I’m about an hour into my 15-minute phone interview with actress Cloris Leachman, and I am finally starting to run out of things to ask her. I’m so treasuring the conversation, however, that I’m not ready for it to be over.
To my surprise, I suddenly realize, neither is she. The list of topics we’ve mulled has become epic: Her ex-husband’s affair in the 1970s with Joan Collins, then a star-fucking actress whom Leachman’s circle of Hollywood friends referred to as “the British Open”; whether Marlon Brando ever had gay sex, which she says is possible because Elia Kazan, their Actor’s Studio instructor, “wanted us to experience absolutely everything”; why she wasn’t scared that time, as a young Broadway actress, when a guy pinned her to a pillar in a New York hotel lobby and humped her until he ejaculated. “It was so remarkable,” she laughed, “It was more bizarre than anything else. It was like, ‘What the fuck?’”
Leachman, who at 84 stages her autobiographical one-woman show at the Suncoast September 18 and 19, is so engaged that when her 18-year-old granddaughter walks into the room in what sounds like a very tiny bikini, she puts the teen on speakerphone for a moment and raves about how great she looks.
These are the unexpected pleasures of my sort of journalism in Las Vegas. Others strive for empty interviews with losers like Paris Hilton, enjoy lining up at the red-carpet trough to quiz any given Kardashian. But give me an octogenarian with nine Emmys, an Oscar and an actual enduring place in the culture, and that’s somebody I can proudly give some attention.
- Cloris Leachman: A One-Woman Show
- Sept. 18 & 19, 7:30, $38.50 - $60.50
And evidently, Cloris appreciates that. She’s grateful I’ve only asked about the current pop culture craze over Betty White late in the chat and in passing—“I can hardly give an interview where they don’t bring up her name with mine; I wish we weren’t joined together all the time, I mean it’s not right”—and as we wind down, she turns the tables on me. She asks my age, I tell her I am 37.
“What am I like to you?” she asks softly. “Who am I to you? Honestly. Honestly.”
I know what she’s asking. She’s trying to get a pulse on how someone like me sees her at this phase of a career so exhaustive that her IMDB page has multiple listings for her for every year since before I was born.
I muddle through, citing Frau Blucher from Young Frankenstein and her role as Charlotte Rae’s replacement for the final years of The Facts of Life. I’d never been a big Mary Tyler Moore Show fan and I don’t watch Dancing With the Stars, so I’m scatter-shooting here and trying not to insult the winningest actress in the history of the Emmy awards.
She doesn’t say anything, just offers a quiet “uh-huh” after everything I say. Then, when I mention that my partner, Miles, cited the 1979 comedy The North Avenue Irregulars, she does react: “Everybody always says that when they tell me that’s their favorite movie.”
But I’ve thought about the question a bit since our call. There is a wonderful line in Leachman’s 2009 autobiography: “I’ve lived my life, I haven’t trotted alongside it.” And even now, even at an age when most people do lope alongside it, she’s making her Vegas debut and so eagerly anticipates the launch of her newest sitcom, Raising Hope, that she knows the date it bows (September 21) and what show it follows (Glee).
“Who am I to you?” Leachman asked. And here’s the answer: She and Jerry Lewis and that old friend Walt—who I wrote about taking to Brad Garrett’s show—and, yes, Betty White, are, to me, hopeful examples of lives lived well and fully. These people continue to live, to have a sense of humor, to make the most of it, regardless of age or infirmity.
Paris Hilton won’t matter 40 minutes from now, let alone in 40 years. But Cloris and those of her stock always will.