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Remembering TV And Film Star Cloris Leachman

Leachman, who died Jan. 27, won an Oscar for her performance in the 1971 film, The Last Picture Show, as well as eight primetime Emmy awards for her work on television. Originally broadcast in 2009.

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Other segments from the episode on February 15, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Interview with Spike Lee; Obituary for Cloris Leachman.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Spike Lee's latest film, "Da 5 Bloods," is nominated for three Screen Actors Guild Awards and was named best film of 2020 by the National Board of Review. We're going to hear the interview he just recorded with our guest interviewer Sam Sanders, the host of NPR's It's Been A Minute. Here's Sam.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Since the 1980s, Spike Lee has been a singular force in American cinema. From "Do The Right Thing" to "Malcolm X" to "BlacKkKlansman," has made films that force America to confront its ugly history. And he's also made films that are just pretty awesome to watch. Spike Lee's latest film is called "Da 5 Bloods." It was released last year on Netflix, and now it's getting Oscar buzz. This movie, "Da 5 Bloods," it is equal parts heist film and history lesson. It's full of flashbacks to the Vietnam era, and it shines a light on how Black soldiers back then gave so much and got so little in return.

All right, let's play a clip from "Da 5 Bloods." You're going to hear now from four Vietnam vets. They are played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr. They've all gone back to Vietnam to retrieve the remains of Norman, their squad leader who died during the war. He is played by the late Chadwick Boseman in flashbacks. And important to know - the men are also back in Vietnam to try and retrieve a treasure they buried in the jungle during the war.

All right, so in this scene, the group is traveling by boat. One of them, Paul - he's played by Delroy Lindo - he gets in this heated screaming match with a Vietnamese man selling chickens. It escalates quickly. The seller ends up yelling at the group, saying American GIs killed his parents. Then the argument breaks up, and Paul is trying to calm back down. His concerned son, who is also with him, is trying to help. He is played by Jonathan Peters (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DA 5 BLOODS")

JONATHAN MAJORS: (As David) He has PTSD. He gets triggered.

(CROSSTALK)

DELROY LINDO: (As Paul) David, what you know about it, huh? You don't know nothing about this. I don't have...

MAJORS: (As David) Nightmares. You've been having nightmares.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah, he does.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We all got PTSD.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Come on now. Look - just breathe. Breathe. Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Come on, bud. Come on. There you go. Come on.

LINDO: (As Paul) I see ghosts, y'all. I see ghosts.

NORM LEWIS: (As Eddie) Well, it happens to all of us, man.

LINDO: (As Paul) Oh, you've seen them, too?

LEWIS: (As Eddie) Yeah.

LINDO: (As Paul) They'll come to you at night. Storming Norm comes to me damn near every night. Now, he talked to y'all like he talked to me?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Come on.

LINDO: (As Paul) I don't think so.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Come on. Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Take it easy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Go ahead. Go ahead. Get it out. Come on. Get it out. Come on now.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Fists up (ph). Come on. Fists up, man.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) Bloods.

SANDERS: So, you know, we are talking in the midst of yet another award season, a season in which your latest film, "Da 5 Bloods," is getting a lot of buzz and some nominations. But already people are saying, in some regards, it's getting snubbed - like, no Golden Globe nominations for you. It's this thing I keep seeing with you and your work and your art and the coverage of it, is that besides making films that really speak to who and what America really is, there is this constant discussion over whether or not you and your work get their due. Are you tired of that conversation? Do you listen to that conversation?

SPIKE LEE: Well, I don't listen that. You know, I did at one point, but that is just going down a hole. I mean, I just - look at "Do The Right Thing," you know, considered American classic on all counts. You know, that wasn't even nominated for best picture and...

SANDERS: "Driving Miss Daisy" won.

LEE: ...Got two nominations - Danny Aiello for Sal lost out to Denzel for "Glory," and I had - I got original screenplay. So we know what film won best picture, and no one's watching that film. I mean, very few people watching that film today. But also, in retrospect, the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is more diverse now than it was back in the day.

SANDERS: Do you think it's there? Do you think it's reached the point where it needs to be when you talk about the academy membership?

LEE: No, I mean, it's better than it was, but it's not - look; everything is a process. So it's not - you're not going to be able to snap your fingers overnight because of hashtag Oscars so white. But that hashtag made the academy, you know, make changes, which I commend them for. And it opened it up for people of color to be members of the academy and vote.

SANDERS: Are you thinking ahead to whether or not "Da 5 Bloods" is going to get some Oscar nods this year?

LEE: Look. You know, that's out of my hands. And I've had five - before the film was streamed on Netflix, had five screenings for Black and Puerto Rican Vietnam vets. I mean, that's who I made the film for, you know? And they loved it, so I'm at peace with that.

SANDERS: Yeah. You sound like someone who does not do the song and dance that other folks might do in the awards show...

LEE: Well, I mean, I had a outburst for when "BlacKkKlansman" - so I'm not - that was - it wasn't that, the fact that "BlacKkKlansman" didn't win. It was the film that won. And I had "Driving Miss Daisy" flashbacks...

(LAUGHTER)

LEE: ...With the film that won.

SANDERS: And we should say the film that won that year when "BlacKkKlansman" was also up for Oscars was "Green Book."

LEE: Yep.

SANDERS: What is the deal with those kind of movies continuing to be made? From "Driving Miss Daisy" to "Green Book," this, like, children's book sanitation of race - why is the industry still letting that stuff happen and giving it awards?

LEE: But here's the thing, sir - racism permeates every inch of American society. So why should Hollywood be exempt from it?

SANDERS: Let's talk about "Da 5 Bloods." So this movie is all about Black Vietnam veterans going back to Vietnam, present day. In the original script, the soldiers were white. You've made movies with white lead...

LEE: There was - one of the group was a Black guy.

SANDERS: OK, OK. But the majority were white. Talk about the choice to make all the soldiers Black and how difficult the process was to rewrite it in that way.

LEE: Well, I rewrote it with Kevin Willmott. Kevin and I, we had no problem (laughter) with the change.

SANDERS: OK. Black it up, yeah.

LEE: And when we got the script from the producer, Lloyd Levin, Kevin and I automatically knew that - what we needed to do, and this would give an opportunity to tell the story of the Black effort, the Bloods who fought and died in Vietnam in a very immoral war.

SANDERS: I don't think people know that Black soldiers were overrepresented in Vietnam. You know, they were - at that point, Blacks were about 11% of the population at that time, but they represented more than 20% of all combat troops in Vietnam.

LEE: Well, my numbers say at the height - my numbers say at the height of the Vietnam War, it was almost 30%.

SANDERS: Wow. And at least a quarter of all U.S. combat deaths were Black soldiers.

LEE: Look. We are indexing everything. The fact is that the majority of films that dealt with Vietnam, the Black experience was not a part of the story. That's - of course, you would think that. I don't like that, but that was the case. That's not the story they wanted to tell. It's simple.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, I like how in the film "Da 5 Bloods," you kind of poke a little fun at that. There's a little line where the characters are ragging on "Rambo" and saying that Hollywood always tries to go back and win Vietnam. What do you mean when you have your characters say that Hollywood always tries to go back and win Vietnam?

LEE: Because it's revisionist history. United States of America, the biggest and baddest, strongest country in the world, got their ass kicked by the Viet Cong. Before that, they had fought the Chinese. Before that - you know, and they kicked France's ass. So I mean, all the money we have, all the bombs we dropped, the napalm, all that stuff, and we still lost.

SANDERS: You know, speaking of things in your movies that folks maybe did not know before they saw your movie...

LEE: Who, Hanoi Hannah?

SANDERS: Oh, well, that was very interesting. Actually, talk about that for a second because I didn't know that existed at all.

LEE: I did a film called "Miracle At St. Anna" about the Buffalo Soldiers, the 92nd Division that fought in Italy, landed in Italy, went up the boot, fight against Mussolini's fascist army and then later on to Germany against Hitler's Nazis. In that film, we had a scene, a woman called Axis Sally. In fact, she was born in Cincinnati. But she was an American who was in Nazi Germany who would be on the radio playing popular American music. And in between the music, she would talk with soldiers, you know, about propaganda. At the same time, in the Pacific Theater, the Japanese had a counterpart. Her name was Tokyo Rose. She was doing the same thing. You can look it up.

And so in the Vietnam War, there was Hanoi Hannah. And again, she would play popular American music, rock 'n' roll, soul. And in between songs, she was given a script to read. Even though some people might say it's propaganda, a lot of stuff she said was not a lie. You know, when she says, why are you dying for a country that doesn't love you? A lot of the Black soldiers, that's how they heard about how, two or three days later, that MLK had been assassinated. That's how they found out.

SANDERS: Wow.

LEE: And she used that, saying, why are you - don't you know that your sisters and brothers are rioting and burning over a hundred cities in America and they're being killed by the police?

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, that was something - scene in your film that I did not know a thing about. Now, what did happen in the film that I know is a reality but I don't think I think about enough is that you have, you know, Delroy Lindo playing a character who was a Black Vietnam veteran, who is also a Trump supporter. And I'm realizing, we know at this point that there are people of color who supported Trump. At least, like, one in 10 Black men who voted in 2016 voted for Trump, even higher numbers of Latino men. And I realized, watching Delroy Lindo in this role, I don't see that a lot even though it's real.

LEE: (Laughter).

SANDERS: What went into deciding to make one of the Black veterans in this movie support Trump and wear the MAGA hat?

LEE: Here's the answer. As a young lad growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., my mother - my late mother, Jacqueline Shelton Lee, would always tell me, Spikey, all Black people don't look alike, think alike, act alike. Black folks are not one monolithic group. That's always stuck with me. So if I had this group of guys, they all can't be lovey-dovey. So it was very simple to think of what was the one thing that would be the most combustible (laughter), and that would be for Paul's character to be a Trumpette (ph).

GROSS: We're listening to the interview that our guest interviewer Sam Sanders recorded with Spike Lee. Lee's latest film, "Da 5 Bloods," is streaming on Netflix. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SOUL POWERS SONG, "SOUL 4 U")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the conversation our guest interviewer Sam Sanders recorded with Spike Lee. His latest film is called "Da 5 Bloods." Sam is the host of the NPR show It's Been A Minute.

SANDERS: Chadwick Boseman in "Da 5 Bloods," it's one of his last performances.

LEE: Next to last. The last was "Ma Rainey."

SANDERS: You've said since the film's release and his death that one of those final scenes with him in the movie, the one with the light where he's kind of coming back...

LEE: He comes back as a ghost...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEE: ...A spirit.

SANDERS: Set up that scene and, like, what you think it means now after he's gone.

LEE: Oh, I had the pleasure of seeing the film before and after. My wife and I - Tonya - we saw it - we watched "Da 5 Bloods," I think, the next day after we heard the bad news. And seeing that last scene with Delroy playing Paul, I mean, it just took on another - I know what the word is. But it just became something extra. And, you know, that - the main light - we had a little fill light. But that light, you know, it was not manmade. That was a heavenly light that was shining down to the trees in the jungle on our brother Chadwick.

SANDERS: His character in that moment was already kind of Christlike. And he's saying to Delroy's character, I died for you, as he hugs him and there's a wound in his gut. Watching it after he's dead, it even has more of a spirit of the divine. There's no question here, just what a loss. Was he sick when he was filming with you all in Vietnam?

LEE: I think so. He didn't tell anybody, but I think so. He didn't tell George Wolfe. I asked George. He didn't know either on "Ma Rainey." He directed "Ma Rainey."

SANDERS: That's, like, a higher level of performer.

LEE: Well, that's the type of person he was. And I understand that he didn't want to be treated differently than any of the actors, because if I had known - the first battle sequence, he has to run, like, a hundred yards. And I was telling him to run like Usain Bolt.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEE: If I had known that he was terminally ill, I would not ask him to do that. And that's the reason why he didn't tell me or tell - you know, he did not want to take any shorts. I'm just thinking about that this year. Just so many people been dying, not just in movies, but Hank Aaron, I mean, everybody, Christopher Plummer the other day. I did two films with him, "Malcolm X," "Inside Man." And you know that thing in the Academy Awards where they - like, the obituary thing where they put...

SANDERS: In Memoriam? Yeah.

LEE: Yeah. I mean...

SANDERS: And they always forget somebody and everyone's mad about it. Yeah.

LEE: But when Chadwicks name comes up, whew, that's going to be a - not disrespecting anybody who's left us. And I say that in all sincerity. Not in the - a life is a life. However, there are going to be some names, you know, where they tell people not to applause where people are going to applause. I mean, Cloris Leachman died the other day.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

LEE: I mean, it's like people are dropping left and right. And not everything's from COVID either.

SANDERS: You know, hearing you talk about all of these shining figures dying, does all of that make you think a little more about...

LEE: Yes.

SANDERS: ...Your own legacy and mortality?

LEE: Yes. Yes.

SANDERS: OK. Tell me everything you're thinking about that.

LEE: I don't want to talk about it (laughter). Nope. You know, I'm trying to stay as long as I can, so I'll leave it at that. I just don't want to speak my mortality into existence.

SANDERS: No, I totally hear you.

LEE: But to answer your question, you know, I don't know how one could not think about their mortality when you see people leaving us, I mean, giants, giants...

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

LEE: ...Leaivng us left and right.

SANDERS: Out of the blue, it seems, out of the blue. There's something in the movie that I wondered about. There's a lot of flashback in "Da 5 Bloods." These veterans are flashing back to the times they were fighting in Vietnam. You don't have younger actors play the younger versions of these actors.

LEE: That never works for me.

SANDERS: Explain.

LEE: You can't find the people look alike. And you do that, then people got to say their names, other people's names every sentence or keep up with who's playing who, especially when you got - I mean, you could do it with one or two people. We've got five people.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, totally, totally.

LEE: Oh, let me ask you this question.

SANDERS: OK (laughter).

LEE: Do you know all their names? What's the significance of the names of the Bloods?

SANDERS: I know Delroy is Paul. Is it biblical?

LEE: Yeah. I'm not asking you to name them. I'm just saying, what's the significance of their names?

SANDERS: I really don't want to answer this question incorrectly.

LEE: Just say you don't know.

SANDERS: I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

LEE: No, those are the names of the original Temptations.

SANDERS: What?

LEE: Yes, yes. Slipped that by you, huh?

SANDERS: What was that about? What were you trying to convey? Well, it's interesting to hear you say it's the Temptations because...

LEE: It's a homage to one of my favorite groups. I mean, Motown - Marvin Gaye, you know, Adelaide, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas. You know, it was all one big family. Motown, led by Berry Gordy, the sound of young America.

SANDERS: Well, not even just thinking about Motown and the Marvin Gaye that you're playing in the movie, there are these moments where Marvin Gaye is the soundtrack in this film. And there's one moment where it's just his vocal tracks acoustically.

LEE: Yeah, that's a cappella "What's Going On."

SANDERS: Yeah. And it's so beautiful. And his voice sounds so bright. But you realize he's singing about some stuff that's kind of sad. It's this wonderful juxtaposition that that music in him and his voice brings to the film, because he's always been this man who sings about real stuff even as his voice just sounds like roses.

LEE: Well, the album came out in 1971. So they were listening to - the Bloods were listening to what's going on. I mean, many of those songs, you know, applied to this moral war in Vietnam.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest, interviewer Sam Sanders recorded with Spike Lee. His latest film, "Da 5 Bloods," is streaming on Netflix. We'll hear more of their interview after a short break and listen back to my 2009 interview with actress Cloris Leachman. She died last month. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON")

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying. Brother, brother, brother, there's far too many of you dying. You know we've got to find a way to bring some loving here today. Yeah. Father, father, we don't need to escalate. You see; war is not the answer for only love can conquer hate. You know we've got to find a way to bring some loving here today. Oh. Picket lines and picket signs - don't punish me with brutality. Talk to me so you can see, oh, what's going on, what's going on, yeah, what's going on, oh what's going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY GIRL")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) I've got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it's cold outside, I've got the month of May. I guess you'd say, what can make me feel this way? My girl, my girl, my girl - talking 'bout my girl, my girl. I've got so much honey, the bees envy me. I've got a sweeter song...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Spike Lee. He's made over 50 films, including "She's Gotta Have It," "Do The Right Thing," "Malcolm X," "25th Hour" and "BlacKkKlansman." His latest film, "Da 5 Bloods," was on many 2020 best of lists. It's streaming on Netflix. Spike Lee spoke with our guest interviewer, Sam Sanders. Sam hosts the NPR show It's Been A Minute.

SANDERS: One of the stories I love most about you is the story of the movie you made as a student at NYU.

LEE: What, "The Answer?"

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEE: One of the great things about NYU, the faculty, the teach professors, they screen a lot of films, you know, especially world cinema. I mean, I never heard of Akira Kurosawa before. And "Rashomon" made such an impact on me. The premise that "She's Gotta Have It" is "Rashomon."

But going back to my first film, "The Answer" - they screened D.W. Griffith's "Birth Of A Nation." And I'm not one of these people saying that film should not be seen, but I would have liked that the teachers would have put - before they screened the film or after the film - talk about it in a historical context, you know? And, you know, I didn't find out much later that the Klan at that time the film came out was dead and stinking - no pun intended. And that film gave rebirth to the Klan, which, consequently, Black bodies were burned and hung.

So my film was like an answer to - I don't want to say an answer, but my commenting on "Birth Of A Nation" is about a young African American filmmaker, a writer-director who's hired by a big studio to write and direct the remake of "Birth Of A Nation," big-budget version. And he somehow thinks that he's going to be able to make the film he wants to make, which is stupid on his part.

SANDERS: You know, we kind of got at this earlier in the conversation, about the industry doing better when it comes to race and honoring the work of creatives of color. But I wonder, as you're someone who's been in the biz for a long time - I keep flashing back to the story you've told where you - early on in your career, you'd be going to these meetings with all white executives. And in one of those meetings, they, like, pulled a Black guy from the mailroom just to have a Black face there, too.

LEE: There's more than one (laughter). Oh, you know what was cool, though? Is, like, the white executives thought I was fooled. But there was a look between me and the brothers they brought up from the mailroom. I knew what was happening. They knew I knew. So it's like we had an understanding. You know, this is a game right here and we're - you know, this is a game. And we both understood, you know, what the game was. And after I left the office, you know, they sent their Black asses back down to the mailroom (laughter).

Because for a while - you know, I don't go into the mailroom, but for a while, the only Black people I would see would be the brothers and the sisters at the gate, you know, let you in. Come on. Come on, Spike. Come on through. Come on through (laughter). They brought - this is on my mother's grave, happened more than once - they brought some Black people up from the mailroom. And I smelled that a mile away and just played along with it.

SANDERS: What does playing along with it look like in that kind of meeting? What do you - do you just like, OK?

LEE: Well, I tell you what's not playing along. Not play along would have been like, yo, this is bull**** (laughter). You must think I'm a [expletive] idiot (laughter).

SANDERS: Well, now you're at the point in your career where you can just say that probably in any meeting. You're Spike Lee, right?

LEE: Look, this is still - you know, you can't go off on somebody.

SANDERS: I mean, you can.

LEE: You got to, you know, respect. But to be honest though, they don't try that [expletive] with me (laughter).

SANDERS: (Laughter) They know. They know Mr. Lee's not playing around.

LEE: I mean, but also another thing, which is to be honest, you know, these are - over the years, you know, I've - I know a lot of the players. So it's not like we don't know each other and then done films before. So it's - you know, there - I mean, that thing with the bringing up guys from - the brothers from the mailroom, that was like in the '80s.

SANDERS: Wow.

LEE: That happened, like, around - really after "She's Gotta Have It." And then we got courted by Hollywood after success of "She's Gotta Have It." If you do your research, if you look at reviews of "She's Gotta Have It," I was called the Black Woody Allen (laughter).

SANDERS: How did you feel hearing that? - because, I mean, in hindsight, none of us want to be Woody Allen.

LEE: Look, I mean, Woody's a great - he's a great filmmaker. He's from Brooklyn. He's a Knicks fan. So but it really wasn't describing me. And then after "School Daze," you know, it was all Black - to place it, you know, historically Black colleges - that those comparisons ended.

SANDERS: All right. I promise, last question for you. A lot of your friends call you Negrodamus.

LEE: (Laughter).

SANDERS: (Laughter) So on that note, as we close, Negrodamus, do you want to make a prediction about anything about America, about film, about race? Because I want to hear it.

LEE: Well, you know, we almost came to the brink on January 6. And I have full confidence in Joe and my sister from Howard University. And they got a big, big, big, big job on their hand. But I believe we're on the right track - from lies to truth. Even though the truth is painful, I'd rather hear the truth than the lie.

SANDERS: Yeah. Mr. Lee, this was such an honor.

LEE: No, no, thank you, thank you. And it makes - let me tell you something. Talking to you for an hour was not going to the dentist to get root canal (laughter). And you may take that as a backhanded compliment, but is not because what makes interviews for me worthwhile is when - the questions I get. You know, so I'm not answering the same question I've been answering for 30-some years. So thank you very much, and I enjoyed speaking to you.

GROSS: Spike Lee's latest film, "Da 5 Bloods," is streaming on Netflix. He spoke with our guest interviewer Sam Sanders, host of the NPR show It's Been A Minute. After we take a short break, we'll remember actress Cloris Leachman. She died last month. We'll listen back to my 2009 interview with her. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE NATURAL SPIRITUAL ORCHESTRA'S "WE LOVE ROLL CALL Y-ALL")

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to remember actress Cloris Leachman. She died last month at the age of 94. She co-starred in two Mel Brooks films, "High Anxiety" and "Young Frankenstein." Here she is in Young Frankenstein as Frau Blucher, with Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN")

CLORIS LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) I am Frau Blucher.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE WHINNYING)

MARTY FELDMAN: (As Igor) Steady.

GENE WILDER: (As Dr. Frederick Frankenstein) How do you do? I am Dr. Frankenstein. This is my assistant, inga. May I present Frau Blucher.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE WHINNYING)

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) I wonder what's got into them.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Your rooms have been prepared, Herr Doctor. If you will follow me.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) Igor, would you bring the bags as soon as you're finished, please?

FELDMAN: (As Igor) Yes, master.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) After you, Frau Blucher.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE WHINNYING)

GROSS: Cloris Leachman won an Oscar for her performance in the 1971 film "The Last Picture Show." On television, she co-starred on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" as Mary's neighbor and landlady, Phyllis, which led to her own spinoff series, "Phyllis," in 1975. She appeared on many primetime TV shows, was nominated for 22 Emmys and won eight. I had the chance to interview her in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: I want to talk about some of your movies. You've made two or three movies with Mel Brooks. The first was "Young Frankenstein," in which you played Frau Blucher.

LEACHMAN: Blucher.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And just - I want to play a scene from this. Just to set it up, Gene Wilder plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who is the...

LEACHMAN: Frankenstein.

GROSS: Frankenstein (laughter).

LEACHMAN: Franken-shtone (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

LEACHMAN: Igor.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And he's the grandson of the famous mad scientist who created the monster. And then...

LEACHMAN: He was my boyfriend.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Then he learns he's inherited the Frankenstein estate, so he goes to the mansion in Transylvania. And your character, Frau Blucher, is one of the servants there, and she was in love with the mad scientist. And in this scene, Gene Wilder, the young Doctor Frankenstein, goes to the lab...

LEACHMAN: Franken-shtune (ph).

GROSS: (Laughter) - With his two assistants, where he finds you releasing the monster from his restraints. Here's the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN")

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) Frau Blucher.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE WHINNYING)

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Stop. Don't come closer.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) What are you doing?

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) I'm going to set him free.

TERI GARR: (As Inga) No, no. You mustn't.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Yes.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) Are you insane? He'll kill you.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) No, he won't - not this one. He is as gentle as a lamb.

PETER BOYLE: (As Frankenstein's monster, vocalizing).

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) Stand back. Stand back, for the love of God. He has a rotten brain.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) It's not rotten. It's a good brain.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) It's rotten, I tell you. Rotten.

FELDMAN: (As Igor) Ix-nay on the otten-ray (ph).

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) I'm not afraid. I know what he likes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) That music...

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Yes. It's in your blood. It's in the blood of all Frankensteins. It reaches the soul when words are useless. Your grandfather used to play it to the creature he was making.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) Then it was you all the time.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Yes.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) You played that music in the middle of the night.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Yes.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) To get us into the laboratory.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Yes.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) That was your cigar smoldering in the ashtray.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Yes.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) And it was you who left my grandfather's book out for me to find.

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Yes.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) So that I would...

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Blucher) Yes.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) And you and Victor were...

LEACHMAN: (As Frau Bulcher) Yes. Yes. Say it - he was my boyfriend.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's my guest Cloris Leachman.

LEACHMAN: It was.

GROSS: Well, how did you figure out how to play Frau Blucher?

LEACHMAN: I didn't know. I was made up. Now, I'd go on the set, and I don't have any idea how to be Frau Blucher or have any German accent. I'd never done one before. So all the time when they were shooting, I kept saying, hello, excuse me, do you know a German accent, to everybody. And I think one of them was Mel Brooks' mother. I think she helped me the most.

(LAUGHTER)

LEACHMAN: When I first came out the door and I say, I am Frau Blucher, I think it's said with such measurement. I was so careful to try to do it right (laughter). That's why it's so slow. But I said, I am Frau Blucher.

GROSS: The running gag in "Young Frankenstein" is whenever anybody says Frau Blucher, the horses whinny.

LEACHMAN: Mel told me a few years ago that (laughter) Blucher meant glue. I'm not sure that's true, but it sure is funny.

GROSS: So it's like, they're threatening the horses with a glue factory.

LEACHMAN: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: So what did you learn about comedy working with Mel Brooks?

LEACHMAN: I'll tell you one thing. I was going up the steps with Gene and the other two (laughter). Remember, in the castle, I'm going to show them around, and I had a candelabra with the candles not lit. And I turn - I say, stay close to the candles; the staircase can be treacherous. And then Mel came up to me, climbed up the steps and whispered in my ear. And it was a line reading. And here it is - stay close to the candles; the staircase can be treacherous - which means we've already lost a couple of people (laughter).

GROSS: I want to play a scene from another Mel Brooks movie that you were in "High Anxiety." I love this film. This is a parody of a lot of different Alfred Hitchcock films. And Mel Brooks plays a psychiatrist who's become the new director of the Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. And...

LEACHMAN: Dr. Ashley felt that color has a great deal to do with the well-being of the emotionally disturbed.

GROSS: (Laughter) And you're the very severe Nurse Diesel.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And in this scene, Mel Brooks, the new head of the institute, is in his room at the institute, and he hears screams coming from your room. And he's very concerned, so he knocks on your door. And you come out in a hooded terrycloth robe. Here's the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIGH ANXIETY")

MEL BROOKS: (As Dr. Thorndyke) Is everything all right in there? Nurse Diesel...

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

BROOKS: (As Dr. Thorndyke) Are you all right?

LEACHMAN: (As Nurse Diesel) Yes.

BROOKS: (As Dr. Thorndyke) We heard some weird noises emanating from your room. We were worried.

LEACHMAN: (As Nurse Diesel) Weird noises? It was the TV. Sorry it disturbed you. I've turned it down. Is there anything else? It is rather late.

BROOKS: (As Dr. Thorndyke) No. We were concerned. Good night.

LEACHMAN: (As Nurse Diesel) Good night. Good night.

BROOKS: (As Dr. Thorndyke) Good night.

GROSS: And as the scene continues, Nurse Diesel, played by my guest Cloris Leachman, goes back to her room, takes off her bathrobe. And underneath the robe, she's in full dominatrix regalia. She's wearing a policeman's hat and shirt, leather shorts, high leather boots. She opens her closet, and inside is Dr. Montague, played by Harvey Korman, hanging from chains in full bondage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIGH ANXIETY")

HARVEY KORMAN: (As Dr. Montague) Who was it?

LEACHMAN: (As Nurse Diesel) It was Thorndyke. You're making too much noise.

KORMAN: (As Dr. Montague) I can't help it. You're hurting me. You're going too hard tonight.

LEACHMAN: (As Nurse Diesel) Oh, get off it. I know you better than you know yourself. You live for bondage and discipline.

KORMAN: (As Dr. Montague, groaning) Too much bondage, too much bondage - not enough discipline.

LEACHMAN: (As Nurse Diesel) You want discipline? I'll give you discipline.

KORMAN: (As Dr. Montague) Yes. Yes, I'm sorry. Yes. God, it feels so good.

GROSS: That's such a funny scene.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: My guest Cloris Leachman with Harvey Korman and Mel Brooks' "High Anxiety." It must have been so much fun to shoot that scene. Was it hard to get through it - I mean, to, like, open the door and see Harvey Korman hanging there (laughter)?

LEACHMAN: Oh, no. We were all serious, just playing our parts. There's another scene that is so hilarious to me. I'm just sick that they had to cut it out. But Princess of Monaco, Princess Grace...

GROSS: Grace Kelly?

LEACHMAN: Yeah. She was going to see that movie that night at 20th. And he was worried about including this scene, so he cut it out and forgot to put it back in, or they didn't have time. But to me, it's hysterical.

I again take off my hood and I'm in snakes. And they're wrapped around my big, huge breasts. Then right between my legs is a long panel, and I have very high heels on. And (laughter) - I go to my closet, open the door and hang up my hooded, you know, robe and make my way to my bed in these high heels. I throw myself on the bed on my back with my arms and legs out. And you hear (imitating creaking) and you see - you're the camera now. And the camera starts from the floor up to the bed. And I'm lying there - keeps going higher, higher, higher, higher, higher, higher. Finally, it's up on the ceiling. And there's Harvey Korman hanging from chains over me exactly my shape, arms and legs out. And he says something funny, but he thought it was a little racy to show. I'm sorry. I hope he puts it back in some time or includes it in a, you know, with a DVD.

GROSS: So he really took it out so as not to offend Grace Kelly?

LEACHMAN: Yeah. I mean, she was a little rabbit. I don't know why he thought she wouldn't...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: We're listening to my 2009 interview with Cloris Leachman. She died January 27. She was 94. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN MORRIS SONG, "PUTTIN' ON THE RITZ")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering actress Cloris Leachman. She died last month. She was 94. Leachman co-starred in the Mel Brooks films "Young Frankenstein" and "High Anxiety." She co-starred in the TV series "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and starred in its spinoff "Phyllis."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, we've been focusing on your comedic roles, but you won an Oscar for best supporting actress for a dramatic role in the movie "The Last Picture Show," which is - what? - from 1971. Is that 1971? And in this, you play a kind of depressed, middle-aged housewife who's neglected by her husband, who's the high school basketball coach and maybe gay. And she wants to experience love and have an affair. She has an affair with a teenager played by Timothy Bottoms, but he's been getting involved with a girl his age and neglecting you. And in this scene, he comes to your door and asks for a cup of coffee. You're in your bathrobe. You pour the coffee with very shaky hands and then throw the cup against the wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LAST PICTURE SHOW")

LEACHMAN: (As Ruth Popper) What am I doing apologizing to you? Why am I always apologizing to you, you little bastard?

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASH)

LEACHMAN: (As Ruth Popper) Three months I've been apologizing to you without you even being here. I haven't done anything wrong. Why can't I quit apologizing? You're the one ought to be sorry. I wouldn't still be in my bath robe if it hadn't been for you. I'd had my clothes on hours ago. You're the one made me quit caring if I got dressed or not. Look; it's just because your friend got killed, you want me to forget what you did and make it all right? I'm not sorry for you. You'd have left Billy, too, just like you left me. I bet you left him plenty of nights, whenever Jacy whistled. I wouldn't treat a dog that way. I guess you thought I was so old and ugly you didn't owe me any explanation. You didn't need to be careful of me. There wasn't anything I could do about you and her, why should you be careful of me? You didn't love me. Look at me. Can't you even look at me?

GROSS: And that's Cloris Leachman in a scene from "The Last Picture Show." Was it at all awkward to be starring in that film opposite a teenager?

LEACHMAN: Strangely, no (laughter). But I think he was very embarrassed. He didn't say anything at the time, but later, he said, well, I was in bed with a middle-aged woman (laughter), you know? God, I was 45 years old.

GROSS: Did you talk about this kind of stuff before your shoot?

LEACHMAN: No. No, no, no, not a word. But we went into the bedroom, the little room in the house, to do that scene. And he said, I ain't taking my clothes off for this scene.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEACHMAN: And Peter and I looked at each other (laughter). Oh, OK, well - so we started to design the scene without taking our clothes off. So there were two closets, one on either side of this dresser. And so I went into the first one; he went into the other one. And we took off our outside clothes, left - I left on my bra and panties, and he had his shorts on. And we made our way to the bed and each got in his own side. Then they'd planted some underwear in there for us to throw out so it looks as if we took it off under the covers. And now it's action. And all the lighting was done. We got into bed. I took my underwear off and threw it out. I forgot (laughter) - I forgot to keep it on and throw out what was planted there. I mean, I was playing my part. So we had to do it again (laughter).

GROSS: That's probably the scene that won you the Oscar.

LEACHMAN: No doubt. And the producer called him before it came out. They had to cut it. It was too long. And they'd cut it as much as humanly possible. And finally, the producer called - said, Peter, I have the perfect answer - because they had to cut something. He said, when Timmy drives away in his pickup, that's when we should end the picture, and all the credits can come under his driving away. It'll be really good. Peter said, no, no. And he insisted and fought for and kept my scene in, and that's, of course, why I won the Oscar.

GROSS: You know, I went through a list of all of your movie and TV credits, and I realized looking at that list that you guest-star on just about every TV show I grew up with. I will now read an abridged copy of that list - "Lassie," "Perry Mason," "Dr. Kildare," "Mr. Novak," "The Defender," "77 Sunset Strip," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Wagon Train," "Laramie," "Route 66," "The Untouchables," "Twilight Zone," "The Donna Reed Show," "Gunsmoke," "Hawaiian Eye," "Checkmate," "Wanted Dead Or Alive" and "Rawhide." Wow. How did you (laughter) manage to guest-star on so many TV shows?

LEACHMAN: Well, I was always building my house and improving it and fixing it up (laughter), make it more beautiful. So I always needed money to do that, and that helped me. I don't know. I think I tried not to do the same kind of role every single time. One time I was doing "Suspense" - he would hire me every week to do something. So this one time I got a part, and I said, oh, this is just like I did, you know, four weeks ago, to myself. And I thought, no, I don't want to do the same thing. And I had to find other aspects of the same kind of character, which was tricky. You know, it's difficult. But I did it, and I was very happy about it. And I think that was a basic decision for the rest of my life - I would never be the same way twice.

GROSS: Well, thank you. Thanks for talking with us and be well.

LEACHMAN: You're very welcome. It was very good.

GROSS: OK. OK.

LEACHMAN: Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Cloris Leachman was recorded in 2009. She died last month. She was 94. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Rosa Brooks. Her new memoir is about her experiences when she became a reserve police officer with the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department. When she took on this work, she was in her 40s with two children, a spouse and a full-time job as a tenured law professor. She was disturbed by the statistics on police shootings and racial disparities and wanted to see firsthand what police work was like. Her husband thought she was insane, and her mother - writer and left-wing activist Barbara Ehrenreich - was also unenthusiastic. I hope you'll join us.

We're closing with music from jazz pianist and composer Chick Corea. He died last week at the age of 79 from a rare form of cancer, which was only recently discovered. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "DESAFINADO")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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