Cloris Leachman was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1926 (just a month before Marilyn Monroe.) Her father worked for a family-owned lumber company. Cloris began acting in plays as a teenager, before training as a teacher at Northwestern University. In 1946, she was crowned Miss Illinois and reached the final 16 in the Miss America pageant, earning a scholarship to the newly founded Actors Studio in New York, where she studied with Elia Kazan. ‘I was in the first group of the Actor’s Studio,” she told Hitfix in 2013. “Then two years later, Lee Strasberg took over and I couldn’t stand him.”
Among her early stage roles was William Inge’s Come Back Little Sheba. She was also cast in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, but left the show before opening night. She also worked in television, and made her big-screen breakthrough in the classic film noir, Kiss Me Deadly (1955.)
In 1953, Cloris married Hollywood impresario George Englund, and they raised five children together. Englund also became a close friend of her Actors Studio classmate, Marlon Brando. During the early 1960s, Cloris and George were neighbours to Judy Garland.
In her 2009 memoir, Cloris, she recalled meeting Marilyn Monroe at a party in actor Peter Lawford’s Santa Monica home. Judy Garland and Gene Kelly were also there, as well as Lawford’s brothers-in-law, Bobby and Ted Kennedy. She recalled that Marilyn and Bobby were dancing together “in a very sexy way,” and that “many of the guests were around the edges of the room, pretending not to notice, and, of course, trying to hear every whisper that passed between them. Bobby and Marilyn took no notice.”
“My impression of Bobby Kennedy was that he had far less of the humour, the savoir faire, that characterised Jack and Teddy,” Cloris wrote. “To me he seemed sort of cold in comparison to his brothers … Seeing them all at Pat and Peter Lawford’s party was sort of sad to me,” she added. “We all knew Marilyn had been having an affair with the president,” she claimed, noting that this was after her sensational performance of ‘Happy Birthday’ at Jack’s birthday gala.
This would certainly place the party after May 1962, and in the final months of Marilyn’s life. While she was a frequent guest at the Lawford home, however, it is generally agreed that Marilyn and Bobby met there only twice, with both occasions pre-dating that event by several months. “Now it seemed that Jack was done with her and passed her on to Bobby,” Cloris thought. “When, not long after, Marilyn died, I wondered if I’d guessed right, that she’d been heartbroken at being sent down the line of Kennedy brothers.”
Whether or not you believe her speculation was accurate or clouded by hindsight, Cloris sympathised with the difficulties faced by Marilyn and other women in the notoriously fickle entertainment business.
“When you met Marilyn she was even more gorgeous, more voluptuous – her eyes, her mouth, her body – in person than she appeared in her pictures. But I saw her as part of a classic Hollywood pattern: a beautiful young girl comes to town, her exquisite face and body wow the industry, and she becomes a star. But inside, she’s still the ordinary person she’s been since she grew up. She’s had no training in being a star, has no knowledge of how to meet the assaults and pressures that come with this new status.
Marilyn was not just a star. She was a supernova, so when she got into her thirties and her body started to lose its tension, her face to take on wrinkles, who was she to herself but that small-town girl who was worshipped for magnificent physical qualities that were now ebbing away.”
After a small role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Cloris began a 7-year stint as snobbish neighbour Phyllis Lindstrom in TV’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And in 1972, she won an Oscar for her role in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. (In his novel Life Among the Cannibals, imagining a life for Marilyn post-1962, author David Marshall casts her in Ellen Burstyn’s role from the same movie.)
Cloris’ comedic gifts also shone through in three Mel Brooks films, including Young Frankenstein (1974) and High Anxiety (1977.) In 1978, she won the Sarah Siddons Award for her work in Chicago theatre. (The same award had been a plot point in All About Eve (1950), the classic stage satire featuring a young Monroe.) After 26 years, Cloris and George split amicably in 1979. They would later write her autobiography together.
More recently, she has appeared in films such as Mrs. Harris, Spanglish, and The Longest Yard, and TV shows including Malcolm in the Middle, Two and a Half Men, Raising Hope, American Gods, and Mad About You. On January 27, 2021, it was announced that Cloris Leachman had died in her sleep, aged 94, at home in California.