Cloris Leachman, who's played everyone from Mary Tyler Moore's nosy neighbor to Lassie's mother, is back in another motherly role tonight on NBC's "Fine Things."
"I play a nice Jewish mama," Leachman said in a telephone interview from New York. "I get to say things like, `So, you're too busy to call me?' ""Fine Things," adapted from Danielle Steele's novel, is the story of a young department store executive, Bernard Fine (D.W. Moffat). He's sent to take charge of a new store in San Francisco, where he meets Liz O'Reilly (Tracy Pollan), a beautiful young woman with a 7-year-old daughter, Jane.
Bernie and Liz fall in love, get married and have a child. But double tragedy strikes - Liz is stricken with cancer and her ex-husband shows up demanding custody of Jane.
Leachman portrays Bernie's mother, Ruth, a rather stereotypical Jewish mother at that.
"I'm the comedy relief," she said. "I'm there to give people a laugh in the midst of all this tragedy.
"But it was a lot of fun for me. I took the role because I really liked it. It's a show that has very high aspirations, and I think it succeeds. It's good, old-fashioned entertainment."
Leachman's list of television credits is too long to print. She's probably best known for playing Phyllis Lindstrom on "Mary Tyler Moore," for which she won two Emmys, and continuing the role in the spinoff titled simply "Phyllis."
She's won four other Emmys - for appearances on the variety show "Cher," the TV movie "A Brand New Life," the children's special "The Woman Who Willed a Miracle" and "The Screen Actors' Guild 50th Anniversary Special." Not to mention the fact that she took home the 1971 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in "The Last Picture Show."
"I make my rounds. It's not like I'm ever away for very long," Leachman said. "I read stories about some big return I'm making, but I don't think I've ever really been away. I'm more like a yo-yo - I go up and down a little bit."
Her last two series haven't brought her much in the way of acclaim. First, she replaced Charlotte Rae for the final two seasons of "Facts of Life."
"It was kind of silly because those girls were grownups by then - they didn't need an older woman around to dispense advice," Leachman said.
So why take the part?
"I think people got a perception that I was very difficult because Phyllis was very difficult," she said. "I thought it would be good to play a role very different from Phyllis on TV. I was still being shadowed by that perception."
She does admit, however, that she really can seem difficult at times.
"Some people say I'm demanding, but it's not like I'm saying, `Oh please, give me my diamonds and my chinchillas.' What I demand is quality. Isn't that what everyone wants?" she asked.
Her next series experience, last season's short-lived "Nutt House," wasn't exactly the experience she was hoping it would be.
"If you know that NBC and Mel Brooks and Disney want to do something together, and they want you to be in it, you do it," Leachman said. "So we all did it without (seeing) a script, knowing full well that it's not the way to do things."
Despite the weak ratings and weak reviews, she doesn't regret doing "Nutt House."
"I think a tremendous lot of good came out of it - I formed relationships with NBC and Disney, and now I've got a new show coming up," Leachman said with a laugh.
She describes the still un-namedmid-season replacement as a sort of "odd couple" in New York City. She plays an older woman who was hit by a bus and forced into a wheel chair. Her son pretty much forces her to move to New Jersey to live with his family, but she escapes back to her New York apartment - only to discover her son sublet it to a young black man.
The half hour sitcom revolves around this pair sharing the apartment.
"I have high hopes - again," Leachman said. "We've got Ken Estin (former writer/producer for "Taxi" and "Cheers") running the show now. It will be great."
Of course, she's enthusiastic about all of her projects. Her appraisal of "Fine Things" is brief and to-the-point:
"You're going to love it. Get babysitters. Get ready.""Fine Things" may not be everyone's cup of tea, but NBC's attempt at counter-programming the World Series just might work - it's an elaborate, well-done soap opera that will appeal to the female audience it's directed at.
It's a bit long at three hours, but the action moves fairly quickly. It's an old-fashioned romance and tragedy, with a bit of suspense thrown in for good measure. It is not, however, full of sexy and suggestive scenes - true love and right win out in end.
And if you love a tear-jerker, you're in for a treat. Mrs. Spud cried like crazy as "Fine Things" came to a close.