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SYFY WIRE obituary

Cloris Leachman, star of Young Frankenstein, American Gods & The Twilight Zone, dies at 94

By James Comtois
Cloris Leachman

Cloris Leachman, the prolific Oscar and Emmy Award-winning actress who appeared in Young Frankenstein, American Gods, Sky High, and served as the voice for Gran in The Croods, died Tuesday of natural causes, Variety has reported. She was 94.

Her manager, Juliet Green, confirmed the news to SYFY WIRE. “It’s been my privilege to work with Cloris Leachman, one of the most fearless actresses of our time,” said Green in a statement. “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. You never knew what Cloris was going to say or do and that unpredictable quality was part of her unparalleled magic.” 

Though perhaps best known for playing landlady Phyllis on the CBS sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Leachman also appeared in several genre shows and films. In the Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life," Leachman played the mother of a cute yet monstrous young boy with terrible powers. On the Starz series American Gods, she portrayed Zorya Vechernyaya, the eldest of a trio of sisters who watch over the constellations. Leachman played Frau Blucher in the classic 1974 Mel Brooks comedy Young Frankenstein. She also appeared as Nurse Spex in the 2005 superhero high school comedy Sky High.

In addition to her live action performances, Leachman also lent her voice acting talents to such animated films as Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996), The Iron Giant (1999), Ponyo (2008), and The Croods (2013), as well as The Croods: A New Age (2020). 

Born Apr. 30, 1926 in Des Moines, Iowa, Leachman attended Illinois State University and Northwestern University, where she majored in drama. In 1946, she won the title of Miss Chicago as part of the Miss America pageant. She acted with the Des Moines Playhouse before moving to New York to study under Elia Kazan at the Actors Studio.

Her first credited television appearance was on an episode of The Ford Theatre Hour in 1948. She appeared in several TV anthologies and shows before becoming a regular on The Bob & Ray Show in 1952. Her film debut was in the classic 1955 noir Kiss Me Deadly, where she played the femme fatale hitchhiker Christina Bailey.

In 1971 she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role of Ruth Popper in The Last Picture Show. Over the course of her career, she won one Daytime Emmy Award and eight Primetime Emmys, making her the most awarded actress in Emmy history along with Julia Louis-Dreyfus. In 2011, she was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

In a 1987 interview with Entertainment Tonight, Leachman admitted that she had never sought out stardom. “It wasn't, ‘Oh, I want to be a star. Oh, Hollywood!’ ever. It was different from that,” she told the outlet. “It was just something that developed.”

In response to Leachman's passing, Brooks, who would go on to direct her in High Anxiety and History of the World: Part I, tweeted: "Such sad news — Cloris was insanely talented. She could make you laugh or cry at the drop of a hat. Always such a pleasure to have on set. Every time I hear a horse whinny I will forever think of Cloris' unforgettable Frau Blücher. She is irreplaceable, and will be greatly missed."

Leachman was married to director George Englund from 1953 to 1979. They had five children together. She is survived by four of her children and several grandchildren. 

A lifelong vegetarian, Leachman was a passionate advocate for animal rights and loved her children and her grandchildren ferociously, according to Green. Her family requests that any donations in her name be made to PETA or Last Chance for Animals.