'd heard that Jim Brooks, the cocreator of the show, thought I was a fine dramatic actress but had serious doubt that I could be the zany, self-oriented Phyllis they were looking for. So, instead of exchanging greetings with the group, I said, "Which one is Jim?" Jim Brooks pleasantly raised his hand. I walked over to him and sat on his lap and gave him a reassuring hug. That started everybody laughing. I stayed on Jim's lap for the whole interview, answering questions, being raucous, in all ways showing I could be even nuttier than the Phyllis they had in mind. The laughter was nonstop. Jim laughed harder every time I turned and gave him a sexy look. The reason I'd come was to read the part for them, we didn't bother. The role was mine.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show is the best known TV series of those I've appeared in. Though the show was on in the 1970s, nowadays people still come up to me and say, "Cloris, I grew up with you. I never missed an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Was that kooky Phyllis you, or did you invent her? What kind of husband was Lars? He must have been as loony as you. What did your kids think when they saw you on the show?"

The years I spent on The Mary Tyler Moore Show were a small lifetime, and all of us were part of a family. When creative people work together, and their respect for, and confidence in, each other grow with each performance, they develop an intimacy that is, in a way, the best expression of family.

Under the excellent leadership of our production staff, the show was perfectly organized and ran with great efficiency. Mary was always on time and ready to perform, a model for the rest of the cast. Ed Asner and Gavin Mac-Leod were equally professional; they were always punctual and always ready with their lines. That isn't to say there wasn't spontaneity and humor on the set. In between studying our revisions, we shot comments and laugh lines to each other.

Ted Knight had a tough life. He was a ventriloquist, and there was meager demand for that talent in show business. Jay, our director, mentioned more than once how difficult it was working with Ted, but that changed, and Ted became one of the best liked members of the cast. He also became mayor of Brentwood, where we lived, and my kids always reported that he was so kind to them when they ran into him.

The person I had the most doubt about was Gavin MacLeod. I'd worked with him before, and he'd always played a menacing heavy, so I didn't know how his persona would work in a sitcom. But Gavin emerged new and splendid, he played his character with real sweetness. He conducted himself in a less bumptious way than I did— Gavin didn't sit on anybody's lap—he overcame all reservations about him doing comedy the same way I overcame Jim Brooks' reservations about me.

I never knew Jim Brooks well. But one day, while we were waiting for the set to be changed, I gave him a head-and-shoulders rub, something I do well. After it, Jim thanked me and went to his office. Later he came back on the set and sat down beside me. "I don't know what you did," he said, "but I went back into my office and burst into tears. I couldn't stop crying." It seemed my massage had released some very deep feelings. That was the closest Jim and I have ever been.

Ed Asner and I came together slowly but ended up pals. He always told me he loved me, and every once in a while, he'd grab me and whisper, "You're God's gift to man!" One day we made an agreement that I would have sex with him if he lost thirty-two pounds. Well, don't you know, he almost did it; he lost twenty-nine pounds. We both got so disoriented at what we were facing that his weight shot back up, and our assignation never happened.

Since the end of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I've seen Ed occasionally. We've run into each other on television shows. Each time I've felt there was something close to hostility in his behavior. On one of these shows, with an audience of three hundred or so people, he bellowed at me, "You can't be trusted. You're absolutely untrustworthy," and his raging continued. At first, I didn't understand what was causing it.

In the years since The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ed has been involved in politics, and he asked me to participate in different events. I did for a while, but I found I didn't always agree with his positions on things, and tending to be outspoken myself, I thought it better to leave off doing them.

I concluded later that his antipathy toward me had grown out of my unwillingness to associate myself with his political activities. But in speaking to his son one evening, I realized it wasn't politics. He was unhappy that I had talked in public about the terms we'd agreed on for a sexual encounter and why that encounter didn't happen. I thought it was funny, and I still do, but if Ed feels otherwise and he happens to read this far in this book, I want him to know that if I hurt him I am deeply sorry, and I love him just as much as I did when we were on the show. And, if he still thinks he can "make the weight," we might put that sumo match together again.

On Mondays we gathered to read the script. The next two days we'd stage the show, and late on Wednesday Jim Brooks and Allan Burns, the show's other cocreator, would watch a run-through. After it they'd give us suggestions; Jim's were especially creative, fresh, and unexpected.

From then on, right up to the filming on Friday afternoon, when we did two performances in front of audiences, we were constantly fed new revisions. So often as we were filming I'd be tossing away my revised script with my left hand as I was opening the door with my right to enter the set, and spout the lines I'd just thrown away.

Mary didn't need a lot of rehearsal, but Valerie Harper and I were from the stage, and rehearsal was essential to us, so we'd meet at lunch. We didn't actually rehearse as we ate, that is, we didn't run lines. We discussed, swapped ideas, and decided how we'd handle a scene. Then we'd get in front of the cameras and make magic. My character, Phyllis, as I said, had a runaway ego. She did as she liked and didn't withhold her opinions, whether they were asked for or not. From the beginning, Phyllis and I were doppelgängers: I behaved off camera much as I did in front of the camera. Being late was my most pronounced behavioral "diversion," but it wasn't the only one. What crinkled the cast and crew more than my tardiness was my disregard for the rules. To me, it wasn't being disobedient, I was an artist living an artist's life, and I didn't have to obey rules created by others. I was being Peck's bad boy. Peck's Bad Boy is the self-explanatory title of a movie I'd seen when I was a child.

During the show, I often did television interviews. One night I was on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson ... Let me go back a step. The month before the Johnny Carson appearance, I had an interview in my trailer on the set of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Following my directions, my assistant had made a tasty lunch for the female interviewer and me. The interviewer was interested in how I'd come to create the dish and what my views were on diet and nutrition. I said I wished that people who were gaining too much weight could sample what we were having for lunch, because it was tasty but not fattening.

The article was published, and it included a description of our lunch and my saying how desirable this approach to cooking would be for people who needed to lose weight, fat people. During my interview with Johnny Carson, he asked me about the article and what its main point was. Typical of me, I said what jumped into my mind, that there were too many overweight people walking around and that we should have "fat catchers" to bring them in for treatment. Johnny was not often speechless, but at that moment I saw it in his eyes: he'd been hit by a Taser.

This was twenty years before concerns about obesity in America had crystallized, so my remarks caused a considerable stir. The network got hundreds of letters, and so did I. One of my closest friends said that I should get security around the house, because there were some very irate overweight people who might want to do me harm. The irony is that today I am one of those people who should be rounded up by a fat catcher. I've gained too much weight, but I'm going to attack the problem, and by the time you get to this page in the book, I'll be my sylphlike self again.

Back to being Peck's bad boy. At the same time my undisciplined behavior at work was getting attention, my personal life was in chaos. I was having the house worked on, and there were literally eighteen workmen there every day, and they needed their questions answered. George and I were separating, my daughter, Dinah, was five years old and needed me, and my son Bryan was in New York, using drugs—he'd call and say someone had stolen his coat or some other such improbable story, and I would send him money. I had not learned that any money I sent him, whatever the alleged reason, would be used to buy drugs.

I don't offer my personal life as an excuse for my behavior, because I was the one in control of my life. It was I who was late, I who created the chaos at home. I've asked myself if this was compulsive behavior or if I had a choice. Could I have done my work on the show professionally, been on time and observed the rules, and conducted my personal life in a responsible way? I'm not sure. I really don't know if I could have chosen to act differently then.

But things began to change. Valerie Harper was the reason. She was always my defender; she supported me unequivocally and at all times. She once told me, "We all ought to bow down to you, get down on our hands and knees, because you're the only one who's doing it right." She called me her girlfriend. No one had called me that before. I was terribly moved by her unflagging support. It brought a change in me.

The need to be late and behave erratically began to fade. Because of Valerie's positive picture of me, I was able to let go of the life mode I had adopted. One day I said it out loud. I was in the make-up chair. Ben Nye was putting on my eyeliner, and I said, "It's going to be different, Ben. I'm going to be different. I just want you to know that." He seemed to grasp what I was saying. He smiled, and from that moment on, his attitude toward me was different. Life was different. I'd been released. I didn't have to be Peck's bad boy anymore. I could if I wanted to, but I didn't have to.

At the end of the last show, we had a party, with food and drinks, an all-out festivity. Everyone talked and took pictures, said good-bye, we signed our autographs for each other. We were like a sorority, a fraternity. We belonged to each other. When we ran into each other later on, even though time had passed by, we were just as familiar. "Hi. Well, you look old," one might say. "Yeah, you look old, too," the other would reply. Then we'd both laugh.

So the fervent years on The Mary Tyler Moore Show—the portraying of dear, unbridled Phyllis and the care and support of Valerie Harper—brought a welcome and significant reward.

The success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show impelled the producers to create a spin-off called Phyllis, in which I starred. It lasted two wonderful years (1975–1977). I loved doing the show, and I loved every single cast member.

The show was a hit from the beginning, and the series pilot was hilarious. In that first episode, my character, Phyllis, goes to an employment agency and is interviewed by Doris Roberts. She asks me what skills I possess. I inform her that one of my major talents is knowing which wine goes best with every sort of meal. As she continues to question me, she suddenly realizes that she wants that job. So right there, in the middle of the interview, she puts down her pen, opens the bottom desk door, grabs her purse, and rushes out to get the job herself—while I sit waiting.

One thing was missing in the show—a person for me to bump against, to compete with, the way I did with Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Valerie Harper and I were perfect adversaries on the MTM landscape; each was totally intolerant of the other's views, and that made great comedy.

There were other holes in Phyllis. In the two-year period that the show aired, three members of the cast died. In 1975, when we were starting our fourth episode, Barbara Colby was murdered. She was only thirty-five years old and had appeared with me in one of my best TV films, A Brand New Life. She and a friend were shot inside a parking area; Barbara died instantly.

In December 1976, Judith Lowry, who played eighty-six-year-old Mother Dexter, died right after the episode in which she married her ninety-two-year-old boyfriend, Arthur, played by Burt Mustin. Two months later Burt Mustin was gathered. It was this combination of things that, I think, ended our run in 1977.

In 1986 Charlotte Rae had reached her endpoint in the TV series The Facts of Life. The girls with whom she had started the show had by then grown up quite a bit, and Charlotte wasn't as comfortable with the new issues she faced as she had been with the old. I was approached by the producers of the show to replace Charlotte. I hadn't seen the show, and my initial reaction was not immediately positive. However, after watching the show and considering what I could do with the role, I said yes.

I hadn't seen Charlotte in years, so we had a sentimental reunion. She came up with my character's first name by combining her sisters' names, Beverly and Ann. My then manager, Steve Vail, and I decided to make separate lists of possible last names. The next day we talked on the phone and alternated reading the names on each of our lists. We each had ten names. We didn't find one we both liked until near the end, when I said, "Stickle," and, a huge surprise to both of us, he said, "Stickle." We were astonished that we had both chosen such an unusual name. That's how we knew it was the right one. So Stickle it was.

I enjoyed my time on The Facts of Life. Each episode was a new kind of fun as we solved the girls' problems. The four of us really did become a family. The girls are grown up now and scattered around the country, but the joy we had in working together comes back with all its original fervor every time I run into one of them.

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