While young celebrities are often eager to spill their dirty laundry in sordid bios, actors of Cloris Leachman's generation have tended to stuff their secrets in locked and closely-guarded hampers that'll travel well with them into eternity. But in her new book, "Cloris: My Autobiography," Leachman reveals so much that you almost have to read it twice to let all the juicy stuff sink in.
What makes Leachman's book even more interesting is that she reveals things that have never even been rumored, much less written about. (Side note: Leachman wrote the book with Hollywood impresario George Englund, her on-again/off- again husband of many years. The couple had five children together, one of whom passed away in the 1980's. Though now unmarried, the two remain extremely close.)
In "Cloris," Leachman outlines the evolution of her life from a simple, wide-eyed Midwestern girl to that of one of the most acclaimed, versatile and cherished actresses of her generation. She includes as much detailed introspection on her personal life – regardless of whether the memories are good or bad. In one especially painful excerpt, Leachman recounts one particularly painful night where her father beats her for no apparent reason. It took place in the family bathroom when she was 17, naked and just about to bathe.
There's also the story about the night that she was up against an even more ferocious beast, when a drunken Joan Collins called her at 4a.m. and matter-of-factly told Leachman that not only had she just had sex with Englund, but also that they were in love. Shocking yes, but the even better part is how Leachman kept in the almost more interesting detail about how Collins then threw down the phone and started throwing up as a result of the alcohol. You gotta love that she kept that part in…
Crooner Andy Williams had such a crush on her that he could barely contain himself in her presence, and thanks to Englund's lifelong friendship with Marlon Brando, the book is filled with fascinating details of the famously private actor's personal life. According to Leachman, Brando's affection for Englund ran so deep he practically had a man-crush. "George, if you had a cunt, I'd marry you," Brando is recounted in the book as saying.
These details -- as well as memories of Leachman's iconic, hilarious roles as Frau Blucher in "Young Frankenstein," Nurse Diesel in "High Anxiety," and Phyllis Lindstrom -- ran through my mind as I sat in a booth of a popular Thai restaurant in L.A. awaiting her arrival for our interview.
As Leachman settled into the booth alongside her son, George Englund Jr. (who looks like a cross between Simon Cowell and George Clooney) and pored over the menu for 20 minutes, I was struck by the youthful energy of the 83-year-old actress. How could anyone be that enthusiastic and excited over a Thai menu?
Leachman was now ready to order, but allowed me to go first. Not wanting to waste time, I just blurted out, "I'll have the 65 and I don't care how it comes."
"If you don't care how it comes, you should get the 69!" said Leachman, laughing. "The 69 would be nice and spicy!"
Talk then turned to her recent appearance on "The Howard Stern Show," where she described actress Joanne Woodward as "boring" not once, but twice. I wondered if she'd talked to Woodward since then.
"Well, no because we don't talk at all," she said. "I can't stand her. I wish I knew [why], you know? Because it bothers me that I can't stand her, but I couldn't stand [Paul Newman] either; I mean, they were boring! In fact, I told Paul a joke one night – we were shooting a film at night – and about four or five hours later, he came back and told me the same joke."
"Yes!" she said, emphatically. "Well I mean, to me he was. Maybe I missed something that others saw, but I found him very boring."
Newman was apparently oblivious to this fact, because according to her, the handsome (married) actor came on to her at a Malibu beach house on one balmy evening in the 70's.
"Mutual friends of ours had rented a beach house for the summer," she said. "And I went over there one night, and he had been drinking beer, as usual, and he got me alone. I don’t remember what he said exactly, it was a long time ago. But I said 'No,' and I remember him saying something like, 'Oh, you ladies seem to always know what you're doing,' or something like that, which made me think it certainly wasn't the first time he'd come onto someone. You have to be brilliantly funny and actually have a personality for me to be attracted. Paul was neither."
That memory led her to offer up another Hollywood actor she doesn't like. "I just can't stand Russell Crowe," she said. "I don't know, he just seems so dumb! I don't know him and I don’t need to know him. He's an asshole fuckface! I just don't like him. He looks like the Pillsbury Doughboy."
If Leachman seemed critical of others, she was equally judgmental when it came to her own work. Admitting that she can usually only stand to watch about a half-hour of one of her performances before she either turns it off or changes the channel, there is one that she is so proud of – a TV movie called "The Woman Who Willed a Miracle" – that she can in fact make it through the entire film.
But what about Nurse Diesel and Frau Blucher? As a fan, one wonders what Leachman's children and grandchildren think of those roles. You imagine a rite of passage moment, where each of the grandkids sees Grandma's performances in those roles and turn to her proudly, saying, "Oh my god, Gram! You are so funny!" But according to her, that is yet to happen.
That’s when George Jr. chimed in. "I've seen those performances many, many times, and I absolutely love it," he said. "But I don't think there's ever been an ‘A-ha’ moment within the family. Well wait, when we saw that scene from ‘Beerfest,’ we were all like, 'Wow!' But we're definitely all aware of her amazing performances."
Leachman talked about the rather risque scene in 'Beerfest.' where her character dirties up a sausage. "There's only one way to warm up a cold sausage," she laughed. "I asked the director how I was supposed to do this and he said, 'Just pretend it's human!’"
Since this was the night before the recent Prop 8 decision, I asked Leachman about it failing in the November election and what her reaction was.
"I was shocked, shocked!” she said. “It just seems so old- fashioned. Who are they kidding? We really have to deal with this now? Is that a stupid thing or what? That anyone would be against same-sex marriage, how dare they? I mean, how dare they?"
What about her? Had she ever been attracted to women in her life?
"No," she said. “But I love women. I really do. And I feel deeply, deeply connected to them. And to be with a beautiful woman is a wonderful thing, I just don't feel attracted to them. The best I can say is that I think that Ellen really likes me. [winks] I'm just kidding! [Laughs]”
"Well wait,” she said. "I think I could imagine having sex with a woman. I mean, sex is sex. And if you're touched in the right places and they know what to do, then it could be exciting. I don't think I'd be attracted to a woman, but I could certainly have sex with a woman. But I've never been attracted to a woman. I was so hungry for men to put their arms around me. That was just it for me."
I changed the conversation to Bea Arthur’s recent passing and its being reported all over the place that she never liked Betty White, which is really surprising. I asked Leachman if there are any co-stars that she didn’t like. Not missing a beat, George Jr. chimed in.
"You and Betty are doing an interview together on Monday, so choose your words carefully!" [Laughter].
"I'm friends with Betty,” she responded. “Well, I feel like I'm responsible for her being on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show.’ Apparently, I'm not, but I thought I was. After the first season of ‘Mary’ was a huge hit – and I was in ‘The Last Picture Show,’ and ‘Young Frankenstein,’ we asked if I could only be in the episodes where I was heavy in the show. You know, so I could be free the rest of the time to do other work. I suggested to them that they use Betty in the episodes when I wasn’t on, so I could go on shooting other things. And they did, so I thought I had a lot to do with that. But I think she and Mary were friends anyway, which is possible."
Leachman then shared a story about losing an Emmy to Cicely Tyson, who won for her role in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”
"I was nominated for an Emmy and I felt very strongly about the performance,” she said. “But I didn’t attend the Emmy's. I went grocery shopping. I came in with two bags of groceries and turned on the TV. They were showing the scene where Cicely Tyson was sipping from the water fountain and I said, ‘Well, I'm not going to win an Emmy tonight!’"
During an interview in the 1970's, Leachman made comments about fat people that ruffled some feathers. Members of the National Association to Aid Fat Americans demanded an apology from the actress. Now it’s 2009, and I wanted to know, has society become so politically correct that it’s just not fun anymore?
"No, I think it makes people a little more polite and kinder,” she said. “But it’s also too bad that you lose a lot of color and fun which is also missing from our culture. I mean, there was this wonderful little song from before that you just can't sing anymore. I don't remember the words or the melody, but [tries to remember it] I can get the words in my head for a second, but I just can't remember it."
Her recent run on "Dancing With the Stars" garnered a ton of publicity for Leachman, and in some ways, she's more famous now from that show than she ever was before. If you search for her name on YouTube, the first several results pages are clips of her on the show. That said, has her time on the popular dance competition overshadowed her previous work?
George Jr. answered. “I think it brings it all together. People are like, ‘Wow, I saw her on ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ but I had no idea she was in 'Young Frankenstein,' or 'High Anxiety.' She was just the Grand Marshall at the Rose Parade, which was massive, and everyone was lined up saying, ‘Oh we loved you on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ But then they say ‘Malcolm’ or ‘Facts of Life,’ so I think it’s just brought more awareness across the board.”
I then asked if she'd be interested in playing “Who would you rather sleep with?,” and she asked how. I began to explain the game, and she interrupted: "I can tell you right now that it wouldn't be with Meryl Streep. I lover her, but I would never sleep with a smoker!"
"But you have to let me pair people up together before you choose," I said, laughing. "So who would it be? Mary Tyler Moore or Carol Burnett?"
[Laughs]."I don't even know Mary!” she said. “Oh God…[Thinks]. I don't know. I don't think I could choose. I couldn’t choose! Oh, I just don't think I could do it!”
“Go for Mary!” George suggested.
[Thinks] "Ok,” she said. “Maybe Mary in the old days, but not now. We're both up there.” [Editor's note: If you're interested in more of Leachman's answers to the "Who would you rather sleep with?" game, you can read the full transcript here.]
While on the subject of Mary Tyler Moore, I told Leachman about a recent poll we did with readers that asked "If you could have dinner with either Mary Tyler Moore, Valerie Harper or Cloris Leachman, who would you choose?" I was curious how Leachman would respond, given the same choice. She gives it thought before answering.
“I love Valerie so much – and she loves me and she supports me so much,” she said. “I love her energy and enthusiasm and everything about her. So I could see myself having dinner with her."
"I would be interested in having dinner with Mary too, because I don’t know her that well,” she said, surprisingly. “I've never been alone at a dinner with her, where I could really talk with her, so that would be interesting to me."
Wait, she'd never had dinner alone with Mary? I explained that most people were going to be surprised by that. Leachman agreed, and she and George said they realize how facts like that can be disappointing to fans. "I think there's an assumption with a lot of people that me, Mary, Valerie, Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett all get together every night," said Leachman. "But I really don't have any celebrity friends."
I ask if she wants to know the results of the poll.
"Only if you want to share that," she said.
I told her that she was the winner -- our readers had chosen Leachman over the other two, "Is there a reason you can think of as to why gays and lesbians chose you over Mary or Valerie?" I asked.
[Thinks]. “I don't know, but maybe I'm more honest, I guess?” she said. “I think I'm the most honest. Valerie's wonderful and smart and interesting, and she's up on things, but maybe on things that aren't interesting to average people. And Mary would talk about her two favorite things, which are diabetes and animals, but… she's interesting, too. But see, Mary can be outgoing sometimes, and it’s refreshing, but she also protects herself so much. [But] I'd be the most honest.”
[The interview is not over! Cloris plays "Who Would You Rather Sleep With" -- read that part of the interview now by clicking here!
Originally Published 2009, PlanetOut.com, Gay.com
Watch classic Cloris clips below!
Cloris as Phyllis Lindstrom
Frau Blucher makes her entrance in ‘Young Frankenstein’
As Frau Blucher: "Stay close to the candles. The staircase... can be treacherous...”
“Good night, Frau Blucher”
Nurse Diesel in bondage from “High Anxiety”
Nurse Diesel: “We’re dealing with sick people here!”