Karine Jean-Pierre
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Remembering Cloris Leachman, LGBTQ+ Icon and Ally

Cloris Leachman

Cloris Leachman, the multi-award-winning actress who died Wednesday at age 94, was both an icon and ally to LGBTQ+ people.

She was beloved for her performances in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and other sitcoms, her dramatic turns in films such as The Last Picture Show (for which she won an Oscar), and her hilarious and campy portrayals in Mel Brooks movies. She also appeared multiple times at the GLAAD Media Awards, honoring fair, accurate, and inclusive depictions of LGBTQ+ people in film and television.

Leachman died in her sleep of natural causes at her home in Encinitas, Calif., with daughter Dinah Englund at her side, ETOnline reports.

A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Leachman was a runner-up in the 1946 Miss America pageant, where she won a scholarship, and she studied acting at various schools, including the Actors Studio in New York City. In the late 1940s, she began a long and varied career that included supporting roles in film, bigger ones on TV, and even a costarring role with Katharine Hepburn in Shakespeare’s As You Like It on Broadway in 1950. She also understudied the lead role of Ensign Nellie Forbush in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical South Pacific and played it briefly in 1952.

But it was in the 1970s that she really began to make her mark. She played Ruth Popper, the unhappy wife of a small-town high school football coach, in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film The Last Picture Show, based on a Larry McMurtry novel (who co-wrote Brokeback Mountain). Ruth ends up having an affair with a teenager, Sonny; the movie implies that her husband is gay, something conveyed more clearly in McMurtry’s book. Leachman won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

In 1970 she began appearing in what is probably her most famous role, as Phyllis Lindstrom, the annoying but somehow still likable landlady and friend to Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Phyllis was self-absorbed but really did care about Mary, although she often sparred with Mary’s best friend, Rhoda Morgenstern. Phyllis figured prominently in a gay-inclusive episode, in which she is in total denial that her brother Ben, visiting from out of town, is gay. Ben was played by Robert Moore, a gay actor who went on to direct films including Murder by Death and Chapter Two as well as numerous TV episodes.

Phyllis, like several other characters on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, was spun off into her own eponymous series. Phyllis transplanted her from Minneapolis to San Francisco after the death of her husband, Lars. The show ran from 1975 to 1977.

Leachman went on to grace many other sitcoms, including Ellen DeGeneres’s second series, The Ellen Show, in which she played DeGeneres’s quirky mom; Malcolm in the Middle; Raising Hope; The Facts of Life; and the reboot of Mad About You. She won eight Emmy Awards over four decades.

She also acted in TV and theatrical movies and had guest roles on numerous TV series. Among the highlights of her big-screen career were her three films for director Mel Brooks. In Young Frankenstein (1974), she was Frau Blücher, the mysterious housekeeper at a creepy castle; for some reason a horse would whinny whenever her name was mentioned. In 1977’s High Anxiety, Brooks’s spoof of Alfred Hitchcock films, she was the sadistic Nurse Diesel, who detested tardiness. The 1980 movie History of the World: Part I found her as Madame Defarge during the French Revolution. 

Leachman was a longtime activist for animal rights, but she was interested in other causes as well, such as LGBTQ+ equality. Her appearances at the GLAAD Awards included this flirtatious turn with MTM costar Betty White in 2013:

GLAAD, Brooks, DeGeneres, and others honored her on Twitter.

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