It’s probably not surprising to learn that Cloris Leachman was a fun mom. “She was mischievous and always wanted to see how far she could go and what she could get away with,” her daughter, Dinah Englund, exclusively tells Closer. “She was especially funny in the way she saw the world.” Even at home, the actress, who brought to life such offbeat, iconic characters as Young Frankenstein’s Frau Blücher and The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Phyllis Lindstrom, “could slide into character, be it the dog or a random person, and [she’d] blow your mind,” Dinah recalls. “My life with her was one continuous adventure.”
Cloris’ own journey was filled with escapades — from becoming a finalist in the 1946 Miss America pageant, to hanging out with Marlon Brando, to earning seven Emmy Awards and an Oscar, for best supporting actress in 1971’s The Last Picture Show. But not everything was hijinks and hilarity: Cloris’ father was abusive, and she had a fiery 26-year marriage to producer-director George Englund. One of their five children died tragically at age 30. Through it all, until her passing in January at age 94, Cloris’ emotional focus was always her family, which she called “the center of my existence.” Whether she was experiencing good times or bad, Cloris remained resilient and never lost her love for a good joke. “She was brave,” Dinah confirms. “No one could ever catch her and bring her down.”
Still, some tried. Especially her father, Buck Leachman, who owned a lumber company in Des Moines, Iowa, where Cloris grew up. In her 2009 autobiography, Cloris described her father beating her in the bathroom when she was 17. Nevertheless, “I grew up sturdy and strong,” she said on The Dick Cavett Show in 1972. “ I wouldn’t bend or yield. He said later he was glad he didn’t break my spirit.”
That strength carried Cloris through other tough times. In 1950, while she was appearing on Broadway in “As You Like It,” she met and fell in love with Englund. “He was magnificent,” she said, but their union was emotionally fraught. “He would drag my mother into decades of emotional abuse,” Dinah reveals. Cloris stayed with him, despite joking, “I think husbands and wives should live in separate houses.” The couple had four boys and a girl, but they ultimately divorced in 1979 and remained friends. “I always say they were soulmates who couldn’t live on a physical plane together,” Dinah says.
The divorce “devastated” Cloris, she adds, as did the death of son Bryan, also an actor, who reportedly took an overdose of ulcer medication. Cloris’ spirit never dimmed, and she kept her pain mostly to herself. “I think about him a lot,” she once said, adding, “We don’t share; it’s just private.”
Despite her struggles, Cloris remained sunny — and admired by many. When her former Mary Tyler Moore co-star Ed Asner guest-starred with her on Hallmark’s The Eleventh in 2016, he joked to Closer, “She’s loony tunes. You just have to figure out where the music is, then work to her beat.” And, he added, “She’s a lovely lady.”
No one knew that better, or appreciated it more, than her kids. “My mom was the mom everyone wished they had,” Dinah tells Closer. “She had grace, acceptance, humor. She had a way of enveloping anyone with a kind of love that when she held you, you felt as if you were in the safest place in the world.”
— Lisa Chambers, with reporting by Katie Bruno