Cloris Leachman was born on April 30, 1926, in Des Moines, Iowa, to Berkeley Claiborne "Buck" Leachman and the former Cloris Wallace. Her father's family owned a lumber company. After graduating from high school, she attended Illinois State University and Northwestern University, where she majored in drama. After winning the title of Miss Chicago 1946 (as part of the Miss America pageant), she acted with the Des Moines Playhouse before moving to New York.
Leachman made her credited debut in 1948 in an episode of The Ford Theatre Hour and appeared in many TV anthologies and series before becoming a regular on Bob and Ray in 1952. Her movie debut was memorable, playing the doomed blond femme fatale Christina Bailey in Robert Aldrich's classic noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
Other than a role in Rod Serling's movie The Rack (1956) in support of Paul Newman, Leachman remained a TV actress throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, appearing in only two movies during the latter decade, The Chapman Report (1962) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Though she would win an Oscar for Peter Bogdanovich's adaptation of Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show (1971) and appear in three Mel Brooks movies, it was in television that her career remained and her fame was assured in the 1970s and into the second decade of the new millennium.
Leachman was nominated five times for an Emmy playing Phyllis Lindstrom, Mary Tyler Moore's landlady and self-described best friend on the CBS sitcom Mary Tyler Moore and on the spin-off series Phyllis (1975). She won twice as Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy for her Mary Tyler Moore gig and won a Golden Globe as a leading performer in comedy for Phyllis, but her first Emmy came in the category Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in 1973 for the TV movie A Brand New Life. (She also won two Emmys as a supporting player for Malcolm in the Middle .)
She was married to director-producer George Englund from 1953 to 1979. They had five children together.
At 82, Leachman became the oldest celebrity to appear on the ABC series Dancing with the Stars.