A conversation with legendary actress Cloris Leachman
By John Busbee
Legendary actress Cloris Leachman celebrated her 90th birthday on April 30. Between new performing jobs in the career of her passion, she returned to her hometown of Des Moines a few months after that milestone for a weekend whirlwind of events honoring her and a legacy Iowans fondly celebrate. Throughout her remarkable career, Leachman has always remained connected to her hometown, often returning to support such local iconic groups as the Des Moines Playhouse (where she performed and shared her first “stage kiss” with Roosevelt High School classmate Jack Mishler), Theodore Roosevelt High School (where she was part of the inaugural TRHS Alumni Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1986), or simply to enjoy time with her family. Besides Mishler, another Des Moines classmate, Edward “Eddie” R. Rissien, is part of her connection to home. The Leachman name remains prominent in Des Moines, anchored by the family business on Des Moines’ East Side, Leachman Lumber Company, with patriarch John Leachman (Cloris’ cousin) and his children, at the helm.
With a career that spans from the Great White Way of Broadway, to Hollywood’s motion pictures and television shows, Leachman’s vibrant talent combined with her Iowa work ethic helped her carve exceptional success and recognition in her industry. She won the Academy Award in 1972 for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in “The Last Picture Show”; eight Primetime Emmy Awards and one Daytime Emmy Award, most notably for playing Phyllis Lindstrom on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”; a Golden Globe Award for the spinoff series “Phyllis”; and she was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. Leachman has lived a full, rewarding life pursuing a career that she knew she would follow starting from a very young age in the living room of her family’s Des Moines home.
To her testament, Leachman’s inner fire continues to burn brightly, from her record-breaking appearance at age 82 on “Dancing with the Stars,” to her ongoing work in front of the camera. Next year, the Robert de Niro film in which she appears, “The Comedian,” will be released and she continues filming episodes of her recurring role as Zorya Vechernyaya in the television series, “American Gods.” Add the reprise voice-over role as Gran in the animated feature film sequel, “The Croods 2,” which is in pre-production, and Leachman’s passion for her profession radiates like a timeless beacon.
Turning back the hands of time to about when she was half her current age and upon receiving the 1972 Oscar for her role of Ruth Popper in “The Last Picture Show,” Leachman’s remarks were very revealing, almost prophetic.
“I’m at a point where I’m free to go out and have a little fun with my career,” she said to the admiring crowd. “Some Oscar winners have dropped out of sight, as if they were standing on a trapdoor. Others picked it up and ran with it. I’m going to run with it.”