When you're young, your first experience with an actor stays with you, for good or bad. If you first see Jack Palance or Lee Van Cleef as bad guys, they're always bad guys, or at least highly suspicious. Other actors you love, or at least feel you can trust. Who didn't adore Julie Andrews, Teri Garr, or Mary Tyler Moore? And speaking of Mary Tyler Moore, since I was old enough to have seen her in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), I knew I would also enjoy The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977). Like many, I tuned in for Mary Tyler Moore, but I stayed for Phyllis, the character played by Cloris Leachman.
Phyllis Lindstrom was an odd character, unlike anyone else I knew in my little world of small-town central Mississippi. Phyllis was opinionated, sometimes arrogant, and more than a little bit snobbish. Even at a young age I knew adults who were opinionated, arrogant and extremely snobbish, but there was something about Phyllis that was also smart. She was tough, yet vulnerable. She could trade insults with Mary's friend Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) without batting an eye, but it seemed there was something missing in her life, perhaps some bit of guidance or wisdom that Mary could supply. I began to wonder why we never saw Phyllis's husband Lars and wondered if he even existed. (We would find the answer to that and other questions when Phyllis got her own TV show, Phyllis, which ran from 1975 to 1977).
Again, when you're a kid and see someone playing the same character over and over, you get used to that person in that role, doing your own typecasting, if you will. So when I saw Leachman in The Last Picture Show (1971), I was astounded. This wasn't Phyllis Lindstrom. This was Ruth Popper, a middle-aged woman married to the local high school football coach, a woman so desperately lonely that she has an affair with Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms), a high-school senior. This was so far removed from Phyllis Lindstrom, I couldn't believe it was the same actress. Leachman's performance was so powerful she deservedly won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
And then for something completely different: Leachman as Frau Blücher in the Mel Brooks classic Young Frankenstein (1974). Leachman was just one member of an enormously talented cast, all of whom gave memorable (if not iconic) performances, yet hers is one that immediately comes to mind any time you hear horses neigh.
Many years later when I was beginning my journeys through film noir, I was surprised to see Leachman, dressed only in a trench coat, running down the middle of a highway in the opening of Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
Initially we don't know who this woman is or why she's running, but Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), displaying an uncharacteristic moment of sympathy, picks up this woman named Christina, who lights the fuse on this noir nightmare that features one of the most unforgettable endings in cinematic history.
Leachman appeared on several television shows besides The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Phyllis. Just a few nights ago I watched her on an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called "Don't Interrupt," with Leachman playing the mother of a young boy whose wild imagination cases him to interrupt any adult conversation, much to her chagrin.
Leachman had a tremendous career, and I've just scratched the surface. I hope this little tribute will encourage you to explore more of her vast range of work (which you can find listed here). Godspeed, Cloris. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us.