One the of most recognized names in entertainment, Jean Stapleton stands in the wings of "one of my homes away from home," New York's tiny, East Village Classic Stage Company, where she's about to go on as Phoebe, the alcoholic wife in John Osborne's devastating The Entertainer, about the dysfunctional family of fading vaudevillian Archie Rice.

It's amazing to hear the surprise when you mention Jean Stapleton in connection with theater. For millions, she'll forever be Edith "Dingbat" Bunker, that other Archie's wife of TV's "All In The Family." But since her youth, theater was Stapleton's main staple. She was featured in top Broadway "Golden Age" musicals -- Damn Yankees, opposite Gwen Verdon; Bells Are Ringing, opposite Judy Holliday; and Funny Girl, opposite Barbra S. -- long before TV fame. On hiatuses, in addition to working in regional theater, Stapleton and her late husband ran a Pennsylvania stock theater where she performed.

With her celebrity status, she could work wherever she wants, but she chooses regional and fringe theaters because "that's where the excellence is." This is her fourth association with CSC, a company she obviously admires. "Their standards in terms of commitment to play selection, production values and directors are inspiring," Stapleton said. "I always feel I'm developing and growing." She received an off-Broadway Obie Award for two of her earlier performances. The Entertainer is directed by David Esbjornson, who staged last season's CSC's production of Entertaining Mr. Sloane, which starred Brian Murray, who plays Archie Rice.

Of her "All In The Family" fame, she says, "That was a wonderful learning experience on many levels. I'm grateful fans approach me almost as a family member. Edith was an endearing character. I'm delighted people still watch and find it funny. What I liked best was how we drew laughter from relevant conflict, ideas and attitude."

But those eight and a half years (which earned Stapleton three Best Actress Emmys), kept her from Broadway, where she finally returned in 1986 to co-star in a revival of Arsenic And Old Lace, directed by Murray. Of audience and critical response to Murray's Rice, and her Phoebe, Stapleton says, "You never get used to that. I don't give much credence to standing ovations, but when an audience stands en masse, I gasp. An electricity comes across the footlights. You feel the adrenaline. It lifts me. I always think, 'These people came bringing such expectations, and now we must deliver.' And we give!"


Key Subjects: 
Jean Stapleton, The Entertainer; 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).
An updated and greatly expanded version of this story may also be found in this Periodica section.