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Arts & Life

Cloris Leachman, Legendary Comedienne And Des Moines Native, Dies At 94


Hollywood legend and Des Moines native Cloris Leachman died Wednesday, January 27, at her home in Encinitas, Calif. She was 94.

Born and raised in Des Moines, Leachman was a multifaceted talent who excelled in both drama and comedy.

Leachman’s screen presence captivated audiences, beginning with her first major screen appearance as a mysterious woman wandering down a lost highway in the seminal 1955 film noir “Kiss Me Deadly.”

From there, her talent only grew, as she tackled a range of genres in film, television and theatre across an impressive seven-decade acting career.

Leachman was born in Des Moines on April 30, 1926, the eldest of three daughters. She attended Theodore Roosevelt High School, graduating with the Class of 1942, according to Des Moines Public Schools. Today, the high school’s auditorium stage is named in her honor.

As a young girl, she became involved with the local theatre community. According to the Des Moines Community Playhouse, Leachman made her first appearance on stage with the theatre in the early 1940s. In 2016, during her last visit to the theatre, she was inducted as a Playhouse Legend.

As a teenager, she worked in radio, hosting a talk show about women’s fashion.

After attending college at Northwestern University, she moved to New York City, where she trained at the Actors Studio under Elia Kazan, the acclaimed film director and method acting coach.

Leachman applied her skill as a professionally trained actress in several early roles, most notably in the 1971 coming-of-age drama “The Last Picture Show,” which earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Leachman would become best known for her comedic performances, relying on her unmatched comic timing to portray often outrageous and eccentric characters. In one of her most memorable roles, she played the zany Phyllis Lindstrom on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” winning two Emmy Awards in the 1970s.

Years later, her guest appearances as the ornery grandmother in the popular 2000s sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle” netted her two additional Emmys.

In between, she honed her comedic skills in a series of collaborations with writer-director Mel Brooks, playing instantly iconic and hilarious characters in “Young Frankenstein” (1974), “High Anxiety” (1977) and “History of the World, Part I” (1981).

Upon the news of her death, Brooks remembered his close friend and collaborator in a statement: “Cloris was insanely talented. She could make you laugh or cry at the drop of a hat.”

She is survived by her sons Adam, George Jr. and Morgan; a daughter, Dinah; and seven grandchildren.