Now, for the first time, the incomparable Cloris Leachman reflects on her amazing life and illustrious career. . .From her hometown in Des Moines, Iowa, (where she first saw Katharine Hepburn perform on stage, never imagining they would one day do Shakespeare together) to the bright lights of Broadway and the television studios of L.A., Cloris's journey has been filled with laughter and tears, marriage and motherhood, tragedy and triumph. Along the way, she shares wonderfully revealing anecdotes about Marlon Brando, Meryl Streep, Dianne Keaton, Sissy Spacek, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, the Kennedy family, and many more. Funny, frank, brilliant, and altogether human, this is the real Cloris Leachman as you've never seen her before.
Sparkling praise for Cloris!
"Funny, gimlet-eyed and unpretentious--someone get this woman a talk show." --Kirkus Reviews
"She lives what she preaches." --Library Journal
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About the Author
George Englund is the author of The Way It’s Never Been Done Before: My Friendship with Marlon Brando. He currently lives in California.
Read an Excerpt
Mama never blocked my growth with criticism. I believe I was able to succeed because of her unwavering positive behavior toward me, the surprise and delight she felt when I accomplished something. She didn't think I was the darlingest little girl who had ever lived. She just enjoyed me, she had faith in me, and she was curious about me.
Cloris Leachman, my mother, was petite, a little over five feet one, dark-haired, and pretty. Her smile had a special light, and when she shined it my way, it promised exciting things. I don't know whether it was because I was the firstborn or because there was some special genetic pairing, but from my birth, there was a unique bond between Mama and me.
She always strove to spark my creativity. When she'd present me with a new idea, we'd sit down inside or go outside, whichever the idea called for, and it would seem to me we were not only in the morning of the day but in the morning of the world.
"We're going to do some sketching," Mama said one morning. I'd never done sketching. I didn't know what the word meant, but I knew it promised something fun. Mama put together a package of paper and crayons, and we walked down our shale driveway to the two-lane highway. We turned left, and in a little while we came to an old, dead pine tree near a red barn. I'm amazed at how clearly I see that red barn right now. We put a blanket down, and Mama set out our sketching materials.
She looked around for a moment, then said, "How do you think a little bird would see that barn if it were flying over it?"
I didn't grasp what she meant, so I said, "Mama, I don't have any idea in the world what a little bird would see."
"All right," she replied. She smiled, picked up a crayon, and drew a rectangle with a line going down the middle. She showed it to me. It was a simple drawing but it brought alive the view of the barn from above. I got the idea, I took the crayons and began to sketch, and I began to experience what it would be like to be a bird flying over that barn.
One day, when I was nine years old, Mama brought home a copy of Aesop's Fables in one-act plays. It was the sort of thing she did, another example of her gentle way of introducing my sisters and me to the performing arts.
Daddy had a playhouse built for us by workmen from the Leachman Lumber Company. It was basically four square pieces of lumber held together with big hooks. We took our first crack at the fable "The Ant and the Grasshopper" in that playhouse. Mama made costumes for Mary and Claiborne. I already had a green tutu, which Mama had made for a dance recital I'd been in, so, of course, I played the grasshopper. A few days later, we took our little endeavor to a women's club and performed it there. It wasn't really a performance; we just got up and did it.
I didn't get the acting bug from performing as the grasshopper, nor did I then, at nine years old, have any inkling that acting was what I wanted to do when I grew up. Mainly, "The Ant and the Grasshopper" was fun to play around with.
I was first touched by the idea of being an actress when I was fourteen and in the ninth grade at Woodrow Wilson Junior High. We were given an assignment to pick out which career we would want to have. I knew for certain I would have children, that's what women did. I didn't question that fact about being a woman, and that affected the way I'd chosen a career. I couldn't be a concert pianist, because the children wouldn't let me alone long enough to do the necessary practicing. I was either going to be an architect or marry an architect, or be a social worker. And I did see myself possibly being a radio actress. With that career, I could work as much or as little as I chose and, therefore, be able to have all the time I wanted with the children.
By then I had a bit of radio experience. It appealed to me. It was fun to do. It was fun to go down to the radio station and see the people there. It was something you could earn money at, so radio actress seemed the most accessible and natural choice to me. I found a picture of an old microphone, and I put that on the cover of my report and said I'd be a radio actress.
Mama would listen to the opera every Saturday afternoon as she ironed. I listened, too, because I wanted to hear what she was hearing. Daddy listened to the variety show The Breakfast Club. That was how he woke us up every morning: he'd come in and turn the radio on, and The Breakfast Club march would play us out of our beds.
I remember only a couple of the names of the radio shows we listened to, soap opera dramas, like Myrt and Marge, and comedy shows, like Amos 'n' Andy. This was long before television came into American homes. Life was very different then. Radio was the only home entertainment, so that gave the profession glamor, too.
Movies were also a big part of my life in my younger years. I'd go as often as I could and be carried away by what I saw on the silver screen. The 1934 film Babes in Toyland, with Laurel and Hardy, was an exceptional theatrical experience. That film and The Bank Dick, a 1940 comedy with W. C. Fields brought a laughter out of me I hadn't known up to that point. The sounds coming up and over my larynx were higher in pitch and far more sustained than anything I had produced before. I learned to coordinate my popcorn consumption with what was happening on-screen: I stopped eating it when something either hilarious or very dramatic was happening.
When I became a teenager, films were even more important to me. Two out of the multitude I saw come into my mind, Waterloo Bridge and Gone with the Wind. Seeing Waterloo Bridge was a deeply emotional experience. I cried through most of it, and still vivid in my mind is the last scene, with that little face peering out of the window.
When I went to see Gone with the Wind, I knew the picture was going to be long, so I brought a pillow. The picture was long. And wonderful. More than wonderful. It is what storytelling is all about. I don't know if there's ever been such a spectacular cast assembled. Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel — they're up there in the pantheon of soul shapers. In that dark theater, with my pillow held against me, I was transported to the world of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara, and they shaped my soul.
Mama never said it out loud, but I think it was her plan that her three girls would go out into the world, gain experience in the performing arts, then come back to Des Moines and create a center for the performing arts. As an early example of that plan, when I was fifteen, I earned a summer radio scholarship to Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, just outside Chicago. It was intense work, because live radio acting is an art unto itself.
The radio actors stood in a semicircle around the microphone, scripts in their hands, and moved close to the microphone as their cue came up. Some radio actors shielded one ear with their free hand so they didn't hear ambient sounds as they acted out the drama. The actors had to allow sound effects to come in, anything from a door creaking to galloping hooves pounding to a doorbell ringing to a dog barking or a cat meowing. The script indicated exactly where those sounds and music would come in. They were introduced into the drama at another microphone by the special-effects man. Sometimes the sound and music cues interrupted the scene; sometimes they accompanied it. There was generally an audience, and from what I saw while I was performing on the radio, those audiences tended to get deeply involved. For some, watching a radio drama was a more intense experience than seeing a stage play.
At the end of that summer semester at Northwestern, I had earned my chops. I'd studied everything from voice production — a low register in serious moments, a higher one in comedy exchanges — to the proper distance from the microphone to tonality, to get exactly the right reading of a line. In recognition of my successful efforts, I was awarded the leading role in the final production.
Let me slip back a few years, to when I was eight. A woman named Kate Goldman was directing a play, The Birthday of the Infanta, for Drake University's Children's Theatre. It was a dramatization of a story by the same name by Oscar Wilde, a beautiful but terribly sad story.
Courtiers of the king of Spain are roaming the woods, and they come across a hunchbacked dwarf. They are amused by the odd little creature, and the dwarf's father sells his handicapped son to them. They bring him back to the palace for the amusement of the king's daughter, the Infanta, who's having her twelfth birthday. The day of her birthday is the only time she is allowed to play with other children, and of all the festivities provided for her on that day, she enjoys most the dwarf's performances. He dances with the same fervor he showed in the forest, and he's unaware that the children are laughing at him.
Because the Infanta has him perform for her again after dinner, the dwarf convinces himself that she loves him. He goes looking for her in the garden and inside the palace, but he finds no sign of her. In one of the palace rooms, he comes upon a hideous creature that mimicks every move he makes. It dawns on the dwarf that he's seeing his own reflection; he knows then that the Infanta does not, could not, love him. He falls down in convulsions of grief.
The Infanta and the other children come into the room and, seeing the dwarf on the floor, think what he's doing is part of his act. They laugh and applaud, but his gyrations grow more and more weak, and then he completely stops moving. The Infanta wants the dwarf to continue entertaining them, so a servant tries to rouse him. The servant discovers that the dwarf's heart has stopped. When he tells the Infanta, she is stunned, and she delivers the last line of the story: "For the future, let those who come to play with me have no hearts."
I didn't know the play, but just from the title, I wanted to play the Infanta. I didn't get the role. Mrs. Goldman chose me to play the hunchbacked dwarf. Although the dwarf is really the leading character, and the story is about him, he has only one line: "Smell the sweetness of the rose." The rest of his performance is dancing. Mrs. Goldman asked me to make up a dance, and I gave it a major try. I fell flat on my ass. That was pretty serious and pretty embarrassing for a young girl, but I burst out laughing, and that was a breakthrough. I learned something I have never forgotten about acting: It's okay to fall flat on your behind. You don't die from it.
One afternoon Mama brought home a cardboard keyboard and set it in front of me. I looked at it and right away began to push the keys. In the days that followed, I was on that thing every afternoon, and I learned to play it quickly. As I played simple songs, Mama would sing the melody. Then I would join in, singing harmony. This singing just came naturally, but it turned into something bizarre. From that time on, instead of singing melodies, I would harmonize with any song I heard. If someone, even a total stranger, was walking twenty feet in front of me and singing, I'd be behind, doing the harmony. It was just plain eccentric. I didn't learn lyrics and never sang melodies.
After dinner one night, Mama ushered Daddy, my little sisters Mary and Claiborne, and me into the living room. She said that that night she was starting the Leachman Each Week Club. I think I was the secretary, because I had a pencil and a ruler and some paper. We had a little extra money, Mama said, so the question of the day was, should we use it to join the Wakonda Country Club or to pay for piano lessons? Claiborne, my littlest sister, and I joined with Mama and voted for the piano lessons. Daddy and Mary voted for the country club. It was three to two, so our side won.
In a way, my creative life began at that first meeting of the Leachman Each Week Club. Right after it, I started piano lessons with Andy Williams's aunt, Cornelia Williams Hurlbut. I was first in line because I was seven, and Mary, the next eldest, was only four, too young to begin lessons. She and Claiborne both studied the piano later.CHAPTER 2
The Piano Filled My Life
When Mama delivered me to Cornelia Williams Hurlbut's studio to begin my piano studies, the only keyboard I had touched up to that point was the cardboard affair Mama had brought home. So when I came into Cornelia's studio and saw the grand piano dominating the room, I felt I was entering another world. Mama left me with Cornelia and on that first day, in that first lesson, Cornelia led me into the wonder and majesty of music.
I see Cornelia's beautiful hands flowing across the keyboard. During our lessons, I always noticed those hands, and in the open way of little girls, I always commented on them. Cornelia would smile appreciatively; she enjoyed that I noticed personal things about her. During the lessons, we talked, sometimes from the beginning of the hour to the end, about everything: school, Beethoven, the bus system in Des Moines, the weather, whatever came into our minds.
When Cornelia gave me a new piece to learn, she would employ pedagogical techniques of her own invention. First, she would have me play the last measure. I'd go over it till I knew it, and then she'd have me move to the previous measure and work on it. With that method, I'd thread my way back through the piece to the first measure, and by the time I got there, I could pretty well play the whole piece. Second, she would excerpt the difficult passages in the piece and make exercises out of them. I would practice them one by one.
At the end of the lesson, Mama would pick me up, and I'd take my new piece home. When we got to the house, I'd get out the special paper we kept in the downstairs closet and make a cover for the new music. I took great care, and when I had the cover properly fitted, I'd write the name of the piece on top. Then I'd carry it over to the new piano that Mama and Daddy had bought for me and begin to learn it.
I was eager and ambitious. I wanted to master the piano. I thought to myself, There are only seven octaves, and each octave has only eight keys in it, plus the sharps and flats, so all in all, how difficult can it be to learn to play it? I made the decision that nothing was too difficult. I was going to master this instrument.
By the time I was eleven, I was quite accomplished. I was able to play some important pieces, pieces that have stayed with me all through my life. Even today, even this morning, I played Chopin's Polonaise.Rhapsody in Blue was a special project. Cornelia said most everybody played just the main melody, but she wanted me to know all of it. Under her tutelage, I learned Gershwin's complex rhapsody from beginning to end and could play it confidently.
When our five children were a little bit older and able to learn instruments, I remembered what I'd learned from Cornelia. My husband, George, and I procured teachers for them. Adam began with the flute, then switched to the guitar. Bryan played the trombone. When he was six years old, his trombone was longer than he was, so we got him a trumpet. Then his taste evolved into what really magnetized him, the drums. He became a brilliant drummer.
When Georgie was four, I handed him a tambourine. He shook it around, and I played the piano, and we had a little two-person band. That was fun. Later, when Georgie was in seventh grade, he did poorly in music class. He was bored. Then, one day, his teacher played recordings of all the instruments in the orchestra, and when Georgie heard the oboe, he fell in love with the instrument. He came home and told us about it, so we went out and rented one for him. He played it night and day and, with the teacher we found for him, gained mastery over it.
But Bryan wouldn't let Georgie be in the band unless he played a different woodwind, the sax, so Georgie learned the sax, all three iterations of it, the baritone, the alto, and the soprano. He also plays the piccolo and the recorder. Georgie's musical talent is to me, amazing. I could be overstating the case when I say he is the finest sax player in America — I could be — but if I am, it's not by much.
Later, when the children and I had moved from the mansion in Brentwood to the lovely cottage in Mandeville Canyon, we had separate rooms to practice in. It took me a year to complete the move to our cottage. When I was a little girl, I heard the word cottage and I loved the sound of it so much, that from then on I always wanted to live in a cottage.
I would be in the living room, playing the piano; Georgie would be in the studio, which was originally the garage; down the hall Morgan would be in his room, playing his guitar and singing; Dinah would be working on songs in her room; and Bryan would be in the living room, playing his drums. Behind every door you opened was a different kind of music. Our house was filled with music.
Excerpted from "Cloris"
Copyright © 2009 Cloris Leachman with George Englund.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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Table of Contents
The Piano Filled My Life,
A Step Into the Dark Side of Life,
Singing for My Supper,
A Special Relationship,
An Actress's Life,
Other Thoughts About Acting,
More About the Actors Studio,
More On Acting,
A Bit of History,
Acting With Criminal Intent,
Actors and the Other Arts,
A Friend Becomes Ill,
Notes On Another President,
Another Presidential Tidbit,
A Little More About The Present,
The Chaplin Connection,
Love, Marriage, and All That Comes After,
Motherhood, Grandmotherhood, Great-Grandmotherhood And Boyz 'n' The Hood,
An Unbearable Sadness,
Dancing with the Stars,
What Do You Call Them? Trysts, Affairs, Dalliances?,
Dancing with the Stars, Part Two,
A Summing Up,