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It probably should come as no surprise that even at a sunny, swanky afternoon soiree at a celebrity’s private home thrown by PETA, the four-legged attendees were given as much VIP treatment as the two-legged guests.
“Stella is quite the life of the party,” chuckled TV fitness guru Jillian Michaels as her black pet pig mixed and mingled on the patio amid about 60 guests of the animal rights organization that filled Michaels’ warmly appointed, typically animal-filled Malibu residence. “But that’s because you didn’t get to meet the parrot and the horses, the tortoise is already in bed and the rabbit’s down the hill somewhere.”
Still, Stella had the lowest public profile of the luminaries in attendance: PETA president and founder Ingrid Newkirk was on hand, celebrating her birthday but gamely turning over the spotlight to an even more legendary figure: 91-year-old acting legend Cloris Leachman.
The Oscar and record-holding Emmy winner (with nine total, the all-time champion), now currently appearing on Starz’s phenom American Gods, was the belle of the occasion, receiving the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award for her longtime support of animal rights issues, including following a vegetarian diet beginning nearly six decades ago.
“I was 32, and doing a cleanse,” Leachman told The Hollywood Reporter. “This thought came in my head, out of nowhere: ‘I guess I won’t be eating meat anymore.’ And I never have again — never.” The actress would go on to actively support and lend her name to many of the causes PETA holds dear over the years, and even posed for one of the group’s signature promotional campaigns, posing in a gown made of red cabbage and lettuce leaves in 2009.
Michaels — an ardent PETA support who took an active, very public hand in the group’s recent successful efforts to shut down the venerable Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus over its animal abuses — said that while Leachman’s onscreen accomplishments, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Last Picture Show and multiple Mel Brooks films to Malcolm in the Middle and Raising Hope, were formidable, her commitment to animal-oriented issues was even more impressive.
“She’s a legend, obviously,” said Michaels, “but I would say her lifelong advocacy is probably the thing I admire the most.”
Activist Moby, who performed a mini-set in Michaels’ living room with vocalist Mindy Jones that included his hit “Natural Blues” and Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love,” answered PETA’s call to help pay tribute to their honoree.
“I feel a degree of kinship because I’ve been a vegetarian for 35 years, and a vegan for 30 years,” he said, “and I certainly remember the days when being a vegan was so weird that no one knew how to pronounce the word ‘vegan.’”
Leachman’s American Gods producer Bryan Fuller, in a natty sky-blue suit to present her with her award, admitted he was dazzled by the actress, whom he cast on the series as the ancient Slavic goddess Zorya Vechernyaya. “The iconography of Cloris Leachman precedes Cloris Leachman,” he told THR.
“When we were talking about this grand old god who has given up on modern times and has this particular sass, she was obviously somebody at the forefront of our minds,” he continued. “We were surprised when we made the offer that she was like, ‘I’m game!’
“The fun of working with her really, for me, was about seeing her step into wardrobe fittings and have the enthusiasm of a very young actor who’s early in their career,” Fuller added. “That level of looking in the mirror and adjusting the coat, and looking at the wig and feeling like she’s transformed into somebody altogether new — that was amazing to see from someone who is a legend, still getting that level of inspiration from stepping into wardrobe.”
Fuller also noted that Leachman’s celebrated comedic sense remains equally youthful. “She turned 90 on our stage,” he recalled. “She requested that on her birthday cake it say, ‘I’m f—ing 90,’ and so we printed that. She blew out her candles and said, ‘F— me — I’m 90.’ And then she said, ‘Seriously — somebody get in here and f— me! I want you to line up the crew outside of my trailer and get them in here!’ She has that same ribald sense of humor and irreverence that she has brought to so many roles.”
Leachman’s seemingly insatiable desire to keep working was also on full display as she accepted her award from Fuller. “You are very intelligent and gorgeous people, and you’re doing the right thing with the right purpose,” she told the assembled guests, then took the opportunity to make a special request directly to her showrunner: “I have to ask you to ask me to do something [more], because I haven’t been used enough!” Fuller instantly consented, promising the veteran star she’d be back for more in season two.
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