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09.17.10

I Got Betty White Her Job

Cloris Leachman, the other resilient eightysomething from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, dishes about whether Brando was gay (not exactly), Nancy Reagan (a “pill”), and competing with White.

As the winningest actress in Emmy history approaches her first Las Vegas headlining gig in her autobiographical one-woman show, the one thing that every reporter seems to want to know, of course, is… what she thinks of Betty White.

“I can hardly have an interview where they don’t bring up her name with mine,” groused Cloris Leachman, also a star in a new Fox sitcom Raising Hope.

Uggh, sorry. At least I waited more than a half-hour before I asked the 84-year-old former Mary Tyler Moore Show star, who plays lots of randy grandmas, about this year’s frenzy over the 88-year-old former Mary Tyler Moore Show star, who also plays lots of randy grandmas.

That was long enough to hear Leachman refer to Joan Collins, who had an affair with her husband in the 1970s (among many others), as the “British Open.” Long enough for her to state that she doesn’t think Marlon Brando was gay but that he might have had gay sex because their Actor’s Studio instructor Elia Kazan “wanted us to experience everything.” And long enough for her to baffle over the public’s embrace of former first lady Nancy Reagan, whom she regards as “the biggest pill I ever met.”

So it’s not like we didn’t cover some choice ground by then. And the question was warranted not only because of the biographical similarities but because Leachman, at a press conference this month, seemed to diss the last Golden Girls survivor. Her remarks were widely reported.

She was joking, insisted the 2009 Dancing With the Stars contender.

“Oh, I was getting silly and tired and so they asked me about Betty and I said, ‘I’m so over her, I never liked her,’ ” explained Leachman of what she blurted out on Sept. 2 after a long day of press for Raising Hope. “And of course that went all around the country, I was No. 1 on whatever the intercom, the inter-, the computer where it goes all over the country.”

Truth be told, she says, not only does she like and admire White but she said she helped White land the role of vampish Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1973. Leachman, who played landlady Phyllis Lindstrom on the classic series from 1970-75 and then for two years in a spinoff, wanted to shoot fewer episodes so she could also do other projects. She had just won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Last Picture Show.

Steve Friess Interviews Cloris Leachman

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“I’m responsible for her being on the show at all,” Leachman said. “I wanted to have some time off and not be on the show all the time. Since I was the only blonde on the show, I suggested she could be the other blonde.”

These days, the entertainment world is abuzz about White thanks to a few quick-witted awards-show appearances and ubiquity in film and TV, leading to a Facebook campaign that landed White as host of Saturday Night Live in May.

Yet Leachman, too, has never really left the public eye during a 60-year career that began with a role in As You Like It on Broadway opposite Katherine Hepburn and went on to net her nine Emmys, the most ever for one actor. She’s receiving her customary good notices for Raising Hope, in which she plays a loony grandmother whose grandson is raising a daughter that resulted from a tryst with a later-executed serial killer. The Fox sitcom also stars Martha Plimpton and bows on Tuesday after Glee.

That’s not all, of course. She’s doing her shows on Sept. 18 and 19 at the Suncoast Casino-Hotel in Vegas, something White’s never done. And she’s in You Again, this season’s big chick flick featuring Kristen Bell, Sigourney Weaver, Kristen Chenoweth, Jamie Lee Curtis, and, yup, Betty White.

“I wish we weren’t joined together all the time,” an exasperated Leachman said. “I mean, it’s not right.”

All this White-mania clearly does have Leachman thinking about her own place in pop culture. She was, after all, once a tabloid icon because of her friendship with Judy Garland (whom she once saved from drowning when she found the singer passed out in her pool); the Kennedys (she shocked polite company by asking Rose Kennedy whether she breast-fed her children during one Hyannis Port visit); and because of her open marriage with Hollywood producer George Englund. He had numerous affairs during their 26-year marriage and the two remain close despite divorcing in 1979. Englund even co-wrote her bestselling 2009 autobiography, Cloris.

“What am I like to you?” she asked me near the end of our conversation. “Who am I to you? Honestly. Honestly.”

Frau Blucher from Young Frankenstein, obviously. Charlotte Rae’s replacement as the maternal figure for Tootie and the gang in the late years of Facts of Life, too. And, indeed, one of those actresses like White, Bea Arthur, and Carol Burnett who are just known and well-regarded and durable.

“I wish we weren’t joined together all the time,” an exasperated Leachman said about Betty White. “I mean, it’s not right.”

The reason, I explained, why so many have turned to her amid White’s moment is because Leachman fans hope she’ll enjoy similar reverence. Wouldn’t she, too, like to host Saturday Night Live?

“If Betty did it, then I want to do it,” she said, finally getting into the game. “But Betty won’t be doing Dancing With the Stars, so what are you going to do? ’ ”

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Steve Friess is a veteran Vegas-based freelancer whose work appears in The New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, the LA Times and many others. He's a contributing writer for AOLNews, a columnist for the Las Vegas Weekly, blogs at VegasHappensHere.Com and is host of two podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal-affairs program The Petcast. He Tweets at @TheStripPodcast.