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Cloris Leachman, Emmy- and Oscar-winning actor, dies at 94

Leachman played the nosy neighbor on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and won an Academy Award for her role in "The Last Picture Show."
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/ Source: NBC News

Oscar winner Cloris Leachman — one of the most decorated actors in television history, best known for playing nosy neighbor Phyllis on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" — died on Wednesday. She was 94.

She died of natural causes at her home in Encinitas, California, spokesperson Monique Moss confirmed to NBC News.

Leachman won eight Primetime Emmy Awards, tying her for the most individual acting honors with "Seinfeld" and "Veep" star Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Leachman's Facebook cover shot depicts her sitting on a couch, surrounded by golden pals.

The late actor, inducted into the the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Hall of Fame in 2011, won best supporting actress for a comedy series in 1974 and 1975 for her "MTM" work, as Moore's snobbish neighbor Phyllis Lindstrom.

The show and character were so popular, Leachman was spun off into her show "Phyllis."

She won the 1973 Emmy for best leading actress in the TV movie, "A Brand New Life," playing a first-time mother in middle age — a daring act in the era. In real life, Leachman was 46 when that "ABC Movie of the Week" aired on Feb. 20, 1973.

Other Emmy wins included the 1975 best supporting actress in a variety or musical for her work in "Cher," in 1984 for best variety performance in the "Screen Actors Guild 50th Anniversary Celebration" and in 1988 for best actress in a guest role for "Promised Land."

Younger TV fans probably know Leachman best for "Malcolm in the Middle," playing Malcolm's hilariously scheming grandmother. She was also a contestant on the 2008-09 season of ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" and at the time the oldest competitor in show history at age 82.

Those "Malcolm" gigs earned Leachman Emmy Awards in 2002 and 2006 for best guest actress in a comedy.

Leachman, seen here in 2017, had recently worked on the "Mad About You" revival and the film "The Croods: A New Age."Rich Fury / Getty Images

Despite all those wins, Leachman insisted she went into every awards night assuming she wasn't going home with a statue.

“I never had a speech because I never thought I was going to win," Leachman told the TV academy in a 2015 interview.

"But if you are good at what you do — and I always intend to be good at what I do — then the acclaim is just the follow-through. But it is a wonderful feeling.”

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The actor also passed away with one Oscar statue on her mantle, earning the 1971 award for best supporting actress in "The Last Picture Show." She played Ruth Popper, the lonely wife of the town's high school football coach.

Her film career also included a fan-favorite performance as Frau Blücher in Mel Brooks' comedy classic, "Young Frankenstein."

"Such sad news—Cloris was insanely talented," Brooks tweeted on Wednesday. "She could make you laugh or cry at the drop of a hat. Always such a pleasure to have on set. Every time I hear a horse whinny I will forever think of Cloris’ unforgettable Frau Blücher. She is irreplaceable, and will be greatly missed."

The cast of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," including Leachman on the far right, stand with their arms around each other in the newsroom in a promotional portrait for the series finale.CBS / Getty Images

But through all of those accolades, Leachman will be best known as "Mary's" neighbor and landlady. Of the actors who were in as many or more "MTM" episodes than Leachman, the deceased include Moore, Ted Knight, Georgia Engel and Valerie Harper.

Surviving "MTM" cast member Ed Asner tweeted a photo of himself with Leachman on Wednesday, saying, "Nothing I could say would top the enormity of my love for you."

When Moore passed away in 2017, Leachman said Mary Richards' sunny demeanor matched reality off stage.

“The picture that we all have of Mary, that’s how she was — sweet, kind, so tender, so delicate," Leachman said. "She was America’s sweetheart. We loved you.”

In the show, Leachman's Phyllis frequently and hilariously clashed with Harper's Rhoda, in on-screen conflicts that were the total opposite of real life.

"'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' was a gorgeously written show. My character, Phyllis, wanted Mary to be her best friend … and she couldn’t stand Rhoda. Ha! In reality, Valerie and I were best friends," Leachman told the TV academy in 2015.

The veteran actor had slowed down in recent years. In a 2015 interview with TODAY, Leachman struggled getting out of a chair.

"I'm going get up, it's very difficult, I can get this far," an 89-year-old Leachman said, putting her hands on the chair's arms and pushing herself up several inches before freezing.

Even with a slower body, Leachman showed her comedic mind was sharp as ever with a perfectly timed, "And then you come in," signaling for co-hosts Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford, who came to her rescue.

Leachman credited her initial interest in radio and television to her mother, also named Cloris, who encouraged the young Cloris to explore her creative side.

"Momma never pushed me to anything, always an invitation," Leachman said at her 2011 induction to the TV academy's Hall of Fame.

The Iowa born-and-raised Leachman is among the many famous actors who studied at Northwestern University. Her move to the outskirts of Chicago led Leachman to compete in the 1946 Miss America competition as Miss Illinois.

"She loved her children and her grandchildren ferociously," Leachman's longtime manager Juliet Green said in a statement after her death. "A lifelong vegetarian, she was a passionate advocate for animal rights. The family requests that any donations in her name be made to PETA or Last Chance for Animals."

She's survived by sons Morgan Englund, Adam Englund and George Howe Englund Jr. and daughter Dinah Englund. Leachman's former husband, and the father of her five children, George Englund, passed away in 2017, and son Bryan Englund died in 1986.

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