(AP) — Cloris Leachman, an Oscar-winner for her portrayal of a lonely housewife in “The Last Picture Show” and a comedic delight as the fearsome Frau Blücher in “Young Frankenstein” and self-absorbed neighbor Phyllis on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” has died. She was 94.
Leachman died in her sleep of natural causes at her home in Encinitas, California, publicist Monique Moss said Wednesday. Her daughter Dinah Englund was at her side, Moss said.
A character actor of extraordinary range, Leachman defied typecasting. In her early television career, she appeared as Timmy’s mother on the “Lassie” series. She played a frontier prostitute in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” a crime spree family member in “Crazy Mama,” and Blücher in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” in which the very mention of her name drew equine commentary.
“Every time I hear a horse whinny I will forever think of Cloris’ unforgettable Frau Blücher,” Brooks tweeted, calling Leachman “insanely talented” and “irreplaceable.”
Salutes from other admiring colleagues poured in on social media. Steve Martin said Leachman “brought comedy’s mysteries to the big and small screen.” “Nothing I could say would top the enormity of my love for you,” posted Ed Asner of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” “Applause on every entrance and exit,” said Rosie O’Donnell.
“There was no one like Cloris. With a single look she had the ability to break your heart or make you laugh ’till the tears ran down your face,” Juliet Green, her longtime manager, said in a statement.
In 1989, Leachman toured in “Grandma Moses,” a play in which she aged from 45 to 101. For three years in the 1990s she appeared in major cities as the captain’s wife in the revival of “Show Boat.” In the 1993 movie version of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” she assumed the Irene Ryan role as Granny Clampett.
She also had an occasional role as Ida on “Malcolm in the Middle,” winning Emmys in 2002 and 2006 for that show. Her Emmy haul over the years totaled eight, including a trophy for Moore’s sitcom, tying her with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the top Emmy winners among performers.
In 2008, Leachman joined the ranks of contestants in “Dancing With the Stars,” not lasting long in the competition but pleasing the crowds with her sparkly dance costumes, perching herself on judges’ laps and cussing during the live broadcast.
She started out as Miss Chicago in the Miss America Pageant and willingly accepted unglamorous screen roles.
“Basically I don’t care how I look, ugly or beautiful,” she told an interviewer in 1973. “I don’t think that’s what beauty is. On a single day, any of us is ugly or beautiful. I’m heartbroken I can’t be the witch in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ But I’d also like to be the good witch. Phyllis combines them both.
“I’m kind of like that in life. I’m magic, and I believe in magic. There’s supposed to be a point in life when you aren’t supposed to stay believing that. I haven’t reached it yet.”
During the 1950s, Leachman became busy in live TV drama, demonstrating her versatility, including in roles that represented casting standards of that era.
“One week I’d be on as a Chinese girl, the next as a blond cockney and weeks later as a dark-haired someone else,” she recalled. In 1955, she made her film debut in a hard-boiled Mickey Spillane saga, “Kiss Me Deadly” — “I was the naked blonde that Mike Hammer picked up on that dark highway.”
She followed with Rod Serling’s court-martial drama, “The Rack,” and a season on “Lassie.” She continued in supporting roles on Broadway and in movies, then achieved her triumph with Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” based on the Larry McMurtry novel.
When Leachman received the Oscar as best supporting actress of 1971, she delivered a rambling speech in which she thanked her piano and dancing teachers and concluded: “This is for Buck Leachman, who paid the bills.” Her father ran a lumber mill.
Despite her photogenic looks, she continued to be cast in character parts. Her most indelible role was Phyllis Lindstrom on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”