BY: Frazier Moore
NEW YORK – “Vanity” is a word that seems missing from Cloris Leachman’s play book.
This, of course, is no surprise to those who has savored this veteran actress-comedian in her anything-but-self-admiring performances the past six decades. (Does snooty Phyllis Lindstrom on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore‘ and her own spinoff sitcom ring a bell? Or Teutonic terror Frau Blucher in ‘Young Frankenstein‘? Or Leachman’s starkly non-comedic portrayal of a forlorn coach’s wife in ‘The Last Picture Show,’ for which she won the 1972 best-supporting actress Oscar?)
Now the 84-year-old Leachman fires jolts of unbridled daffiness on Fox’s ‘Raising Hope,’ which airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. EST.
She plays Maw Maw, the dementia-addled, wildly inappropriate senior cared for by her granddaughter Virginia (Martha Plimpton) and Virginia’s husband Burt (Garret Dillahunt). Their son Jimmy (Lucas Neff) also shares the chaotic homestead, along with his baby daughter, Hope.
Moments of lucidity are few and far between for Maw Maw, who may be found removing her top and bolting out the front door bare-chested; forcing a “Christmas cookie” on Burt that she made from dirt and pebbles; or, when seated beside someone’s desk, popping off with a chipper, “Thank you for having me on the show, Johnny!”
As Leachman reflects on Maw Maw’s antics, she trills an appreciative chuckle.
“I just hang on and say, ‘What am I gonna do now?’ I really trust Greg Garcia,” she says, meaning the series’ creator. “And he trusts me.”
Any doubts about Leachman’s gung-ho attitude were dashed two years ago when she was a contestant on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ She didn’t win the mirrorball, but with moxie and sass she outlasted the likes of singer Toni Braxton, chef Rocco DiSpirito and reality star Kim Kardashian.
“Gosh, I wish I knew what I did!” says Leachman. “I just came out and did a dance.”
On a whirlwind publicity jaunt for ‘Raising Hope’ recently, Leachman is fresh from shooting the series the week before, then flying to Kansas City to perform her one-woman show, then on to Warren, Ohio, the next day for a speech.
Watch This Week’s Episode of ‘Raising Hope’ — Guest Starring Jason Lee — on xfinityTV.com
Sure, she claims to be exhausted (with a theatrical display of collapsing in her chair). But during an interview at Associated Press headquarters, she is a cutup. And during her entrance and exit, she stops at every desk to speak — and eagerly interrogate — all the journalists in her path.
She is accompanied by her son, George Englund Jr., who is also her manager.
“He says managing me is like herding cats,” she confides, then, with precision timing, adds, “George, don’t you think it’s because I’m left-handed and right-brained?”
“I think that her right brain has consumed her left brain,” he responds mock-wearily, “and it’s sitting over there pretending to be a left brain like it has logic and stuff — but there isn’t any.”
“It’s a wonderful way to live,” she declares. “I’m so happy. I’m never upset or depressed.”
Not that she can’t be sharply outspoken. Unbidden, she lists three prominent people she doesn’t care for, including an Oscar-winning actor (“Can’t stand him”); a major politician’s wife (“The biggest pill!”); and a well-known TV personality (“He thinks he’s the big cheese: Limburger”).
“But those are the only three people I don’t like,” she sums up.
A native of Iowa who grew up outside Des Moines in an isolated home without running water, she began piano lessons as a child. Since the family couldn’t afford a piano, she practiced on a cardboard drawing of piano keys. She briefly studied theater at Northwestern University and competed in the Miss America pageant in 1946. She landed in New York soon thereafter, won roles in the theater and in the emerging world of live TV drama, as well as film.
After 60-plus years (with eight prime-time Emmys among her cache of honors), Leachman says she has always treated acting as something of a lark.
She recalls her role as sneering, domineering Nurse Diesel in the 1977 Mel Brooks comedy ‘High Anxiety,’ set in a mental institution.
Waiting in costume in her trailer on the first day of production, she idly gave Nurse Diesel a comically repugnant accent: the trace of a mustache.
“I was by myself with an eyebrow pencil, just doing nothing. Then they called me to the set and we started working. And we never changed it after that. So I had to put on this mustache every day. I had never intended to wear it. I was just entertaining myself in my trailer.”
“She makes choices all the time,” says her son with an amazed shake of his head. “I’m with her every day and I still have no idea what she’s going to do next. Just hold onto your hat!”
Hearing that, Leachman chuckles and considers the question, is she spared from vanity’s constraints?
“I have pride,” she sort of replies. “I have to be clean. I take a bath. That’s what starts it. Then I just go to the end. It starts with a bath.”
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