Maureen Stapleton, who died this week at the age of 80, was friends with Marilyn Monroe when they both studied at the Actors’ Studio. Stapleton thought that Monroe had a lot of talent but that her looks prevented her from getting the parts she deserved. “I never had that problem,” Stapleton said later. “People looked at me on stage and said, ‘Jesus, that broad better be able to act.’”
The first time I saw Maureen Stapleton was in the film version of “Bye Bye Birdie.” She played Dick Van Dyke’s mother Mae Peterson, even though, at 38, she was only six months older than Van Dyke. This was one of the biggest advantages of not being a classic Hollywood beauty in those days. Stapleton rose to prominence playing characters much older than herself, starting with her Tony Award-winning performance at the age of 26 as earthy Serafina Delle Rose in Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo.” Williams had written the part for the much older Anna Magnani but Magnani’s English language skills were not up to snuff for the theatre (she did play the part in the 1955 film version) so Stapleton, a nice Irish girl from Troy, New York, played the middle-aged Italian woman to great acclaim.
“Bye Bye Birdie” was hardly the high point of Stapleton’s amazing work as an actress but it did prove that she had the chops for musical comedy as well as drama. Her Mama Peterson was the most Jewish character in that film (even though she wasn’t supposed to be) with her constant hocking of her son and her total dismissal of his Hispanic girlfriend Rose (played, oddly, by Janet Leigh—was it still considered too shocking in 1963 to have Dick Van Dyke kiss the woman who created the part on Broadway, Puerto Rican Chita Rivera?). I recognized many of my relatives in Mae Peterson and her squeaky-shoes performance was one of my favorites in the film. This exchange typifies the mind-controlling, guilt-producing dysfunction I knew so well:
Mae Peterson: Now, don't try to pay me back, son. I forgive you. So what if you're an ingrate? So long as you're happy.
Albert Peterson: (wracked with guilt) I don't wanna be happy!
I loved “Bye, Bye Birdie” as a kid, and I still do, but several of the cast members, including Dick Van Dyke and especially Janet Leigh, resented how the film was turned into a star vehicle for newcomer Ann-Margret. The opening and closing credits were added later to showcase the vivacious Ann-Margret. Bursting out of her tight dress, she sang the title song in a provocative, sexy manner that had little to do with her character of Kim MacAfee. Leigh complained bitterly about it, especially since she was originally seen as the main star of the film, but Stapleton took it in stride. Her opinion on acting was “I do a job, I get paid, I go home.” However, at the wrap party for the film, the always irreverent Stapleton announced, “I guess I’m the only person in the room who doesn’t want to fuck Ann-Margret.”
Maureen Stapleton had many great successes on Broadway, from Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” and “Orpheus Descending” to Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite.” In 1970 she starred with Lou Jacobi in my father’s best friend Sam Bobrick’s new play “Norman, Is That You?” Alas, it only lasted 12 performances (although it became a big hit outside of New York) but it was lucky for Stapleton that the snobby New York critics shut the play down—her next play was Neil Simon’s “The Gingerbread Lady” which won her another Tony Award. Simon reportedly used parts of Maureen Stapleton’s own life in his play about an alcoholic actor in recovery.
I only saw Stapleton once on the Broadway stage, as Birdie Hubbard in the 1981 revival of Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” which starred Elizabeth Taylor as Regina Giddens. Propped up by Maureen Stapleton’s brilliant performance, it was surely Taylor’s best work on the stage. I’ve never forgotten what has to be the best Act 1 closing line in the history of theatre. Just as the curtain is coming down, Elizabeth Taylor stands center stage and shouts to her gravely ill husband, “I HOPE YOU DIE!”
Besides her turn as Mae Peterson, my favorite Maureen Stapleton role on film is Pearl in Woody Allen’s “Interiors.” You remember Woody Allen’s 1978 attempt to break out of comedy films? And boy, did he ever succeed in this fascinating but excruciating study of a very dysfunctional goyishe family in New York led by the humorless E.G. Marshall and Geraldine Page, both wearing various shades of beige. In saunters Stapleton’s saucy Pearl in a bright red dress to steal patriarch E.G. Marshall away, much to the horror of daughters Diane Keaton, Kristin Griffith, and Mary Beth Hurt (“She’s a vulgarian!”).
When she won the Academy Award for her small but powerful role as Emma Goldman in Warren Beatty’s “Reds,” she gave what I consider the best acceptance speech ever. It wasn’t even that original or witty but her delivery was perfection:
“I want to thank…everybody I ever met in my entire life.”
Minutes after winning the Oscar, a reporter asked her how it felt to be recognized as one of the greatest actresses in the world. Stapleton replied, “Not nearly as exciting as it would be if I were acknowledged as one of the greatest lays in the world.” When they asked her if she had expected to win, she answered, “Yes, because I'm old and tired and I lost three times before.” How can you not love this woman?
What is it about some actors that make them so authentic, so achingly moving no matter what they’re in or what character they’re playing? I never saw a Maureen Stapleton performance that I didn’t think was extraordinary and honest to the bone, from her TV work in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom” to roles in so-so movies such as “Airport” and “Cocoon.”
Is one prerequisite for such outstanding ability a tortured life? Reading about Stapleton’s fear of traveling by plane, train, or elevator, I wondered how on earth she managed to get to any of her acting gigs. Her deep fear that she would be shot while performing on stage must have made her fellow actors nuts. To counter the phobia, Stapleton would constantly walk all over the stage during her performances. Her longtime affair with director George Abbott when she was in her 40s and he in his 80s ended when he left her for a younger woman.
I’m sad that another one of the true greats is gone. Rarely do we see that kind of talent in someone with such a down-to-earth personality, completely devoid of pretension. When asked what the key to good acting is, Maureen Stapleton replied, “As far as I’m concerned, the main thing is to keep the audience awake.”