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Vanessa McMahon

Vanessa is a novel writer, screenwriter, rep and a film producer. She shares her discoveries and film surprises. :-)



Interview With Acclaimed Actress Cloris Leachman

Interview With Acclaimed Actress Cloris Leachman

Acclaimed actress Cloris Leachman was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1926 where she lived until she moved to Illinois to attend Illinois State University and later Northwestern University. A drama student, she participated in various local beauty pageants which she won, including Miss Chicago in 1946. With dreams of becoming an actress, she moved to New York where she began her theater career which segued into TV and film. Cloris has successfully graced our TV and silver screens for over 65 years, her first TV appearance having been in 1948 with 'The Ford Theater Hour' and her first film appearance in 1955 with 'Kiss Me Deadly'. At age 90, she continues to appear in TV shows and features, her latest being Taylor Hackford's film 'The Comedian' (2017). Her multitudinous awards include: an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1972, Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Series in 1976, nine Emmy Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

I met Cloris in a restaurant in Sedona, Arizona during the 23rd annual Sedona International Film Festival when dining next to each other at Red's restaurant. I told her I was a big fan and that I'd love to interview her, but that I knew she had no time. “I have time!” she exclaimed, to my surprise, wanting the interview. Minutes later, I was led to her suite where we sat in her quiet room and talked about her past. It was an incredible experience to sit face to face with the celebrated talented actress and listen to her walk me through various stages of her illustrious career. Here is what she had to say:


You have five kinds with writer/director George Englund. Are any of them in entertainment too?

CLORIS: I have four boys. My third one is an incredible saxophone player. I'm just moved to tears when he starts playing. It's beautiful. My oldest in a lawyer but he pretends he's Tom Waits. He has a similar voice to him when he sings.


Can you speak about how you began your acting career, going from Iowa to Illinois to NY then LA? 

CLORIS: I went to Chicago and was at Northwestern for two years. One summer, somebody I had worked with before in magazine photography entered my picture into a WGN contest as Miss Chicago. I was the only city in the whole contest. Everybody else was a state. I'm from Des Moines so there was a Miss Iowa and I was going to Northwestern. There was already a Miss Illinois so I ended up being Miss Chicago. I won that contest. I thought it was a riot and really funny. It got serious as it continued. The next contest was Miss Chicago which was four days later. I took piano lessons and bought a bathing suit. Then I won that contest. Yet I had no intention of doing so. Then I called my mom because I thought this was getting serious so she came out, then we flew to Atlantic City and I won a $1,000 scholarship. On the day before we left Atlantic City, my father came and he gave me $60 to go to NY for three days including airfare.

CLORIS CONT'D: I arrived in NY in my chartreuse, silk Jersey dress and black heels. I was stacked! I used a nickel to call all my list of friends in NY. I called everyone on the list and only one person answered in the afternoon. He said, “Well, come on over here and I'll see if I can get you a job this afternoon.” So I got a job on this movie they were making called, “Carnegie Hall”. When I arrived at this place where I was going to stay it was owned by a bunch of comics who had bought this hotel right on Broadway and they were all staying there. As I arrived, there was this smoky bar and the door was open so I walked in and I heard a woman singing, “Oh I love you so much is hoyts me.” And it was her voice that made me realize I was in NY and that I better be aware of that. I always remember that.

CLORIS CONT'D: After I'd been there for three months, I went to the opening of a Broadway play. After the first act, we went up to the lobby and outside I met a man named William Leibling and he said, “Oh you look just right for a part I'm casting,” which happened to be the ingenue lead of 'John Loves Mary' which was a play being produced by Richard Rogers. I read for the part again and again and I got the part. This was only three months after I arrived. For a year and half I understudied. The writer Norman Krasna came in with actress Nina Foch. He had never seen me before but had heard I was at Northwestern and that I was a participant in contests with awards. I was supposed to be this sophisticated New Yorker but Nina Foch was much more sophisticated. Well, I went on for Nina and they all ran down to see me. The next day, they had me go to a Helen Hayes show and Helen Hayes was there. I played all the parts in her play and I made enough money to stay there a year and a half.

CLORIS CONT'D: Then I met a man and went with him for a year. He was a lovely sweet guy and he had a lot of money. Every night out of my understudy money, I'd sit down in the basement and study my lines. Then he'd pick me up in his limousine and take me to this cabaret spot where we'd see Edith Piaf sing live every night. She would stand literally on a soap box wearing a rag of something and she sang every night. Oh my god! That was fascinating!

CLORIS CONT'D: Then I was in a play called 'As You Like It' on Broadway for a year with Katherine Hepburn. I was Celia. It was there that I met George Englund whose sister was in the play with me. I fell in love with him, and I'm still in love to this day. He was magnificent.


After you met George, what happened?

CLORIS: I was in NY for eight years so for the next four years he and I lived there together. I had my first baby with him there and when I was pregnant with my second baby, I got a call from LA for a part in a movie.


You took acting classes in NY right?

CLORIS: In NY, Elia Kazan started the Actors Studio and I was in the first group.


Was Marlon Brando in that group too?

CLORIS: Well, he was in another group than the one I was in. Oh my god, that was spectacular! It all just happened. I was there for two years then Lee Strasberg came in. He's not Elia Kazan. So I quit the Actors Studio. And the rest is history.


You met Brando at the Actor's Studio right?

CLORIS: Yes, and I said 'No thank you'. All I could think about was that raccoon in a cage.


In George's book he writes that you introduced him to Brando, which started their close friendship of almost 50 years.

CLORIS: Yes, I introduced them at a party in LA. The party was at Burgess Meredith's house.


You've done many films and TV shows throughout your career. Was there a role you're most proud of?

CLORIS: There's always one. And this one was 'The Woman Who Willed A Miracle' (1983). It was beautifully written. It was going to be on nighttime television but some executive from ABC said, “Who wants to see this on nighttime TV?” So he put it on during the day instead. But we all won Emmys anyway. It was wonderful! That's the thing I'm most proud of.


How do you choose material? What drives you to tell a story?

CLORIS: Money. [laughs] I'm not sitting the middle of a pile of scripts. They just come to me and I take it. It's rare that I have to go after anything.


You have 'The Comedian' now. Can you tell us about that?

CLORIS: I couldn't tell what was going on. It was done at the Friars Club supposedly. It was a roast on my character but I didn't see the director hardly at all. He was there and everywhere. And the actor, Robert De Niro, it was the same thing. He was there but I didn't even know we'd started when we were already finished. But they seem very happy with it so I'm happy with it too.


Where are you living now?

CLORIS: In Topanga.


I'm curious... When you say you're still in love with George Englund, may I ask what happened? Why did you break up?

CLORIS: We love each other just as much as we always did. He came to me and said, “Bonnie's going to Nashville unless we get a divorce.” So I gave him a divorce. They had two children. One of them died. He was a beautiful little boy.


Looking back on your career and life, what are some of the heights for you? Or a favorite memory?

CLORIS: Being in the backseat with George and Marlon driving with Anna Magnani in the front seat and asking, “Where are we going? Where we want to go or where she wants to go?” It's in the book word for word.


The book is pretty spot on right? Did you ever go to Marlon's island Tetiaroa?

CLORIS: Yes. It's so beautiful.


Thank you Cloris. You're a legend!

Interview With Acclaimed Actress Cloris Leachman

Interview by Vanessa McMahon; posted April 4, 2017



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