I really shouldn’t conduct interviews early in the day on a weekend after having been out all night enjoying adult beverages and singing karaoke at a lesbian “coming out” party in Los Feliz.
I’m just saying.
The only thing I should be doing is sleeping off the hangover I inevitably have because I have friends like Betty White – who don’t have an “off” switch – and think “last call” means it’s time to do shots of Yagermeister.
So I wasn’t exactly at my best on Sunday when I interviewed the comedic legend, Cloris Leachman, for SDGLN. Fortunately for me, neither was she.
“I’m tired!” she said in a huff, “I didn’t fall asleep until 7 a.m. this morning. Isn’t that terrible?”
No. Terrible is waking up at 11 a.m. standing in the shower with Lily Tomlin’s Hermes scarf wrapped around my head. Clearly, I wasn’t one to judge.
With her decades of stage training, Cloris is a woman who knows how to project her voice. I just didn’t need to hear it projected so loudly into the phone this early in the afternoon as my head pounded. So I admitted I was the teensiest bit hung over. I hoped she’d get the hint and turn down the volume a tad.
Instead, she lectured me.
“I hate to be hung over. That’s the worst feeling in the world! Why would you ever want to be in that kind of pain?” she said, firecrackers going off in my ears with each syllable as she spoke. “When I was 16, I decided I would never be hung over again – and I never have been.”
“How did you manage that?” I asked, wondering if perhaps a new drug had been developed that only A-list celebrities were privy to that completely wipes out a hangover before it starts – and gives you more youthful skin and whiter teeth in the process.
“You spread out your drinking over a longer period of time, and you don’t drink too much, stupid.” She said flatly.
That wasn’t the answer I was hoping for.
“I could never be drunk anyway,” she continued. “As it is, I play so many characters who are drunks, people would think I wasn’t really acting.”
Much like her character Phyllis Lindstrom on the 1970s sitcom, the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Cloris didn’t mix her words – or filter them. Between her Attention Deficit Disorder (likely induced by her sleepless night), and my taking two aspirin for my headache (and by aspirin, of course, I mean vodka martinis), our conversation felt a lot like a road trip in a car with an angry navigation system.
Every time I’d ask a question, we’d just kind of drive off the road completely and into a field somewhere – where the topics of discussion were unplanned, disorganized … and sprinkled with the occasional inappropriate profanity.
It was fun. Like playing Scattergories with a schizophrenic patient.
For example, I asked about her one-woman show, titled “Cloris! I’m Eighty F*cking Four – and Still Going Strong!” – and somehow we floated into a discussion about the outfit she wore when she was the grand marshall of the San Diego Gay Pride Parade back in July. She was trying to remember the inspiration for her outlandish parade costume – and while we did come up with some reasonable explanations for why she’d show up looking like a space cadet from a 1970s sci-fi movie, we agreed that she must have been channeling her inner drag queen for the occasion.
Somewhere in between her finishing lunch and my mixing a second martini, I asked her why she was drawn to such outspoken, likably insane characters like Flau Blucher in “Young Frankenstein,” Grandma Ida in “Malcolm in the Middle,” or the happily tipsy Evelyn Wright in Spanglish. At a certain point, when the majority of character’s you’ve become known for are just a few tacos and a churro short of a combo plate, you kind of have to admit a pattern has developed.
“I’m not drawn to anything,” she replied, “They’re drawn to me. That’s just how it works. Your agent gives you a call, you read a script and you take the work where you can get it. At my age, I guess I’ve gotten pretty good at playing crazy.”
One thing was for certain. Even in her sleep deprivation haze, there was nothing crazy about this woman. At least nothing clinically crazy, anyway.
Sharp, and fiercely direct – she was fluid in her ability to move from cracking jokes to pointed social commentary. When I brought up the recent media coverage of several gay teens around the country who ended their lives after having endured perpetual bullying in school – her tone immediately changed from jovial to quietly infuriated.
“I just don’t understand,” she said softly, “I always thought being different was something to be proud of. But instead, kids are killing themselves because they aren’t the same as everyone else? I don’t get it. And I don’t get why we can’t just let people be who they are.”
Being different, it seems, has been the secret to her enduring success over the course of her 76-year career. An Oscar winner, and recipient of nine Emmy’s – more than any other actor to date – and a list of film, stage and television credits that span decades, there was no shortage of material to draw from when developing her one-woman show.
She collaborated with her ex-husband, George Englund, who wrote and directed a show about her life and career with a combination of singing, dancing, monologues and clips from movies she’s starred in throughout her career.
“A lot of people don’t know I play the piano,” she said, “So I get to do a little of that, sing, and talk about myself. I didn’t write it though. George wrote it. He knows all my secrets. Probably some even I don’t know.”
She was married to Englund from 1953 to 1979. They had five children together in that time, and remain good friends today. Since she managed to make a marriage work for 26 years, and maintain a friendship for 31 years after that – I wondered what she thought about
marriage in general – and gay community’s fight for marriage equality.
“Marriage is great!” she said, “Everyone should have the right to do it if they want to. Why shouldn’t everyone have it? Why are we even still debating it? That’s so stupid. It’s just stupid that we’re so slow in this country. It’s love. Let people love who they want to love.”
Since we were already on the topic of unconventional families, it seemed natural that the conversation floated right along to her new series on Fox – “Raising Hope,” which premiered on Sept. 21 to critical acclaim.
“It’s hysterical,” Cloris laughed. “The show’s creator, Greg Garcia, is just so brilliant. It’s the funniest kind of comedy because it’s off-center.”
Her character, Maw-Maw – the lovable great grandmother with a flair for dementia and random nudity — kind of reminded me of my own grandmother. Though, unlike Maw-Maw, my grandmother never tried to breast feed me – or for that matter, mistake me for her dead husband and plant a big wet kiss on me.
Creator Greg Garcia, best known for the hit series “My Name is Earl,” drew a comparison between Maw-Maw and Cloris in an interview with USA Today by saying, “Cloris is a more contained crazy. She’s very aware of what she’s doing at all times.”
With all of that “contained crazy” in the body of an 84-year-old not showing any signs of slowing down – one had to wonder what could possibly be next for a woman who has won every award, played every type of role from dramatic to comedic, and pretty much conquered every creative endeavor in entertainment. Short of wide distribution of a sex tape with Ray-J, what else could there be?
Duh. Reality TV.
Between a new series on Fox, taking her show on the road, and lecturing me on the evil’s of rapid alcohol consumption, Leachman is also working on a reality show detailing her life at home. The show will star her along with her two “roommates” – granddaughters Sky Englund, 22, and Anabel Englund, 18. I guess it will be sort of a cross between “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “The Golden Girls” – but with a lot more F-bombs and naps.
I can’t wait.
“How’s the hangover?” she asked, not really sounding very concerned.
“Get back to me,” I said, wishing I never admitted it in the first place.
Changing the subject from my aching head, I asked, “What inspires you?”
There was a long pause.
Finally, she replied, “People. How they live, survive … how they create joy and happiness. People who sing and dance inspire me. Humor inspires me. People with a sense of humor inspire me. You?”
“Laughter.” I said.
“Yeah, that’s good too.”