It's reassuring to report that Jean Stapleton, one of the most recognized names in the entertainment world, is unpretentious, charming and astute. Observing the ovation she gets at the curtain of Horton Foote's The Carpetbagger's Children, that also stars Hallie Foote (the author/playwright's daughter) and Roberta Maxwell, and the affection with which she's greeted as she exits the stage door of Lincoln Center Theater, it's obvious that she made an impact on many lives. Oddly, this impact isn't so much from her memorable appearances onstage but from her long-running role as Edith in that classic TV sitcom, "All in the Family." And Miss Stapleton seems genuinely touched. "You don't ever get used to that type of reaction," she says. "The warm response from audiences always makes me gasp. I know they come, bringing expectations and that, as an actor, I must give and try to meet those expectations. I feel a certain bond with the audience as soon as the lights go up. The adrenaline rush also lifts me. It's like a jolt of electricity."
She reels off a list of "pluses" that have brought her to this point in her career and back to the stage once again in New York. Everything I did led to something else."

A product of New York's Upper West Side, Miss Stapleton attended Hunter College. Her goal was to follow in her mother's footsteps as a concert and opera singer, but was soon more influenced by her brother, stage actor Jack Stapleton, and uncle, Joseph Deming, a vaudeville star (a cousin, Betty Jane Watson, was briefly a TV star). "When the bug seized me," she explains, "I had this overwhelming desire to act. Between jobs, such as being a secretary, to support myself, I took any part, anywhere I could."

In 1941, she made her stage debut in stock, then landed a role in Actors Equity showcase. That led to the national tour of the classic comedy Harvey. Miss Stapleton made her New York stage debut in The Corn Is Green (1948), then appeared with Judith Anderson in In the Summer House (1953). What many fans aren't aware of is Miss Stapleton's musical pedigree. A reading attended by legendary musical theater director George Abbott led to her being cast as baseball fan Sister Miller in the hit musical Damn Yankees (1955), and stage and film star Judy Holiday, who remembered being impressed with Miss Stapleton in Corn, suggested her for the prominent featured role of Sue in Bells Are Ringing (1956).

"I had the wonderful good fortune," Miss Stapleton notes, "to recreate my roles in the movie versions of Damn Yankees and Bells Are Ringing."

She was featured in the short-lived 1959 musical Juno, starring Shirley Booth and Melvyn Douglas; and Ionesco's 1961 absurdist comedy, Rhinoceros headlining Zero Mostel and Eli Wallach. Then came her longest run: over a year in Funny Girl (1964), opposite Barbra Streisand, Sydney Chaplin and Kay Medford.

Miss Stapleton has vivid memories of her stage partners.
Gwen Verdon: "Radiant! When she moved, the whole stage lit up!"
Zero Mostel: "I was fortunate not to have a scene with him. He was outrageous and could be quite naughty."
Streisand: "Mesmerizing! But I never got to know her well. Onstage, we exchanged only two lines. Off stage, she was secreted in her dressing room and on the verge of major stardom."
She was greatly influenced by Judith Anderson and Shirley Booth but has a special fondness for Judy Holiday: "If I speak for long about her, I'll cry because of the beauty of that incredible soul. She was stuck in that 'dumb blonde' niche, but look at the dimension she brought to her roles. Judy was in a class with Laurette Taylor (the renowned stage star who went from comedy in Peg 'o My Heart to great drama and pathos in The Glass Menagerie)."

Though Miss Stapleton was seen briefly in the 1954 TV series, "Woman with a Past," Norman Lear remembers thinking of her for the co-starring role of loveable "dingbat" Edith Bunker in his breakthrough 1971 TV series, "All in the Family," because of the "very large impression she made" after I saw her singing a reprise of "(You Gotta Have) Heart" in Damn Yankees.

The opening sequence of "All in the Family," which ran for eight and a half years, with Miss Stapleton and Carroll O'Connor singing "Those Were the Days," has to be indelibly etched in the minds of anyone tuning in. In addition to winning her three Emmy and three Golden Globe Awards for Best Actress, the role won her the endearing admiration of millions of fans. Miss Stapleton says one of the secrets of being successful in show business is "to be seen. It doesn't matter in what. Flops, hits, tours, regional theater. You never know who'll be in the audience."

She states that she is forever grateful for that experience. "It was absolutely wonderful on so many levels. For one thing, I learned so much. I'm so appreciative when people tell me they still watch the show and find it funny. What I liked best about it was that Norman and the writers drew laughter from a relevant conflict of ideas and attitudes. And I think the show helped change some people's ideas and attitudes."

During the series hiatuses, Miss Stapleton performed at the summer theater founded by her late husband, William Putch, as well at such regionals as Hartford Stage, Alley Theater, the Guthrie, Washington's Arena Stage and Shakespeare Theater, South Coast Rep and San Franciso's American Conservatory Theater. She did everything from Shakespeare to Moliere with a little Rodgers and Hammerstein thrown in (New York City Opera's 1984 production of Cinderella).

Was it hard to leave Edith behind? "No," she replies immediately without even a second thought. "After nearly a decade, we'd done it all and exhausted the possibilities. I missed Carroll, Sally and Rob, but it was time. However, let me add, I'm forever grateful."

Interestingly, Miss Stapleton didn't become a multimillionaire as a result of the series, the reruns in syndication and, now, on cable. She did well, but CBS offered her a "buy out," and she chose that over waiting for semi-annual royalty checks.
She has been no stranger to TV, however, winning Emmy nominations for "Eleanor: First Lady of the World" and her guest role on "Grace Under Fire." She co-starred in two short-lived 90s TV series, and, for two seasons opposite Whoopi Goldberg in another, "Baghdad Cafe." Other appearances have included "Caroline in the City," "Everybody Loves Raymond" and, last season, a TV movie opposite Mary Tyler Moore, "Like Mother, Like Son" ("The Strange Story of Sante and Kenny Kimes"). She's done memorable film work in "You've Got Mail," "Michael," "Klute" and "Up the Down Staircase."

"I wanted to come back to Broadway," she says, "ever since the series ended, but nothing was presented that made me feel I should." Then, after working with Polly Holiday ("Alice") in the 1979 TV movie, "You Can't Take It with You," she was offered the opportunity to work with her onstage as Abby Brewster in the hit 1986 revival of Arsenic and Old Lace. Stapleton's love of the stage has also, more recently, taken her Off Broadway. Most memorable was her blistering performance opposite Brian Murray in Classic Stage Company's revival of The Entertainer (1996). She also won an Obie for her performance in Beckett's Happy Days and has literally taken her one-woman show, Eleanor: Her Secret Journey, around the world. And now she's playing "just off Broadway" in The Carpetbagger's Children and reading a lot of scripts that are being offered.

Seeing Miss Stapleton standing in the glow of those rousing ovations, we wonder how it must feel having so much affection pouring from an audience. "Well, it's incredible, fantastic," she beams, "and I bless each and every one. But, you know, I never desired to become a household word. It wasn't one of my goals. I had only done supporting roles in live TV, back in the so-called Golden Age. I wasn't ready for the impact that the series would have, and I never in a million years imagined that Edith would become what she did!"


Key Subjects: 
Jean Stapleton, The Carpetbagger's Children, Polly Holliday, Judy Holliday, Normal Lear, All in the Family
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
May 2002