It is a given that Cloris Leachman was a superb actress, as her Oscar for 1971’s The Last Picture Show, her eight Emmys for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Phyllis and other television roles attest. And then there are her silly and sublime collaborations with Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety.
But Leachman, who died Wednesday of natural causes at 94, has a special place in my heart for an entirely different reason. In the more than four decades that I have been covering arts and entertainment, hers was by far the most bizarre interview I ever experienced.
I was writing for The Washington Times which – bless their deep pockets – would fly me anywhere for an interview. The year was 1980 and Leachman was headed to the nation’s capital to star in a biographical stage play about the primitive painter Grandma Moses. So a staff photographer and I flew to Chicago to do a personality profile and theater preview about her.
Given the address of the apartment where she was staying while performing the play in the Windy City, we arrived in late morning and were greeted by a groggy Leachman in a bathrobe. Around her neck was a giant, multi-colored bow. It cried out for an explanation and she was ready with one.
“I am a present for Washington,” she said. “I’ve wrapped myself up in a bow so you’ll know I’m bringing a gift to you. And the gift that I’m bringing is the play.” Unsaid was that the bow also happened to hide her neck wrinkles. It was an odd beginning to our meeting, but Leachman was just warming up.
After instructing the photographer which angles were acceptable for capturing her image, she then proclaimed to me which type of question she was unwilling to answer. “I don’t answer any ‘so’ questions,” she stated firmly. “That right there wipes out all the boring ones like ‘So, what first attracted you to the role, Miss Leachman’?” Admittedly, it was a boilerplate opener that I had planned to toss her way.
But it quickly became apparent that it did not matter what I asked her, because she would respond with whatever – usually unrelated – notion came into her head. And before long, she reached across the sofa where she was reclining and grabbed the notepad of questions out of my hands. She snorted at the scribbled queries and explained that instead of my plans for the interview, “I like to just start talking and let it go. Let’s pretend we’re out on a date.”
Oy, it was going to be a long, painful morning.
Maybe Leachman was always difficult with reporters or maybe she had been on the road a bit too long, submitting to one too many interviews. So – uh-oh, there’s that word again – her way around it was to take an aggressively obtuse stance, all but challenging the interviewer to make an article out of her abstract answers.
In any event, after about a half hour of this torture, Leachman declared that she was hungry and wouldn’t I like to take her to lunch? Well, no, but that was apparently not a viable response, so she excused herself to the bedroom, got dressed and off we went to a nearby restaurant.
I’m pretty sure it was a place she had already frequented during her stay in Chicago, because the wait staff visibly flinched when they saw her enter. All I really recall of our lunch is that she waved her cloth napkin around wildly, gesticulating as she spoke. And at one point, the napkin caught fire from the lit candle on our table. Fortunately, our waiter was nearby and able to contain the blaze.
And I remember one of her parting comments to me. “I feel so sorry for you,” Leachman said. “I wouldn’t know what to do with me.”
Rest in peace, Cloris.