Legendary actress and comedian Cloris Leachman dead at 94

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Libby Torres
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cloris leachman
Cloris Leachman won an Oscar in the 1970s for her role in "The Last Picture Show." Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Variety
  • Legendary actress and comedian Cloris Leachman is dead at 94.

  • The actress reportedly died of natural causes on Tuesday in Encinitas, California.

  • Leachman was known for her roles in "Young Frankenstein" and on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Cloris Leachman, the legendary actress and comedian, is dead at 94, according to multiple reports.

Leachman passed away on Tuesday in Encinitas, California, due to natural causes, Variety reported.

She's survived by her children: Adam, George Jr., Morgan, and Dinah.

Leachman was born in Des Moines, Iowa, on April 20, 1926. She started performing at age seven and gained experience at Drake University's Children's Theater. By the time she was a teenager, she reportedly had three radio shows on local Iowa stations - even though she had to hitch a ride to her first radio audition on the back of a truck.

Leachman first knew that she wanted to be an actress when she was in third grade, and her teacher asked her to read in front of the class.

"I was so touched because that really was the first acting I had ever done, just reading in front of the class. And I was so amazed with the fulfillment I got from being in front of people," the actress said in 2016.

The actress credited her mother with helping to spark her passion for comedy and the performing arts, calling her "one of the funniest women I've ever known."

"My father was in the lumber business and he paid the bills, but it was my mother who taught me and my two sisters about freedom and play," Leachman said to the New York Times in 1975.

Leachman attended Roosevelt High School in Iowa and continued performing in local theater productions. After high school, Leachman won a scholarship to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where she studied drama. While she was a student at Northwestern, she earned the title of Miss Chicago and subsequently competed in the 1946 Miss America pageant.

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Cloris Leachman in 1946, around the time she competed in the Miss America pageant. Maurice Seymour/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

She previously said her decision to leave school for a pageant and acting career "seemed rather stupid."

"My mother told me to walk straight and sparkle plenty," Leachman said of her approach to pageants.

Her mother's advice paid off, for Leachman made it to the top 16 in the 1946 Miss America pageant - and used her $1,000 in prize money to fund a move to New York, where she was also able to take voice lessons and study at the Actors Studio.

Once in New York, Leachman appeared in a variety of Broadway productions, including a revival of Shakespeare's "As You Like It" with Katharine Hepburn and as the lead in "South Pacific."

Most of the productions Leachman appeared in were short-lived, but she notably appeared in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" in 1953.

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Cloris Leachman and Katharine Hepburn in a Broadway production of "As You Like It." John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In addition to theater, there were plenty of opportunities for Leachman on live television in New York during that time.

"I'd alternate between Broadway and live TV, where I learned that anything can happen," Leachman later said of her time there to The New York Times. "I found out how to take something that wasn't complete and to fill it in."

In 1953, Leachman married actor and Hollywood director George Englund, whom she met while acting in "As You Like It." The couple would go one to have five children together but would divorce in 1979.

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George Englund and Cloris Leachman, pictured here in 1973, were married in 1953. Frank Edwards/Archive Photos/Getty Images

"I fell in love with him, and I'm still in love to this day. He was magnificent," Leachman said in a 2017 interview of her husband.

The couple moved to Hollywood in 1954, and Leachman got her first feature film role in 1955's "Kiss Me Deadly," a noir thriller in which she played a young murder victim. And after "Kiss Me Deadly," Leachman played the mother on "Lassie" in 1957 through 1958.

For the rest of the '50s and most of the '60s, Leachman focused on her family, and only played small roles on TV shows.

Leachman and Englund, who reportedly had an open marriage, had one daughter, Dinah (born 1966), and four sons: Adam (born 1953), Bryan (born 1956), George Jr. (born 1957), and Morgan (born 1963).

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Cloris Leachman, with her husband George Englund, son Brian and his girlfriend Mary, holding her award for "The Last Picture Show" at the Academy Awards, Los Angeles, April 1972. Fotos International/Archive Photos/Getty Images

In 1969, Leachman returned to acting with a small but memorable role as a sex worker in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

And in 1971, Leachman gave one of her most iconic performances to date in the film "The Last Picture Show." Based on the novel of the same name, the film featured Leachman in a supporting role, as a depressed housewife who has an affair with a high schooler.

Leachman went on to win the Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in the film. Even though her performance garnered her an Academy Award, she was still less than enthusiastic about her performance.

"I could have done the first part better. I still lay awake nights performing that scene in my head," Leachman said of her "Last Picture Show" role in 2011.

But Leachman really became famous for her role on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," which ran from 1970 to 1975. The actress played the part of Moore's landlady, a nosy and self-absorbed woman named Phyllis Lindstrom.

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Mary Tyler Moore and Cloris Leachman starred on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Bettmann/Contributor

"The description they gave me of the character was that she was neurotic," Leachman said in 2011.

"Well, that didn't sound very funny to me. So eventually I decided that she would be perfect: the perfect chef, the perfect chauffeur, the perfect lover. And what is more boring than that?"

The actress was a hit on the show, and Phyllis would eventually get her own eponymous spin-off series (from 1975 to 1977), earning Leachman several Emmy awards (she garnered nine throughout her entire career) in the process.

During her stint on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and the "Phyllis" spinoff, Leachman appeared in countless movies, including several - like 1974's cult classic "Young Frankenstein" - from director Mel Brooks.

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Cloris Leachman played Frau Blücher in Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein." Twentieth Century Fox

"Cloris' genius is that she never plays comedy for laughs," Brooks later said of Leachman's role in "Young Frankenstein."

"She's deadly serious as the character. She'll do the work and get it done like a fine artisan."

From the early 1980s onward, Leachman had steady, mostly one-off roles in movies and on TV shows like "The Simpsons."

She also appeared as a supporting character on the final two seasons of "The Facts of Life," along with a young George Clooney, during the penultimate season in 1987.

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Cloris Leachman (at the piano) joined the cast of "The Facts of Life" during the show's final two seasons. NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

Tragically, Leachman's son Bryan died of a suspected drug overdose in 1986. "I think about him every day," Leachman said in 2008.

More recently, Leachman guest-starred on shows like "Malcolm in the Middle," and had a starring role as a senile grandmother - called Maw Maw - on the Fox comedy "Raising Hope," which ran from 2010 to 2014.

Up until her death, Leachman kept up a steady stream of appearances on shows like "Royal Pains," "American Gods," and "Mad About You," and voiced characters for animated projects like "Bob's Burgers," "Phineas and Ferb," and the "Croods" movies.

Leachman didn't limit herself to acting. In 2008, she had a successful stint on "Dancing With the Stars," becoming the oldest woman ever to appear on the show, and gaining plenty of fan support before she was eliminated on the show's sixth week.

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Cloris Leachman competed with Corky Ballas on season seven of "Dancing with the Stars." Kelsey McNeal/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Her last role was in the forthcoming film "High Holiday," about a family's Christmas Eve dinner gone terribly wrong.

When speaking about her career in 2008, Leachman shared that she always tried to be "real."

"If I were to do some outlandish role, I always made sure I'd be on Johnny Carson to show that I wasn't that person that I played," the actress said.

"I'd be myself. And so people got to know me, I think, and I think they know that I'm honest and truthful and real."

"I am from Des Moines, Iowa, not even the city but out in the country," Leachman continued. "I don't have a lot of trappings, I think, in my personality. I'm just a simple person, with a silly bone."

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Cloris Leachman, pictured here in 1970, received numerous awards throughout her career. CBS via Getty Images

But from the start of her career, the actress never doubted she'd be a star.

"There's plenty of room at the top, and I always knew there'd be a place for me there," she told the New York Times in 1975. "I planned it that way."

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