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Funny Ladies Cloris Leachman and Betty White Still Have Golden Careers

Mary might have turned the world on with a smile.

But it was Cloris Leachman and Betty White who made us laugh our butts off.

And these much-adored alums of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," the groundbreaking sitcom from the '70s, haven't stopped making us laugh yet. With more than 120 years of showbiz experience and more than 500 TV, film and stage credits between them, Leachman, 83, and White, 87, are giving a big, wet raspberry to youth-crazed Hollywood while enjoying the sort of career highs that can't be found on the Disney Channel.

Like George Burns before them, who hit his cinematic stride at 80 when he won a supporting Oscar for 1975's "The Sunshine Boys," these entertainers are having one heck of a senior moment. The dues they've been paying over the decades are earning extra dividends — in guest spots on "The Office" and "Ugly Betty," on late-night talk shows with Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson, on raunchy Comedy Central celebrity roasts — as youngsters who think "That '70s Show" is classic comedy discover what their elders have known for a while: There's no dame like an old dame.

White, who also helped define post-menopausal mirth on "The Golden Girls," pulls off another of her patented naughty granny acts in "The Proposal," which topped the box office over the weekend with $33.6 million. She snatches scenes as if they were so many tossed bridal bouquets from those matrimonial whippersnappers Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds.

Leachman took the reality-TV route to recharge her fame meter last fall as the oldest contestant to ever hot-cha-cha on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." Her foxy trotting and lowbrow clowning won over at-home voters, who ignored the eye-rolling judges and kept her on the show for an unexpected six rounds.

"Trust me, those ladies are genius, absolute genius," Bullock says. "It's a generation that is still vibrant. And still the funniest people. Come on, it's our most valuable asset. We need to use it."

And to feed it. Today, these reunited co-stars are about to enjoy a leisurely lunch at a bastion of old-style elegance, the Polo Lounge. But first, a photo shoot.

Mary's fluttery, full-of-herself neighbor Phyllis Lindstrom (Leachman) was often at odds with sticky-sweet and snide Sue Ann Nivens (White). Especially when the sex-starved Happy Homemaker dallied with Phyllis' husband. Similarly, the women behind them are a study in contrasts. Even their choice of hair-and-makeup artists is revealing. For Leachman, who cheerfully warbles "Some Enchanted Evening" as her eye shadow is applied, it's a tall, dark Ty Pennington look-alike. For White, it's a cute blonde in jeans and cowgirl boots.

As White enters the suite, the actresses warmly embrace while Leachman introduces the man behind the mascara wand. "We're so sorry he's gay," she says with a shrug, "but he is." Suggests White, with a wicked glint in her eye, "Maybe we can convince him."

Leachman exudes sophisticated style in pleated black palazzo pants, save for the not-exactly-Prada house slippers hidden underneath, and a blue-and-green print top that hugs her still-impressive figure. White aims for an understated suburban matron look, whose boldest statements are her gold jewelry and an ample designer purse.

Leachman clearly revels in being the center of attention, flitting about and fooling around. White is more subtle in her humorous asides and feigned grimaces. As they face the camera together, the years melt away and time stands still. It's 1973 and a vengeful Phyllis is about to flatten spouse-stealing Sue Ann's chocolate souffle all over again.

The ladies who lunch

In the dining area, menus are scanned and drinks ordered. Leachman asks for a half Bloody Mary, whose celery she gnaws throughout the meal. White, who is taping Ferguson's show afterward ("He can't take his eyes off of me," she says), sticks with Diet Coke. Still, Leachman insists that she take a sip of her cocktail.

The waitress is at the ready again. "Oh, you have blinis!" Leachman says. "I could have a double caviar, although it might be too expensive."

"None for me," White says while eyeing more recession-appropriate choices.

"Three caviars, please," Leachman declares, anticipating gasps before reassuring, "No, we're lying through our teeth."

Cautions White, "Don't believe a word this woman says."

Each picks the chopped salad. "No bacon," says Leachman, a vegetarian. "No dressing," says White, a minimalist.

"No dressing?" says Leachman, stunned by the idea of naked lettuce. "What's wrong with you?"

"I just don't like it," White says.

Leachman not only drenches her food in dressing, she asks for extra while shaking on disturbing amounts of salt and pepper.

It's noted that there is some sort of harmonic convergence among other Mary Tyler Moore grads this summer. Ed Asner (Mary's boss, Lou Grant), 79, is flying high as the lead voice in "Up." Valerie Harper (Mary's best friend, Rhoda), 68, is on the road with "Looped," a Broadway-bound tribute to the highly quotable actress Talullah Bankhead.

White relished her time on the set of "The Proposal." ''The director, Anne Fletcher, is a choreographer. She would never walk from one set to the other. She would tour jete, which put everyone in a good mood. It was like going to a party instead of work."

She also enjoyed meeting Bullock's biker-baron husband, Jesse James. "They are crazy about each other," she says, although she was put off by the ex-"Monster Garage" host's full-arm tattoos. "I'm not a big fan. Somebody asked Sandy how she feels about them and she said: 'I don't mind. At night, when I can't sleep, I just roll over and read him.' "

Leachman branches out

Leachman has been promoting her well-received autobiography, written in the same way she talks — with regular detours in her train of thought that eventually circle back to the original topic. Some revelations are surprising: She once had "epic" sex with Gene Hackman, her castmate in 1974's Young Frankenstein. Others not so much, such as her admission that she has never been one to follow the rules.

White can attest to that. "One time, we had to go to some kind of function after the show, and Cloris had birthday cake in her hair. She never took it out. She came to the function like that. Do you remember?"

Leachman defends herself. "It was a movie I was making. I was way off on a boondock location somewhere. If I was going to get there, I had to go the way I was."

Says White, not convinced: "But it also made an impression."

Leachman recently has entered the world of celebrity-sanctioned fashions. The signature piece on clorisline.com: flowy chiffon tunics in floral and animal prints. "They come to your knees, but you can tie it," she says. "It looks so pretty. Just tie it, put on some jewelry, go out to dinner and get drunk."

There should be another project on her plate to celebrate: her dramatic role as a Jewish woman in Quentin Tarantino's World War II thriller "Inglourious Basterds," due in August. Alas, as the two-hour-plus print that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival revealed, Leachman is nowhere to be found. She has been cut.

She takes the news medium well. An offer is made to start a write-in campaign to get her reinstated. "No, I don't want to do that," she says rather stoically. "It doesn't matter to me." (Tarantino's explanation: "Cloris was wonderful. She was terrific in it. The bottom line was just, ultimately, I didn't need the scene.")

The actresses, who haven't worked together since their series went off the air, lend their voices to a dubbed version ofPonyo, an animated film directed by Japan's esteemed Hayao Miyasaki that opens Aug. 14. Trouble is, not only did they record separately, but they can't remember which characters they play.

"I'm sure mine is the young, sexy one," Leachman says.

Adds White, "And I'm the old broad."

It's the authenticity

Just what is their secret to remaining relevant and desirable in an industry that often devalues actresses who are over 40 and not Meryl Streep?

"They haven't caught on to us yet," White suggests.

"For myself, at least, you have to have authenticity," Leachman says. "That people know you're authentic. That goes through everything, don't you think? And they know we're funny."

"They trust us," White says.

"Yes, they trust us," Leachman agrees. "I don't want to appear when I disappoint anyone. That could be the worst thing that could happen. No matter where something lies in importance. I want to give my best at least."

"For yourself," White says. "I'm 87 and a half, and I'll soon be 87 and three-quarters. I just can't believe I'm working. I'm starting another Disney movie in July, 'You Again,' with Sigourney Weaver and Jamie Lee Curtis."

Leachman isn't sure why or how she earned the response she did while on Dancing With the Stars. But she is glad for the attention. "In any country I've been in — Berlin, Czechoslovakia, Spain, L.A., Minneapolis — people have seen Dancing With the Stars. Some people fall down and grab my ankles. Men, women, old people, young kids. They loved what I did, whatever that was."

Suddenly she checks out a man who's about to be seated. "Doesn't that look like James Lipton from the neck up?" She yells out: "You're not James, are you?"

Turns out it is the somewhat obsequious bearded and bespectacled host of Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio show. "It's nice to see you," he says to White while she introduces him to Leachman.

Leachman, an actual graduate of the Actors Studio who was taught by Elia Kazan, is miffed. "You don't know me, do you? Why am I never on your show? Really, seriously."

A bit rattled, Lipton says, "That's something I will ask Bravo. Absolutely."

Leachman continues: "We've asked you many times. What do you think it is?"

"I don't know," he says. "Bravo makes a list and I go from the list. I will get into it the minute I get back. I give you my word."

"I just want to know the reason," she says. "So do I," he answers as he makes his escape.

As Lipton walks away, Leachman observes, "He looks much shorter than I thought he was."

One last question: What is the best way to beat old age?

Just don't think about it, White says. "I find myself bragging how old I am."

"Sleep," Leachman offers.

"If I get four good hours a night, that's plenty for me," White says. "I'm up until 1 o'clock. And I wake up at 5:30-6 o'clock in the morning."

"I think that's disgusting," Leachman says. "I get 10 hours, that is for sure. And then I take a nap. I love my bed."

When it's suggested it was lucky she was available for lunch in between all that snoozing, she says, "You'll get me if you're lucky — and if you feed me."

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