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Remembering TV And Film Star Cloris Leachman

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to remember actress Cloris Leachman. She died last month at the age of 94. She co-starred in two Mel Brooks films, "High Anxiety" and "Young Frankenstein." Here she is in Young Frankenstein as Frau Blucher, with Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN")

CLORIS LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) I am Frau Blucher.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE WHINNYING)

MARTY FELDMAN: (As Igor) Steady.

GENE WILDER: (As Dr. Frederick Frankenstein) How do you do? I am Dr. Frankenstein. This is my assistant, inga. May I present Frau Blucher.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE WHINNYING)

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) I wonder what's got into them.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Your rooms have been prepared, Herr Doctor. If you will follow me.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) Igor, would you bring the bags as soon as you're finished, please?

FELDMAN: (As Igor) Yes, master.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) After you, Frau Blucher.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE WHINNYING)

GROSS: Cloris Leachman won an Oscar for her performance in the 1971 film "The Last Picture Show." On television, she co-starred on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" as Mary's neighbor and landlady, Phyllis, which led to her own spinoff series, "Phyllis," in 1975. She appeared on many primetime TV shows, was nominated for 22 Emmys and won eight. I had the chance to interview her in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: I want to talk about some of your movies. You've made two or three movies with Mel Brooks. The first was "Young Frankenstein," in which you played Frau Blucher.

LEACHMAN: Blucher.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And just - I want to play a scene from this. Just to set it up, Gene Wilder plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who is the...

LEACHMAN: Frankenstein.

GROSS: Frankenstein (laughter).

LEACHMAN: Franken-shtone (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

LEACHMAN: Igor.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And he's the grandson of the famous mad scientist who created the monster. And then...

LEACHMAN: He was my boyfriend.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Then he learns he's inherited the Frankenstein estate, so he goes to the mansion in Transylvania. And your character, Frau Blucher, is one of the servants there, and she was in love with the mad scientist. And in this scene, Gene Wilder, the young Doctor Frankenstein, goes to the lab...

LEACHMAN: Franken-shtune (ph).

GROSS: (Laughter) - With his two assistants, where he finds you releasing the monster from his restraints. Here's the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN")

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) Frau Blucher.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE WHINNYING)

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Stop. Don't come closer.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) What are you doing?

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) I'm going to set him free.

TERI GARR: (As Inga) No, no. You mustn't.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Yes.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) Are you insane? He'll kill you.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) No, he won't - not this one. He is as gentle as a lamb.

PETER BOYLE: (As Frankenstein's monster, vocalizing).

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) Stand back. Stand back, for the love of God. He has a rotten brain.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) It's not rotten. It's a good brain.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) It's rotten, I tell you. Rotten.

FELDMAN: (As Igor) Ix-nay on the otten-ray (ph).

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) I'm not afraid. I know what he likes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) That music...

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Yes. It's in your blood. It's in the blood of all Frankensteins. It reaches the soul when words are useless. Your grandfather used to play it to the creature he was making.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) Then it was you all the time.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Yes.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) You played that music in the middle of the night.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Yes.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) To get us into the laboratory.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Yes.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) That was your cigar smoldering in the ashtray.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Yes.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) And it was you who left my grandfather's book out for me to find.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Yes.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) So that I would...

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Yes.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) And you and Victor were...

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Bulcher) Yes. Yes. Say it - he was my boyfriend.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's my guest Cloris Leachman.

LEACHMAN: It was.

GROSS: Well, how did you figure out how to play Frau Blucher?

LEACHMAN: I didn't know. I was made up. Now, I'd go on the set, and I don't have any idea how to be Frau Blucher or have any German accent. I'd never done one before. So all the time when they were shooting, I kept saying, hello, excuse me, do you know a German accent, to everybody. And I think one of them was Mel Brooks' mother. I think she helped me the most.

(LAUGHTER)

LEACHMAN: When I first came out the door and I say, I am Frau Blucher, I think it's said with such measurement. I was so careful to try to do it right (laughter). That's why it's so slow. But I said, I am Frau Blucher.

GROSS: The running gag in "Young Frankenstein" is whenever anybody says Frau Blucher, the horses whinny.

LEACHMAN: Mel told me a few years ago that (laughter) Blucher meant glue. I'm not sure that's true, but it sure is funny.

GROSS: So it's like, they're threatening the horses with a glue factory.

LEACHMAN: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: So what did you learn about comedy working with Mel Brooks?

LEACHMAN: I'll tell you one thing. I was going up the steps with Gene and the other two (laughter). Remember, in the castle, I'm going to show them around, and I had a candelabra with the candles not lit. And I turn - I say, stay close to the candles; the staircase can be treacherous. And then Mel came up to me, climbed up the steps and whispered in my ear. And it was a line reading. And here it is - stay close to the candles; the staircase can be treacherous - which means we've already lost a couple of people (laughter).

GROSS: I want to play a scene from another Mel Brooks movie that you were in "High Anxiety." I love this film. This is a parody of a lot of different Alfred Hitchcock films. And Mel Brooks plays a psychiatrist who's become the new director of the Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. And...

LEACHMAN: Dr. Ashley felt that color has a great deal to do with the well-being of the emotionally disturbed.

GROSS: (Laughter) And you're the very severe Nurse Diesel.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And in this scene, Mel Brooks, the new head of the institute, is in his room at the institute, and he hears screams coming from your room. And he's very concerned, so he knocks on your door. And you come out in a hooded terrycloth robe. Here's the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIGH ANXIETY")

MEL BROOKS: (As Dr. Thorndyke) Is everything all right in there? Nurse Diesel...

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

BROOKS: (As Dr. Thorndyke) Are you all right?

LEACHMAN: (As Nurse Diesel) Yes.

BROOKS: (As Dr. Thorndyke) We heard some weird noises emanating from your room. We were worried.

LEACHMAN: (As Nurse Diesel) Weird noises? It was the TV. Sorry it disturbed you. I've turned it down. Is there anything else? It is rather late.

BROOKS: (As Dr. Thorndyke) No. We were concerned. Good night.

LEACHMAN: (As Nurse Diesel) Good night. Good night.

BROOKS: (As Dr. Thorndyke) Good night.

GROSS: And as the scene continues, Nurse Diesel, played by my guest Cloris Leachman, goes back to her room, takes off her bathrobe. And underneath the robe, she's in full dominatrix regalia. She's wearing a policeman's hat and shirt, leather shorts, high leather boots. She opens her closet, and inside is Dr. Montague, played by Harvey Korman, hanging from chains in full bondage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIGH ANXIETY")

HARVEY KORMAN: (As Dr. Montague) Who was it?

LEACHMAN: (As Nurse Diesel) It was Thorndyke. You're making too much noise.

KORMAN: (As Dr. Montague) I can't help it. You're hurting me. You're going too hard tonight.

LEACHMAN: (As Nurse Diesel) Oh, get off it. I know you better than you know yourself. You live for bondage and discipline.

KORMAN: (As Dr. Montague, groaning) Too much bondage, too much bondage - not enough discipline.

LEACHMAN: (As Nurse Diesel) You want discipline? I'll give you discipline.

KORMAN: (As Dr. Montague) Yes. Yes, I'm sorry. Yes. God, it feels so good.

GROSS: That's such a funny scene.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: My guest Cloris Leachman with Harvey Korman and Mel Brooks' "High Anxiety." It must have been so much fun to shoot that scene. Was it hard to get through it - I mean, to, like, open the door and see Harvey Korman hanging there (laughter)?

LEACHMAN: Oh, no. We were all serious, just playing our parts. There's another scene that is so hilarious to me. I'm just sick that they had to cut it out. But Princess of Monaco, Princess Grace...

GROSS: Grace Kelly?

LEACHMAN: Yeah. She was going to see that movie that night at 20th. And he was worried about including this scene, so he cut it out and forgot to put it back in, or they didn't have time. But to me, it's hysterical.

I again take off my hood and I'm in snakes. And they're wrapped around my big, huge breasts. Then right between my legs is a long panel, and I have very high heels on. And (laughter) - I go to my closet, open the door and hang up my hooded, you know, robe and make my way to my bed in these high heels. I throw myself on the bed on my back with my arms and legs out. And you hear (imitating creaking) and you see - you're the camera now. And the camera starts from the floor up to the bed. And I'm lying there - keeps going higher, higher, higher, higher, higher, higher. Finally, it's up on the ceiling. And there's Harvey Korman hanging from chains over me exactly my shape, arms and legs out. And he says something funny, but he thought it was a little racy to show. I'm sorry. I hope he puts it back in some time or includes it in a, you know, with a DVD.

GROSS: So he really took it out so as not to offend Grace Kelly?

LEACHMAN: Yeah. I mean, she was a little rabbit. I don't know why he thought she wouldn't...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: We're listening to my 2009 interview with Cloris Leachman. She died January 27. She was 94. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN MORRIS SONG, "PUTTIN' ON THE RITZ")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering actress Cloris Leachman. She died last month. She was 94. Leachman co-starred in the Mel Brooks films "Young Frankenstein" and "High Anxiety." She co-starred in the TV series "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and starred in its spinoff "Phyllis."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, we've been focusing on your comedic roles, but you won an Oscar for best supporting actress for a dramatic role in the movie "The Last Picture Show," which is - what? - from 1971. Is that 1971? And in this, you play a kind of depressed, middle-aged housewife who's neglected by her husband, who's the high school basketball coach and maybe gay. And she wants to experience love and have an affair. She has an affair with a teenager played by Timothy Bottoms, but he's been getting involved with a girl his age and neglecting you. And in this scene, he comes to your door and asks for a cup of coffee. You're in your bathrobe. You pour the coffee with very shaky hands and then throw the cup against the wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LAST PICTURE SHOW")

LEACHMAN: (As Ruth Popper) What am I doing apologizing to you? Why am I always apologizing to you, you little bastard?

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASH)

LEACHMAN: (As Ruth Popper) Three months I've been apologizing to you without you even being here. I haven't done anything wrong. Why can't I quit apologizing? You're the one ought to be sorry. I wouldn't still be in my bath robe if it hadn't been for you. I'd had my clothes on hours ago. You're the one made me quit caring if I got dressed or not. Look; it's just because your friend got killed, you want me to forget what you did and make it all right? I'm not sorry for you. You'd have left Billy, too, just like you left me. I bet you left him plenty of nights, whenever Jacy whistled. I wouldn't treat a dog that way. I guess you thought I was so old and ugly you didn't owe me any explanation. You didn't need to be careful of me. There wasn't anything I could do about you and her, why should you be careful of me? You didn't love me. Look at me. Can't you even look at me?

GROSS: And that's Cloris Leachman in a scene from "The Last Picture Show." Was it at all awkward to be starring in that film opposite a teenager?

LEACHMAN: Strangely, no (laughter). But I think he was very embarrassed. He didn't say anything at the time, but later, he said, well, I was in bed with a middle-aged woman (laughter), you know? God, I was 45 years old.

GROSS: Did you talk about this kind of stuff before your shoot?

LEACHMAN: No. No, no, no, not a word. But we went into the bedroom, the little room in the house, to do that scene. And he said, I ain't taking my clothes off for this scene.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEACHMAN: And Peter and I looked at each other (laughter). Oh, OK, well - so we started to design the scene without taking our clothes off. So there were two closets, one on either side of this dresser. And so I went into the first one; he went into the other one. And we took off our outside clothes, left - I left on my bra and panties, and he had his shorts on. And we made our way to the bed and each got in his own side. Then they'd planted some underwear in there for us to throw out so it looks as if we took it off under the covers. And now it's action. And all the lighting was done. We got into bed. I took my underwear off and threw it out. I forgot (laughter) - I forgot to keep it on and throw out what was planted there. I mean, I was playing my part. So we had to do it again (laughter).

GROSS: That's probably the scene that won you the Oscar.

LEACHMAN: No doubt. And the producer called him before it came out. They had to cut it. It was too long. And they'd cut it as much as humanly possible. And finally, the producer called - said, Peter, I have the perfect answer - because they had to cut something. He said, when Timmy drives away in his pickup, that's when we should end the picture, and all the credits can come under his driving away. It'll be really good. Peter said, no, no. And he insisted and fought for and kept my scene in, and that's, of course, why I won the Oscar.

GROSS: You know, I went through a list of all of your movie and TV credits, and I realized looking at that list that you guest-star on just about every TV show I grew up with. I will now read an abridged copy of that list - "Lassie," "Perry Mason," "Dr. Kildare," "Mr. Novak," "The Defender," "77 Sunset Strip," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Wagon Train," "Laramie," "Route 66," "The Untouchables," "Twilight Zone," "The Donna Reed Show," "Gunsmoke," "Hawaiian Eye," "Checkmate," "Wanted Dead Or Alive" and "Rawhide." Wow. How did you (laughter) manage to guest-star on so many TV shows?

LEACHMAN: Well, I was always building my house and improving it and fixing it up (laughter), make it more beautiful. So I always needed money to do that, and that helped me. I don't know. I think I tried not to do the same kind of role every single time. One time I was doing "Suspense" - he would hire me every week to do something. So this one time I got a part, and I said, oh, this is just like I did, you know, four weeks ago, to myself. And I thought, no, I don't want to do the same thing. And I had to find other aspects of the same kind of character, which was tricky. You know, it's difficult. But I did it, and I was very happy about it. And I think that was a basic decision for the rest of my life - I would never be the same way twice.

GROSS: Well, thank you. Thanks for talking with us and be well.

LEACHMAN: You're very welcome. It was very good.

GROSS: OK. OK.

LEACHMAN: Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Cloris Leachman was recorded in 2009. She died last month. She was 94. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Rosa Brooks. Her new memoir is about her experiences when she became a reserve police officer with the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department. When she took on this work, she was in her 40s with two children, a spouse and a full-time job as a tenured law professor. She was disturbed by the statistics on police shootings and racial disparities and wanted to see firsthand what police work was like. Her husband thought she was insane, and her mother - writer and left-wing activist Barbara Ehrenreich - was also unenthusiastic. I hope you'll join us.

We're closing with music from jazz pianist and composer Chick Corea. He died last week at the age of 79 from a rare form of cancer, which was only recently discovered. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "DESAFINADO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.