Sunday, June 2, 2013

On Jean Stapleton

For me, back in my youth, the debut of Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker on CBS' All in the Family, was a great lesson in an actor's versatility.  Her voice and mannerisms were different from what I'd seen her do in other productions.  She had created someone who would be become an iconic TV character and bring her accolades plus awards.  This was also a lesson in perseverance -- in doing the work -- in being more concerned about doing that work than walking on a red carpet.  That lesson is still relevant.
I was quite aware of Jean Stapleton years before the groundbreaking Norman Lear sitcom made its bow on television.  As a youngster growing up in Los Angeles, The Million Dollar Movie on local KHJ TV/Channel 9 was practically part of my everyday life.  The same movie aired Monday through Friday nights with encores on the weekend.  Because of this, I had memorized and could perform large chucks of dialogue -- and showtunes -- from Damn Yankees thanks to Ch. 9's frequent airing of that 1958 Warner Bros. musical comedy starring Gwen Verdon during my summer vacations.  Come September, I'd go back to George Washington Carver Elementary knowing that I was the only 5th grader who could sing "A Little Brains, A Little Talent."  If asked.  Which never happened.
Jean Stapleton, like Verdon, reprised her Broadway performance.  She's the avid baseball fan in the middle meeting young Joe Hardy (played by handsome Tab Hunter).
She also gets a musical number when she sings a reprise of the motivational "Heart."  She's the tall one far right.  This was Jean Stapleton's first movie -- with dialogue.
She was in another Broadway musical comedy hit.  That one starred Born Yesterday Oscar winner Judy Holliday.  Judy and Jean got to repeat their Broadway performances in the 1960 Hollywood version of Bells Are Ringing for Vincente Minnelli at MGM.
This was another movie that I saw on local TV a lot before the days of All in the Family.

When I could go to the movies and pay a student price for a Saturday matinee ticket, I'd notice Jean Stapleton.  She had a face that you'd always recognize.  This was exactly what happened when I went to see Up the Down Staircase starring Sandy Dennis.
There she was opposite Dennis in that 1967 urban New York City schoolteacher drama.
What I wrote about her being instantly recognizable is true.  Did you ever see The Opposite Sex, the 1956 MGM remake of its 1939 classic, The Women?
Jean Stapleton is in that too.  She's not one of the stars.  She doesn't have one word of dialogue that you get to hear.  But you can definitely spot Jean Stapleton as an extra in the opening minute or so of the movie.  Maybe she wasn't a screen beauty like Ann Sheridan or Joan Collins, but there was something about her that the movie and TV cameras loved.  A warmth.  Also, she had talent.  Stage and screen talent.

One of my favorite acting coaches said, "You never know how old you'll be when your big break finally comes."  That's so true.  Jean Stapleton was an extra in 1956's The Opposite Sex.  In 1971, when she was in her late 40s, she premiered as Edith Bunker on All in the Family.  She clicked with millions of TV viewers.  Her popularity was immediate.  She had a bit part in a hit movie of 1971 that became a top Oscar winner.  Jane Fonda won Best Actress for her stunning performance as Bree, the tough New York City call girl being stalked by a killer.  Bree must learn to trust a cop named Klute.

Jean Stapleton was such a hit with TV viewers that when her bit part appears in the tense climatic scenes of this murder mystery, movie audience members said "Edith!" when I saw it.  In 1956, she was a movie extra.  In 1971, she became a TV star.  By the time she did a delightful supporting performance in You've Got Mail, the hit 1998 Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romantic comedy directed by Nora Ephron, she'd become a TV legend.
I loved her in Ephron's The Shop Around the Corner remake.  She said one of my favorite lines in the film:  "I tried to have cybersex once, but I kept getting a busy signal."
Jean Stapleton had a very busy and very long career that included Broadway, film and television.  Her performances were varied.  She wasn't just Edith Bunker on All in the Family.  But aren't we glad she was?  No one could have played that simple, loving character as beautifully....and as she did.  It truly displayed her craft.  Edith did not have big city smarts like other characters Stapleton played onscreen, TV and film.  She was not a sophisticated woman  but she had a basic goodness and a generosity of spirit that some big city sophisticates lacked.  She was ditzy but very dear.  She was the heart and spiritual core of the family.  She represented the best that unit could be.  Race, religion and sexual orientation were not as important to her as how you behaved.  Remember the funny episode where Edith realizes that her new buddy, Beverly LaSalle, is really a female impersonator?  Remember the depth Stapleton revealed in a strong future episode -- the one in which Edith learns that Beverly was killed in a gay bashing?  That was brilliant Broadway acting brought to TV.  A sitcom episode dealt with homophobia and religion.  The hate crime shakes Edith's Christian faith.  She's angry.  That's why All in the Family was called "groundbreaking" in the 1970s  Her Edith reminded us that some of the most extraordinary people we could ever hope to meet are not the rich and famous.  They're the ordinary people we see everyday.
I felt like I'd grown up with Jean Stapleton, thanks to television, ever since I was a kid.  How fitting that television made a star out of this gifted stage and screen actress on a show called All in the Family.  We loved Edith...and we loved Jean.

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