Thursday, 28 January 2021

Early Cloris

Jane Claiborne had a stellar acting career in films and television and....

Oh! Who’s Jane Claiborne, you ask?

A squib in the December 20, 1946 edition of the New York Daily News informed readers that “Jane Claiborne, who formerly called herself Cloris Leachman, has been signed for the feminine lead in “William Loves Mary,” new Norman Krasna comedy which begins rehearsing Monday.

The paper doesn’t explain why she changed her name. As you well know, she changed it back and went on to star opposite a dog (“Lassie”) and appear in one (“Phyllis”. Sorry, fans). But she’s being lauded for her triumphs.

One aspect of her early TV career is fascinating and a little baffling. Bob and Ray were a wonderful, creative team who got caught in the transition from radio to television. They were far better on radio, where they worked alone. On TV, they (or someone) decided they needed a female cast member. At first, they employed Audrey Meadows, who moved on to stardom opposite Jackie Gleason. Her replacement was Cloris Leachman.

Considering her show-biz career to date, it was an odd choice. She was Katharine Hepburn’s understudy, after all, as you can learn from this Daily News feature story of August 31, 1952.

A Star Now, Cloris Seeks Singing Role

BY UNOFFICIAL count, there are about 3,000 actresses constantly looking for jobs on New York TV programs. While there may be some doubt as to the exact number, there's one point on which there is no doubt: A 26-year-old blonde, hazel-eyed, Iowa-born performer named Cloris Leachman is one of the best of the lot.
Cloris (it's a family name and her mother's too) has been on virtually every TV dramatic show emanating from New York, and for the last year or two has been getting star billing.
A measure of her ability is the fact that while she is most frequently seen in heavy dramatic parts on such programs as "Suspense," "Danger," "Studio One" and "Kraft Theatre" it was she who was chosen when Bob and Ray needed a new girl comic for their NBC-TV show. Now she appears with them every Saturday night.
It's almost traditional in show business that a country-born girl who reaches stardom at the age of 26 should have done it the hard way. Not so in Cloris Leachman's case. She’s one of the rarely fortunate people whose lives seem a succession of good breaks. Her first good break came when she was 15 and won the first of three scholarships that helped further her dramatic studies. This gave her a free course in radio acting and announcing.
Apparently she learned a lot from her radio instructors, because by the time she was 18 she had three shows on KRNT and KSO in Des Moines.
Read the Funnies, Advised Housewives
She read the Sunday funnies; did a program on women in the news and under the name of Sara Wallace conducted a program giving housewives advice. Most of the housewives were old enough to be her mother, and one of them was.
The second scholarship was an Edgar Bergen scholarship to North-Western University—one of a number of awards that Charlie McCarthy's mentor has donated to that school.
While she was in her sophomore year she got still another break when, without her knowledge, a friend submitted her picture in a beauty contest. She emerged Miss Chicago and was a contestant in the annual Atlantic City beauty pageant of 1946 (all 48 states and New York City and Chicago are represented at Atlantic City). She didn't win the Miss America title, but she was one of 15 finalists, each of whom get a $1,000 scholarship.
When the Atlantic City contest was over, Cloris started on three-day holiday in New York City, but it turned out to be one of the longest week-ends of all time—she's never been back to Des Moines. Within two weeks she had job understudying Nina Foch in "John Loves Mary" on Broadway. Subsequently, she was understudy for “Happy Birthday”; appeared in “As You Like It” with Katharine Hepburn and won the “Theatre World” award for her acting in a flop play, "Story for a Sunday Evening."
So far Hollywood doesn’t seem to have discovered Cloris; but it may pretty soon. A few months ago she gave an audition for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, the authors of "South Pacific," "King and I" and other smash hits.
She made so great an impression that they decided to write her into their next Broadway musical (it's untitled as yet).
They also decided to put her on a weekly salary—something just about unheard of in show business—so she could continue studying voice. She likes to think of this as her fourth—and perhaps most important—scholarship.

Most people reading here probably think of The Mary Tyler Moore Show when they think of Leachman. The show had the unenviable job of trying to by funny while balancing the comedy around two completely different settings. It’s to the credit of a strong cast they were able to do it. Leachman may not have been the strongest, but she won honours from her peers and has left behind a huge body of work.


  1. okay, i forgive you about the tv series Phyllis being a dog. the only episodes to which i paid attention were the ones with Lisa Gerritsen, who played as her daughter (she was one of two tennage actresses toward whom i had crushes, the other starring in another dog, The Paul Lynde Show).

    1. Pamelyn Ferdin...she has a FB page, if you are interested.

  2. Although Cloris appeared on Broadway and went out on tour with SOUTH PACIFIC, I don't see her name among the original cast of that next musical, ME AND JULIET, which opened the following year.

  3. RIP CLoris. I too had a crush on Pamelyn.