Cloris Leachman bowed as the deliciously self-absorbed Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show right around the time she played the frumpy, adulterous wife of a high school basketball coach in 1971's The Last Picture Show (for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar). Her work always tickled MTM cocreator James L. Brooks (As Good as It Gets), and when a medical emergency sidelined Anne Bancroft a month into making Spanglish, the director tapped Leachman. Now she's getting Oscar-buzz again as Evelyn, the alcoholic grandma of a dysfunctional California family. We caught the actress in the middle of some home improvements.
Is this a good time to talk? Oh, hold on. [To a workman] Do you need me to help you hold it? [To EW] Can you wait a second? He's hanging a 300-pound fountain on the wall.
We can call back. Why don't you do that? That'd be great.
[Five minutes later...]So you've known James L. Brooks for years. He's got a reputation as a neurotic guy. He's Jewish, don't forget. He carries that on his back. It's a mighty load.
Was Jim unsure about casting you in Spanglish, since you hadn't initially auditioned for the role? He said, ''I think you're too old. I want somebody 50 years old, that's what I wrote it for.'' The next thing you know, I'm playing it.
Was it weird replacing Anne Bancroft? We'd been out for the same [roles], only she's gotten them. I always felt, There's another streetcar coming along.
How did you prep with virtually no advance notice? There was nothing to prepare. I mean, you read this script, it could go any way. A woman who drinks and yet Jim didn't want me to be drunk. It's not something to be laid out. It's not about the lines, it's about what's going on among the people.... I mostly just let it come into my pores.