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Cloris Leachman going strong at 86 with roles on TV, in film

By Julie Hinds, Detroit Free Press –

DETROIT — “Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure” isn’t like most other movies. Mixing familiar stars with costumed characters named Goobie, Zoozie and Toofie, it’s designed as an interactive experience that will cue young kids when to sing and dance.

Similarly, Cloris Leachman isn’t like most other stars. The 86-year-old actress has done everything from serious theater and the golden age of TV to wacky assignments like well, playing Dottie Rounder, a character obsessed with round things who meets the Oogieloves on their journey to find some lost magical balloons.

What did she like about playing dotty Dottie? “I’m kind of in a treehouse, so that was the best part for me,” she says. “I love treehouses.”

During a recent conversation, the living legend is happy to take a brisk, frank stroll through a career in which she has tackled dramatic roles (she won a best supporting actress Oscar for 1971’s “The Last Picture Show”) and has been up for anything in the comedy realm, especially her current assignment as the eccentric Maw Maw on Fox’s “Raising Hope.”

“I am a good sport,” says Leachman.

She recalls how once, when she was co starring with Katherine Hepburn in a 1950 production of “As You Like It,” her entrance was delayed by circumstances beyond her control, which led to Hepburn having to ad-lib Shakespeare alone.

When Hepburn exited the stage, “she walked right up to me and said, ‘You goddamn pig!’ and turned around and left,” Leachman recalls with a laugh. They never spoke of it again and left the play on good terms.

Leachman describes “Young Frankenstein,” the Mel Brooks comedy where she played the formidable Frau Blucher, as an ideal job. “Gene (Wilder), all of them, everybody was perfect, wonderful,” she says. “God, Peter Boyle was brilliant.”

She says she loved playing know-it-all neighbor Phyllis on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” but that she hardly knew Moore, who kept to herself.

“She was a darling, wonderful, though,” says Leachman. “I said, ‘Oh, Mary, I’m so sorry. Val (Harper, who played Rhoda) and I are just taking up the rehearsal time.’ She said, ‘No, no, you just make a little garden path for me and I just come out and dance my way through it.’”

These days, Leachman is enthusiastic about the return of “Raising Hope,” which begins its third season on Oct. 2. Her character, Maw Maw, has been known to do things such as run around naked as she drifts in and out of lucidity. “They never asked me to do anything that I wouldn’t do immediately,” she says.

Maw Maw’s character has changed over time, according to Leachman. “The second year they said, ‘We’re not going to have you have dementia anymore.’ Oh really? So last year was kind of odd for me,” she says.

Once again, Leachman calls it like she sees it. “But this year, I’ve found a happy medium, I think. The scripts are brilliant, oh, my God.”

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