The winner of nine Emmy Awards and one Academy Award, actress and comedienne Cloris Leachman has charmed American audiences for more than 60 years. This past year, she pushed her creative powers even further when she both competed as the oldest contestant on Dancing with the Stars and published her autobiography: Cloris. When WebMD Magazine caught up with her in the spring of 2009, she had just finished a film role, too. How does an 82-year-old find the time and energy to do all that? Read on to find out.
You seem to be going stronger than ever at 82. Not only are you starring in Quentin Tarantino’s new film Inglourious Basterds, but you just penned your autobiography, Cloris, and danced with the stars last year. Is it true that Dancing with the Stars producers rejected you twice before they let you on the show?
They said I was too old. But when my son became my manager, he asked me what I wanted to do and I told him Dancing with the Stars. He arranged a talk with them, and after seeing five or six doctors and spending three hours with a dance instructor in front of the cameras, they said OK.
Was it difficult for you physically?
I had gained weight and it was shockingly surprising how that was such an issue. I could not imagine hopping even one hop. I also had a bad left knee and high blood pressure. But they put a shot of steroids in my knee, and they took my blood pressure at the beginning of every rehearsal. I could not do anything if my blood pressure went above 140/80. I’d have to sit and wait it out until it went down.
You are famously funny. How do you think your sense of humor has influenced your point of view on life’s ups and downs?
Oh, thank God for a sense of humor. I’m not witty or anything. Mostly, I’m just silly. But I have a lot of fun in life.
How do you relieve stress?
I do not get stressed. People get stressed by the most amazing things. Breathing is crucial. Just slow breathing.
How about exercise?
I have some weights, if only I would use them. I am a bucket of noodles right now. But I am going to do it.
Obviously, the dancing helped get you in shape.
It did, but I have to keep it up. I’m going to have Corky [Ballas, her DWTS partner] meet me in Des Moines, I think. I’m going to do a one-woman show and I am going to put him in it. So, I guess it will be a one woman with a man show!
In Cloris, you write about a time in your life when you were around 35 years old and your health was very poor. You had asthma, arthritis, terrible hay fever, and you couldn’t sleep for more than 45 minutes a night. Eventually, you decided not to eat meat anymore.
I didn’t decide it, my body told me. I was reading a book on archeology and I looked up and I said out loud, “Oh, I guess I will not be eating meat anymore.” I have not had another bite since, and I haven’t missed it. I have a little fish once in a while and sometimes I will have chicken or turkey. But neither hog nor cow.
You made vegetarian chili for a dinner at which Elizabeth Taylor was a guest, and you offered to cook for Bill Clinton to help him lose weight.
I said I’d put a bag over my head so nobody would see me [laughing].
What inspired your interest in healthy cooking?
When I decided not to eat meat any more, I had to think more carefully about vegetables and make them tastier. I read a lot and really educated myself. I use everything fresh and organic if possible, and I use a lot of garlic, lemon, and spices like white pepper.
What’s your favorite healthy dish to cook?
Well, let me see, I haven’t cooked in a long time -- I taught my housekeeper everything! Today, she gave me some wonderful potato soup with leeks and celery. Delicious, with no milk and no chicken broth. You don’t need it. For instance, I love string beans. You steam them lightly -- I don’t like them blanched -- and add a little olive oil and garlic. Delicious, and it couldn’t be simpler. And I love a good Idaho potato cooked at 500 degrees for about an hour. You take them out of the oven and tear them open quickly so the steam will get out and they won’t get soft. Then put on a little olive oil, chopped green onions and scallions, and a little salt and black pepper. Oh my God, it is just delicious.
What is your guilty pleasure food?
Baked macaroni and cheese made with straight, full-fat aged cheddar. No guilt. Full on.
How did you stick to your healthy lifestyle when you were on location, shooting Inglorious Basterds?
Well, that's when I eat fish or chicken a little more because you can't always get vegetables that have been freshly cut. They've usually been sitting there since six o'clock in the morning.
You describe yourself as a giver of hugs. Who in the world would you most like to give a hug to?
Oh God, everybody.
Anybody in particular?
I think smokers need hugs, don’t you? They’re so busy smoking. What if they just hugged instead? Wouldn’t that be better? And by the way, I don’t want to confuse hugging with patting on the back.
Patting on the back?
Yes, that’s not a hug. That’s a pat. Men pat a lot. They hug quickly and then pat. That means, “No more hugging, my wife is looking.”
So what’s a real hug?
Close your arms around and just feel each other. Make it warm and slow. The world needs more of those.