Cloris Leachman has been a household name since she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Last Picture Show in 1971. Between that film and her latest, This is Happening (now available on VOD), Leachman has entertained us with some of our favorite comedy performances of all time in movies (some of which are discussed below) and TV shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, its spinoff Phyllis, and The Facts of Life.
With such a variety of illustrious films in her pocket, here at Rotten Tomatoes, we got to ask her about some of her favorite film experiences throughout her career. Here is the list, with some very funny anecdotes to boot!
It was just the oddest time of my life. We were in Texas in some godforsaken little city, little town. We never stopped using the accent no matter what we said. We were just wrapped up in it. Ellen Burstyn and I would hang out together. We’d talk about our horrible situations, relationships, our marriages. We were both going through divorce. We never stopped talking in the accent.
RT: Even while you were talking about the personal stuff?
Yeah. And the last scene that we did. That was almost taken out of the film. We were [running] long and had to cut about five minutes and the producer suggested that we cut my scene, the last scene. [The director] said no and he kept it in. That’s all we know.
Oh, Gene [Wilder]. Gene would laugh every time I said anything. He was just helpless [laughing].
RT: It must have been a lot of fun on that set.
It was serious though. Except for Gene [laughing]. The minute I would say my line, I know he was laughing. I could just feel it. I’d look back and his face was in two pieces. We had plenty of takes for that.
RT: Did that make you laugh as well?
Make me laugh? Well by the 15th take, I was getting pretty frustrated [laughing].
RT: It’s hard to be that funny, that brilliant, right?
Mel [Brooks] gave me one line reading in the whole script and that was the first time that Gene had started laughing. We had just met outside. We were coming up the stairs now inside, and I said, “[in German accent] Stay close to ze candles; ze staircase can be treacherous.” That’s how I did it, but Gene would laugh no matter what I did. And Mel said — by the 15th take, he came up to me and said, “Stay close to ze candles; ze staircase caaan be treacherous.” It makes me laugh. Very serious, though, all of this, except [Gene] laughing. We were making a picture, we had to get things done, you know?
When Harvey Korman’s coming downstairs, before the line [about fruit cups], he shifts his cuffs and he’s very, you know, breezy — very on top of his game, whatever you want to say — he was sure he was gonna have that fruit cup.
[Regarding how she got the mustache in High Anxiety:] I had been made up and I was sitting in my trailer waiting to be called and just doing nothing so I had a little black pencil. Just not even thinking about it, I put on a mustache, and all of a sudden, I got a knock on the door: “Okay, time. Come to set.” So I tore down there and Mel was there and I said, “How do you want me to play this part?” He said, “I’ll leave it to you.” I said, “Well, I did this already in Young Frankenstein.” He said, “Oh well, what do you want to do?” I said, “Well, I don’t know. I feel like in High Anxiety that I don’t want anyone to know me so I thought I’d just talk funny.” We went to the wardrobe department and they put this costume on that fit perfectly and was beautifully made. I said well let’s make the shoulders a little bit broader maybe. That didn’t work, and I had this big chest if you remember in High Anxiety. You remember that? So I thought we should put a back on to match the front, to balance it at least. That worked, that was good, but this thing about broader shoulders didn’t work. The costume didn’t look like it was mine, so by that doing that it really helped, it was very good. Then I wanted to raise the whole costume. I looked like a baby ostrich in it. My head was sticking out so I thought we should raise the dress. They just pulled the dress and everything way up. That’s what I looked like with a mustache and raised [dress].
We worked at 4 o’clock in the morning and whoever was going to play my part — they couldn’t find the list when they came back from location. So they just — as they said — got their favorites. It was Henry [Jones] and me. So I played the girl of the evening that he picked out. I decided that he loved my long beautiful blonde hair so I went to the hair department and found a beautiful wig with hair down to my knees, and the only way to show it of course would be to be on my stomach and the hair on top. Then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to sing a song for Paul Newman’s fans?” I thought “The Sweetest Little Fellow” [from the song “Mighty Like a Rose” by Paul Robeson] would serve the purpose: “with eyes of shiny blue, makes you think of heaven — da-da-da-da-da.” So the producers said I could sing it and then when when I heard it, it sounded like a cat mewing. We didn’t have time to fix it [laughing].
It’s a lovely film with Mickey Sumner, who’s Sting’s daughter.
RT: You’re a fugitive grandma.
Yeah, and my little dead dog.
RT: That you carry around with you.
Yeah. Well here’s another fact: He is in a suitcase, in my living room. [Laughing] And the dumb stuffed one that they had was ridiculous. It didn’t look dead or alive, or it didn’t look like it had ever been a dog. So I was very proud to bring Jo up. Jo’s a girl, a Shih Tzu. [Jo was Leachman’s favorite dog who died right around the time of shooting the film, while visiting Palm Springs; instead of burying her in the city that wasn’t her home, Leachman and her daughter decided to mail her — via the post office — to get stuffed and she became a star in the film.]
This is Happening is open in limited release and is now available on VOD.