Remembering Cloris Leachman, 1926-2021

Read an excerpt from Cloris Leachman's 2009 autobiography.

cloris leachman autobiography 2009

On January 27, 2021, Cloris Leachman passed away at 94 years old. The record-setting actress was born in 1926 in Iowa, and over the course of her decades-long career received dozens of accolades, including eight Primetime Emmy awards from 22 nominations and the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1971 for her role in The Last Picture Show.

Most people are familiar with Cloris Leachman from her role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or as the unforgettable Frau Blücher in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. Leachman was also known for taking chances, and not taking herself too seriously—in 1997, she posed nude for Alternative Medicine Digest, body-painted with pictures of fruit; and at age 82, she became the oldest celebrity to compete on Dancing with the Stars.

Below, in memory of Cloris Leachman, is an excerpt from Cloris, her autobiography. Written when she was 82 years old, it's a hilarious, heartfelt and insightful look at her incredible life.





By Cloris Leachman

I had to smile. Writing your autobiography is something you do in contemplation, isn’t that so? It’s a look back at the traffic of your life, the places you’ve been, the people you’ve known and loved. But I can’t get out of the traffic of my life today.

Recently, I won my ninth Emmy (the most ever earned by an actor), and I became a great-grandmother. In the last six months, I’ve made four films: The Women, with Annette Bening, Meg Ryan, and Bette Midler; American Cowslip, with Peter Falk and Val Kilmer; New York, I Love You, with Eli Wallach and many others; and a Hallmark Theater film. I’ve also traveled to New York, Rome, Cabo San Lucas, and Tempe, Arizona; had to cancel a cruise from India to Italy; been touring my one-woman show; celebrated my eighty-second birthday; and, oh yeah, been on Dancing with the Stars. I’ll come back to that.

That’s a life with some real bang and smash in it, but you know what? I like it this way; I like life to be exciting. And actually, in the middle of all that’s been going on, I did begin to write my autobiography. I really wanted to get it right, and I started off determined. I picked a chair, sat in it, with a pen and a pad, and it was “move over, Shakespeare” time.

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Then, like autumn leaves, thoughts began to fall on me; they touched my soul. Emotions streamed through me: hilarity, tenderness, amazement, then sadness. It’s too late, a voice inside me said. It’s too late to collect the little girls who were you and herd them into the tale of your youth. It’s too late to walk again through those febrile high school years, when you were holding three jobs and studying piano and dance all at the same time.

It’s too late to recall the roles you played; the stars, the comedians, tragedians, and vaudevillians you shared the stage with; the costume and make-up men and women you became so fond of; the playwrights and presidents you dined with. It’s too late to remember the early morning when Adam, your fair firstborn, came out of you and entered the world, and the unbearable hour when Bryan, your handsome second son, left the world.

Then a different voice spoke. It’s too soon, too soon to peer into yesterday, when your eyes are so expectantly fixed on tomorrow, when your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchild are growing up around you. It’s too soon to look back on your life, as if you’re nearing the end of it.

Sitting there, utterly still, tears slipped from my eyes as the times of my life gathered around me. I thought, What’s the best way to tell the story of your life? Do you begin at the beginning and follow the calendar to where you are now? Or would it be better to begin with a particular event, the day you were married or the day you won the Oscar or the day your son died, and work backward and forward from there?

cloris leachman on the mary tyler moore show
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  • Cloris Leachman (right) on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

    Photo Credit: 20th Television

Or you could sum it all up in numbers. I was one of three daughters; I gave birth to five children; I have one Oscar, nine Emmys, and sixty-eight other awards. I have seven grandchildren, I am eighty-two years old, I’ve been on six of the seven continents, and if they produce a television series on McMurdo Sound, I might soon visit Antarctica.

Enough of this inner dialogue, I thought. I’m just going to write it. I’ll start easy. I’ll tell about what I’ve learned and what I still don’t know. Right away that brought up something big, I still don’t know if there’s a God. From the unkindness and slaughter in the world, it’s hard to believe He’s the good guy portrayed in the paintings. I tend not to believe in Him or Her. And yet, sometimes when my grandchildren and I are together—out with the dogs on a sunny afternoon or in my living room, playing the piano—such joy surrounds us, such tender emotions swell, that I feel we’re not alone, that some dear, loving presence is there, too.

Right here, at the beginning, I want to say some things about myself I know to be true. I’ve lived my life; I haven’t trotted alongside it. I’ve opened the doors of opportunity wherever I’ve seen them. I’ve walked into discoveries and dreams, disappointments and death. I bear the scars of not having obeyed rules made by others, and I wear the deep satisfaction of knowing I never bent to conventions I didn’t believe in.

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I never wanted to conform. I haven’t conformed. I’ve tried, but I couldn’t. I’ve never put a label on myself. I find it distasteful that people put labels on other people and say that’s who they are, that one thing. When I was forty-six, people said I was in middle age. I shrugged off that designation. I didn’t want to be lumped into a group. Here’s something I said in an interview with Playgirl magazine in 1972.

I knew from the very beginning that I didn’t belong in Iowa. When I went into town for my first piano lesson, I took a streetcar to the teacher’s studio. It was the most staggering cultural shock of my life. There were all those gray people, the nine-to-fivers, sitting in a stupor. Right then I determined with every fiber in my being that I would never be ground down into a gray person. I’m not going to adopt any wholesale anything. No organized religion, no organized anything. I have never known depression. Depression means there is no way out. I have been deeply saddened, heartbroken, hysterical, exhausted. But I never felt there was no way out. I’ll make a door.

Having written this much, I decided it would be wrong to write my autobiography in chapters, because I didn’t live my life in chapters. The long walk I’ve taken wasn’t divided into tidy sections. It came in arcs and rainbows, sprints and marathons, clouds and clear places.

Something else came into focus with razor sharpness, that everything I’m going to write about, every minor event, every major accomplishment, took place in the past. As I absorb that thought, I see I am in a softly lit world. My mother’s voice speaks behind me…Music from my twenties starts over there…In the middle distance, a piano solo begins, Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” Emotions rise in me, because piano music has filled my life since I was seven years old…Now an odor, alien and foreign, oh yes, gunpowder, from when I took that course in marksmanship at the armory to get Daddy’s attention.

There I am with Mama, carrying buckets of water from the well because we don’t have enough water at home for wash day…Laughter erupts. There I am as Nurse Diesel in High Anxiety, with those conical breasts…and, oh, remember, there I am at nineteen, holding the trophy I won as Miss Chicago.

I could start my book with any of these memories…but I think I won’t. I think I’ll start where I didn’t think I would start, at the beginning. 

Want to keep reading? Download Cloris today!



By Cloris Leachman

The “frank . . . salty . . . [and] delicious” New York Times–bestselling memoir of the Oscar-winning actress and show business icon (Kirkus Reviews).

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 Hollywood, Broadway, and television. Leachman’s journey has been filled with laughter and tears, marriage and motherhood, tragedy and triumph. Along the way, she shares personal anecdotes about Marlon Brando, Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Sissy Spacek, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, the Kennedy family, and many others. Funny, candid, brilliant, and altogether human, this is the real Cloris Leachman—as you’ve never seen her before.