Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cloris Leachman: Still Crazy After All These Years

Back in 2002, I attended the Emmys for the first time, courtesy of Frank and The Daily Show. As we entered the security screening area at the Shrine Auditorium, I noticed the woman in front of me in line, in a flowing red dress. Looking way younger than her then 76 years, it was Cloris Leachman.

In 2004, I got to go to the Emmys again -- held on my birthday -- courtesy of TV Guide. As I sat inside the magazine's party, I watched coverage on the video monitors inside of party arrivals in front of the magazine's red carpet backdrop. Cloris Leachman looked fabulous. "She's 78 and has the legs of a showgirl," I remember saying to someone, who undoubtedly took me for the gayest person ever. Knowing I should quit before they take me to be too much of a gerontophile (this was 2 years before my Golden Girls book came out!), I stopped myself before revealing my knowledge that Cloris was, after all, a former Miss Chicago.

In the fall of 2006, I finally had the opportunity to meet Cloris; we were scheduled to do a long-form interview together, face to face, at a hotel in Los Angeles. Of course, Cloris has been an icon for so long, there was so much I wanted to talk about. Where to begin? Her Oscar win for 1971's The Last Picture Show? Her iconic sitcom role as Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and her own spinoff, Phyllis? Her absolutely brilliant comedic roles in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety, the latter of which, Nurse Diesel, Frank and I still imitate on an almost daily basis?

And then there are the campier pleasures: playing Ellen's mom on her second sitcom on CBS, or Beverly on The Facts of Life, or undead secretary Ellen Blunt in the cheesy telefilm Haunts of the Very Rich. And then there was Grandma Ida on Malcolm in the Middle, a role that earned Cloris her eighth primetime Emmy, setting a new record for the most wins.

Unfortunately, there wasn't time for most of that. Not just because Cloris has had such an amazing, long career -- but because when the woman finally showed up, she was almost four hours late. She was barefoot. And she was, even in person, the way she has appeared recently on TV: wacky, fun, jumpy and downright crazy.

It's obviously working. Cloris is everywhere lately. On Oprah's MTM show reunion (where she practically couch-jumped a la Tom Cruise and threatened to steal the show). In the just-released remake of The Women. In a filthy-mouthed appearance on the Comedy Central roast of Bob Saget, where her quip "For the love of God, would somebody please punch me in the face so I can see some stars" landed her in Entertainment Weekly's Sound Bites column.

At 82, is anyone else -- other than Cloris' former MTM costar, 86-year-old Betty White -- more gainfully employed in Hollywood? And does anyone else look as good as Cloris does, in the below clip from last night's Dancing with the Stars? Heck, would any other octogenarian even get cast on a show where one might be in danger of breaking a hip -- and then go on, as in the clip below, to attempt to sway the judges with an upraised leg or some down-tilted cleavage?

Cloris, I love you. Stay crazy!

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