Playing Grandma Moses, Cloris Leachman Paints a New Picture of Old Age

updated 05/22/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/22/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It was not the sort of present most 63-year-olds would yearn for. But when the Arizona Centenarians club, a group of 15 elders ages 100 and above, showed up at Cloris Leachman's birthday party two weeks ago and presented her with an honorary membership, Leachman couldn't have been happier. "This is fantastic," she told the 150 friends and well-wishers gathered in the auditorium of a Scottsdale, Ariz, high school. "It's the best birthday I've ever had."

She could afford to be pleased, of course. The award was not in recognition of premature decrepitude—it was a tribute to her acting skills. Since the last week in April, Leachman—best known for her Emmy-winning work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff Phyllis—has been playing the title role in a stage production of Grandma Moses. Between the first and second acts of the play, which opened to rave reviews in Scottsdale and will tour 14 cities this summer, she ages from 45 to 100. (Moses was 101 when she died in 1961.)

To learn to act that age, Leachman watched taped interviews with Moses from the 1950s and drew on memories of her own mother-in-law, who died at 82. "I lower everything—my jaw, my shoulders, my legs," she explains. "I become smaller, more tentative. The perceptions are different—you don't want to get in anyone's way. It's as if you're not in the mainstream anymore." All that—plus a 19-minute makeup job—creates a transformation so realistic that audiences gasp when Leachman takes the stage for Act Two.

Leachman knew she wanted to play Anna Mary Robertson Moses, the New York farm wife and mother of five who became a celebrated naive painter in her 70s, as soon as she heard that Stephen Pouliot was writing a play about her. For most of her life, Moses devoted herself to keeping house and fattening the family's income by selling homemade butter and potato chips; she satisfied her creative urges by adding decorative touches to walls, furniture, clothing, even to her butter. Moses took up a brush only in her early 70s, when her arthritic fingers became too stiff to hold an embroidery needle. Leachman, who grew up on a farm and has four children herself, identified. "Grandma lived like I've lived," she says. "Family is most important, but there's also an independence, a desire to be out there, to be exceptional."

The play went through several rewrites, and Leachman, who has two feature films due out this year, Love Hurts and Prancer, passed up other projects while waiting to star in it. "I was supposed to do Texasville," she says, referring to the upcoming sequel to The Last Picture Show (which won her an Oscar in 1971), "but as it came time for it I wouldn't leave Grandma."

Critics and audiences are glad she didn't. Leachman's performance as Moses routinely ends with a standing ovation. "Her voice sounded very old—it changes as you get older, that's the telling thing," says Arizona centenarian Billy Earley. "She's a wonderful actress."

Leachman will tour with the play through early July, after which she hopes to start work on Nutt House, a new TV series tentatively scheduled for the fall. Then, who knows? With Moses as an example, anything seems possible. "I've changed my attitudes about what it means to age," says Leachman. "Sometimes people decide it's their lot in life to be old, but people like Grandma bring color and excellence to their lives. That's what I've tried to do too. I'm looking forward to the next stage."

—Kim Hubbard, Margaret Nelson in Scottsdale

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