From the archives: No, Cloris Leachman wasn't best friends with Betty White
Cloris Leachman, best known for her role as Phyllis Lindstrom on the 1970s sitcoms "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" has died. USA TODAY
Editor's note: This story originally published in 2016. Des Moines native Cloris Leachman died Wednesday at age 94 at her Los Angeles home.
Cloris Leachman is confounded as to why everybody thinks she’s best friends with Betty White.
For years, people have asked her some variation of the question: So, really, just how close are you to Betty White?
“I hear from people all the time who think we hang out and talk and go places together, I don’t know why,” Leachman said chuckling. “We work together and then we go our own separate ways. My family is who I spend my off-time with.”
“Wait,” she said catching herself, “I remember when (Betty) was roasted (on Comedy Central) I sat across from her and every time someone said something we looked at each other and just laughed. We know what it’s like to be a woman and work in Hollywood, we’ve been doing it for so long, so I guess that’s why everyone puts us together.”
White aside, few comedic women have made as big an impact on Hollywood as Des Moines’ own Cloris Leachman. She’s won more Primetime Emmy Awards than any other actor, worked almost every year since entering the business in 1947 and is one of a handful of Iowans to win an acting Oscar, which was awarded for her moving turn as a depressed housewife in “The Last Picture Show.”
Leachman will reminisce about all those sets and award shows as well as her time at Roosevelt High and in local theater when she returns to Des Moines Saturday, marking her first public appearance in her hometown in about a decade. She’s scheduled to speak at public forums Saturday and Sunday and walk the red carpet as a special guest at the Cloris Awards Sunday night.
Chatting during a phone interview from her Los Angeles home, Leachman rattles off intricate backstage tales, bits of business she thought up to make roles come to life and details from performances of yesterday. Talk with the stalwart actress for more than a minute and her frenzied excitement about film makes it crystal clear that Leachman loves what she does. It’s the stories — the characters, the scripts — that keep her coming back, Leachman said.
The work “finds me and it is the most amazing thing,” she said. “So many times I have been like, ‘Oh God, what were they thinking? How did they connect me to this part?’ If you asked me, I wouldn’t have thought of myself for this role or this production, but they do and it comes to me and that means more to me than anything.”
Vim bursts from Leachman’s voice as she chortles recalling her favorite funny parts. Then, suddenly, she changes tenor and pace describing her dramatic roles.
“Some parts stay with me for weeks afterward,” she said. “It’s these people that I play. They get under my skin and I just can’t let go of them. I have immersed myself into their lives and into their beings so much that they feel like a part of me.”
Despite turning 90 this year, Leachman isn’t slowing down anytime soon, she said. Her IMDB profile lists seven film projects last year and she’s scheduled to star in the hotly anticipated TV adaptation of “American Gods" next year.
Ahead of her appearances in Des Moines, the Register spoke with Leachman about high school hijinks, hitchhiking to auditions and having an award named after her. Here is an abridged version of the conversation.
Did anyone tell you that Des Moines was naming their theater awards after you?
They told me. I don’t remember what they said, but it was delightful. I was just delighted. I think Des Moines and I feel the same way about it: excited and happy.
What was your first experience with performance?
In third grade, my teacher asked me to read in front of the class. I was so touched because that really was the first acting I had ever done, just reading in front of the class. And I was so amazed with the fulfillment I got from being in front of people.
Which high school group were you a part of? Jocks? Nerds? Punks?
The most popular one, of course. (She laughs.) No, I looked at a picture of us recently and I am not so sure that’s true. Really, I felt lucky to be in a group at all. We called ourselves, “the group.” But I was very busy on my own, so I didn’t get to be part of the group very much.
What were you busy with?
I took piano lessons and dancing lessons. I was very good at piano.
I read that your mother sent you to one of your first auditions on the back of a truck, is that true?
Yes. She said there was a tryout for a radio show at Drake University and if I could get over there, I should try out. We lived way outside of Des Moines, just out in the country in a little house on an acre. So I went down to the truck stop a half a mile from our house and I hopped a ride on the running board of this truck to Drake University. I was about 11 and they were auditioning for a radio program and I got the part of the princess. I did that for a long time, every Saturday.
It was just amazing that everybody was so trustworthy in those days. You never worried about your child with anybody. I was growing up during the Depression and, one time, my mom and I were gone and (my sister) Mary was in the house. She was about 4 and she was alone. Someone came to our house and she made them a peanut butter sandwich and they thanked her very much and went on their way. That doesn’t happen today.
On talk shows, you’ve been known to do a lot for a laugh, including go topless. Have you ever turned down a request?
Never. I am willing to do whatever.
You don't have a Tony Award, so if you were going to be on Broadway today, what show would you like to be in?
Oh, I don’t know. Anything, it doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, it’s a challenge always. I have to be a detective and go in there and find what I can do to make this funny or to move people.
What advice would you give other Des Moines actors who are looking to make it big in Hollywood?
When I was in my first play at the Kendall Community Playhouse (now the Des Moines Community Playhouse), my mother said, “If you like it, just keep doing it.” It was very matter of fact, “Just keep doing it.” She never told me anything, so I don’t want to give advice, just do what is right for yourself.
But know that it isn’t just learning the lines and saying them, which I did for a while. You have to become the character.
You played piano while you were a student in Des Moines. If we got a piano, could we coax you to play us something?
I would except I can’t play anymore. I have two fingers that wiggle on my right hand, so I can’t play anything with my right hand.
What if we got someone to be the right hand?
And I would play the left hand? Sure. Yes, I will be the left hand.