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Making Frau Blucher laugh

Cloris Leachman on 'Frankenstein,' Mel Brooks and movies

By Timothy Glynn

Cloris Leachman may have won an Oscar for "The Last Picture Show," but people always ask for lines from "Young Frankenstein."
Mel Brooks
Cloris Leachman
Peter Bogdanovich

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- In the end, it comes down to the obvious fact that Cloris Leachman loves being in front of a crowd.

Sure, she won an Academy Award for her heart-wrenching portrayal of Ruth Popper, a small-town football coach's lonely wife, in "The Last Picture Show." Sure, she's won eight Emmy Awards, including her most recent for playing Grandma Ida on "Malcolm in the Middle."

And sure, at a spry 78, she's more in demand than most actors a third her age (currently she's filming two movies -- "Spanglish" with Adam Sandler and Tea Leoni, and "Mrs. Harris" with Ben Kingsley, Annette Bening and Ellen Burstyn).

But, in the end, she obviously loves pleasing a crowd. And the crowd tonight wants her to do Frau Blucher.

Leachman, in Atlanta to introduce the Turner Classic Movie Screen on the Green production of Mel Brook's classic movie "Young Frankenstein," looks out at the gathered crowd and in her inimitable dominatrix laced Austrian accent, exclaims, "Ovaltine," to a cacophony of laughter and cheers.

"People of all ages know every line of that movie," Leachman says, "Everywhere I go people run up to me and either begin telling me lines from that movie or ask me to do lines as Frau Blucher."

Despite her impressive other credits, Leachman is genuinely happy to be remembered as the cigar-smoking, violin-playing former girlfriend of Victor von Frankenstein -- a role that Leachman played board straight and crusty as month-old schwartzwalder kirschtorte.

CNN: Was it hard to be on the set of "Young Frankenstein" playing the straight guy?

LEACHMAN: Oh my God, it was so hard. My very first day on the set I walked onto the soundstage and they were shooting the scene (does German accent) "Put zee candle back" with the bookcase and Gene [Wilder], his face was smashed into that look he had and I just broke out. I ruined the entire scene.

CNN: What was your most difficult scene?

LEACHMAN: It was the scene where Dr. Frankenstein first meets Frau Blucher. Mel [Brooks] gave me this line and told me to say it (does Frau Blucher) "Stay close to zee candles, the staircase can be treacherous" with the emphasis on the word "can." Anyway, every time I said that line Gene would crack in two diagonally. I don't know how many times we did it but it took endless takes to get it.

CNN: What was it like working with Mel Brooks?

Young Frankenstein
In "Young Frankenstein," Leachman played Frau Blucher, who wasn't popular with horses (neigh!).

LEACHMAN: It was fun, like working with a nice Jewish mother. But I knew Mel from before. he wrote a sketch for the old "Andy Williams Show" and Tony Randall and I were in it.

Mel asked me out a couple of times but I never went (laughs). Anyway, he went on to marry Anne [Bancroft]. Then Anne was just making this movie "Spanglish" and she got sick and I stepped into the role she was playing.

CNN: You won the Academy Award for "The Last Picture Show." What are some of your memories of working on that production?

LEACHMAN: The whole cast, we were all so in the middle of that movie. It was so authentic and so desolate and we all got caught up in the life around the Golden Rooster [the real-life name of the small-town diner in the film].

CNN: How do you feel "The Last Picture Show" has held up over time?

LEACHMAN: Oh, it is a perfect film. Have you seen the re-edit that [director] Peter [Bogdanovich] has done, the director's cut? The way he re-did it, it is now seamless.

CNN: What actors have bowled you over? Has there ever been a point where you were star-struck yourself?

LEACHMAN: Oh, there are so many. I met Walter Huston and I worked with Kirk Douglas on radio once. And I met Greer Garson crossing the street in Beverly Hills one day.

But I'd have to say that the one person I idolized above everybody else was Katharine Hepburn. And I finally got a chance to work with her in a production of "As You Like It." It was just thrilling to work with her.

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