At 86, Cloris Leachman is still making good on a 1972 proclamation made in her Oscar-acceptance speech for her role as Ruth Popper in The Last Picture Show: “I’m having an amazing life and it isn’t over yet.”
Her more recent adventures include her book, Cloris: My Autobiography (Kensington), which she co-wrote with her ex-husband George Englund, the father of her five children. Leachman is also particularly proud of her Hallmark film, Love Takes Wing, where she starred as Miss Hattie Clarence, a frontier woman who runs an orphanage that’s being blamed for spreading a fatal disease in town.
Of course, that’s not to mention an inspiring stint on a little show called Dancing With the Stars and a career that includes eight Emmys and roles as disparate as Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein, Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Maw Maw on Raising Hope.
Another place the multitasking actress isn’t slowing down: the road. If you’re in Los Angeles and spot a blaze of silver hair speeding by, it’s probably Leachman driving to visit one of her six grandchildren or her great-grandson, all of whom live nearby.
Grandparents.com caught up with the superstar grandma to chat with her about life with Portia, Skye, Arielle, Anabel, Jackson, Hallelujah, and great-grandson Braden, and why she drives so fast. “I have a game: it’s to catch up with the car ahead of me,” she said. “Catch up with them and weave.” Even we had a hard time keeping up.
Grandparents.com: In your movie, Love Takes Wing, your character Miss Hattie Clarence relies on her faith to guide her through challenges. Does faith play a big role in your life?
Cloris Leachman: Not in a God, no. I am an atheist. I’m not even atheist. I don’t think any of us has the answer. I’m an agnostic.
GP: Why take the role?
CL: It’s a wonderful role. I loved doing it. It’s just you get so involved in the characters. I felt … I had to keep that orphanage together. … Every time there are children involved, I get very involved.
GP: You’re known for being good with kids. One of Judy Garland’s children, Lorna Luft, said you were the kind of mom she had only seen on TV. Do you consider yourself the matriarch of the family?
CL: That’s the last thing I am. I don’t think I’m a wise matriarch, but I am a very caring active mother and grandmother.
GP: How often do you get to see your grandchildren?
CL: Well, I live with Skye.
GP: You live with your 20-something granddaughter? What’s that like?
CL: We’re just two human beings who adore each other. It took her a while to get me.
GP: How so?
CL: If I [was] imitating a monkey in a zoo, she [would get] so embarrassed. Her parents had to do a lot of talking to help her understand me.
GP: All of her friends must be dying to hang out with you!
CL: The actors are dying to meet me.
GP: You would have a lot to teach them — you’ve won so many awards. Does it ever get boring being nominated for everything you do?
CL: They give me good parts, good things to do. I do other things that aren’t nominated.
GP: Like what?
CL: For years I was always building my house.
GP: You wanted to be an architect?
CL: Or a social worker or radio actress or a concert pianist. I wouldn’t have time to practice. My kids would always want me to play with them.
GP: It’s a good thing the architect dream didn’t come to fruition or we wouldn’t have Young Frankenstein‘s Frau Blücher to make us laugh. Do you take your grandchildren to any of your movie sets?
CL: Every time I can. On Spanglish, a couple of them came all the time. Skye came all the time. When I took her to Toronto for the tour of Showboat, she was 6 years old. I brought her up to be with me and we had a big Sunday brunch at the Four Seasons up there.
GP: Your grandchildren must make you laugh a lot.
CL: Somebody said to Jackson when he was 8 years old, how do you stand it with all of these girls; there are no boys. “Well,” he said, “I am the cutie-pie in the family.” And he is.
GP: That’s adorable.
CL: Jackson was learning to say “may I,” “please,” and “thank you.” I would tell him, “Say, ‘Thank you, dearest grandmother'” — just teasing him. I said it so many times one day he said, “Thank you dearest grandmother from heaven.”
GP: You have such a special relationship with your grandchildren who clearly adore you. How did they react when you told them you were going to be the oldest contestant ever on Dancing With the Stars?
CL: They were thrilled. Skye was there all of the time.
GP: Did they ever critique your dance moves on the show?
CL: My fourth son [Morgan] did. He said, “Mamma, you don’t bend anymore.”
GP: People half your age couldn’t do what you did. Do you think your appearance on Dancing With the Stars inspired people to have more fun in their lives?
CL: They tell me I have. Everyone says I have inspired them. I am very surprised.
GP: Why are you surprised?
CL: Well, I wasn’t that good.
GP: But your run on the show lasted so long.
CL: It was a lot longer than I thought I would [stay].
GP: Not many great-grandmothers can claim the same. You have a chapter in your autobiography called “Mama.” Was your mom your biggest influence?
CL: My whole life. If I were to write honestly it would be about her all of the time. She gave me my life. Everything.
GP: What were your grandmothers like?
CL: My mama’s mother was just darling. She was Bohemian; she came from Bohemia. [Editor’s note: a former country in Eastern Europe.] Oh, could she cook. Just wonderful. The flakiest apple pie. Wonderful food. She cleaned that house like it was going to be inspected. The walls and everything were clean.
GP: What have your grandkids taught you?
CL: I just appreciate and love them and adore them and can’t get over it that I am so privileged and lucky to have them. Each one is beautiful, extremely lovely, with a sense of humor, and they are darling people.
GP: What legacy do you want to leave your grandchildren?
CL: The freedom to explore life as I was able to explore it. Live your life without fear.