Arriving with an energy that belied her 81 years, legendary actress Cloris Leachman took center stage at UGA on March 24 to field questions about her lifelong turns in television, theater and film.
After entering at the Balcony Theatre in the Fine Arts Building, Leachman stripped off her jacket and flung it across the floor, paused and then ripped off her scarf. Those moves set the tone for the affable actress’ entire question-and-answer session, which lasted about an hour.
Leachman, who has garnered nine Emmy Awards-more than any other actor-and an Academy Award, shared stories from her long-tenured showbiz career, spanning recurring roles on the Mary Tyler Moore Show to Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle.
Her approach to acting involves expanding the possibilities actors are given in a scene, she said.
“I don’t think ‘comedy’ or ‘serious.’ I always brought seriousness to comedy and comedic things to serious roles,” she said.
Leachman began her film career at 17 when a director saw her in a play and immediately wrote a part for her in a movie. Years later, she joined Elia Kazan’s Actors Studio group alongside colleagues like Marlon Brando.
“I didn’t learn anything by the book, it was all improv. Before (the group) I thought that acting was to be natural and be charming and that’s all it was,” she said.
The group gave her connections for life, often including some of Hollywood’s biggest names.
“Charlie Chaplin came in and I asked him if he would do Charlie Chaplin for us,” she said, referring to the famous waddle, walk and trip routine that became the hallmark of his career.
Chaplin declined, asking Leachman to try his shtick herself. After she did, Chaplin shook his head and showed her the correct way to do it, giving her another valuable acting lesson.
“Do you know what the difference was?” she asked. “He looked behind him, to see what tripped him. That’s the real truth. That’s what you would really do.”
Leachman ended the question-and-answer session by sharing her outlook on life.
“I used to read Ladies Home Journal, and I worked very hard to be perfect. Well, there’s nothing more boring than being perfect and when you try to be perfect, you’re a little disconnected from reality,” she said.
Instead, she offered a different sort of career advice: be yourself.
“Be free, everyone. Free yourself. Get free. It’s so much more fun. It’s so empowering. Don’t try to be like other people,” she said.