Saturday, March 13, 2021

This Day in Theater History (Death of Maureen Stapleton, ‘Triple Crown’ Winning Actress)

Mar. 13, 2006— Maureen Stapleton, who overcome what she called “fat, unhappy teenhood” to win the coveted acting “Triple Crown” (Oscar, Tony and Emmy) as an adult, died at age 80 in Lenox, Mass., of chronic pulmonary disease.

Confiding in neither her Irish-American parents nor her friends in parochial school in upstate New York, Stapleton kept her acting aspirations to herself until she revealed it to her Uncle Vincent, who encouraged her. Appearances in high-school plays kept the dream alive.

But the key to conquering her self-doubt may have been her decision to model. Darryl Reilly, in a post for the blog “Theater Scene,” focuses on what transpired after she came to New York at age 18 with only $100 in 1943 and yielded to a friend’s suggestion that she pay her bills by posing.

The work—involving not high-fashion outlets but nude posing at the Art Students League—required that she shed self-consciousness about her body as well as her clothes. In her 1995 memoir A Hell of a Life, Stapleton credited this morning work with allowing her to look for acting jobs in the afternoon.

But the modeling assignments may also have helped her in other senses. She learned the value of holding a pose, of the prolonged, necessary concentration required to react to other actors in a scene.

Along the way, she was also learning the importance of toughness—or, as she told Lillian and Helen Ross when interviewed with acting peers for The Player: A Profile of an Art: “Actors are a much hardier breed of people than any other people. We have to be as clever as rats to survive.”

She demonstrated it for the first time in 1946 when she phoned Guthrie McClintic about the leading female role in a revival of John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. His curt brush-off led her to respond that she “didn't give a damn who was playing it.” That plain-spokenness may have allowed the veteran director-producer to see qualities required for the production. Eventually, he cast her not only as a supporting player but also understudy to the lead in her first Broadway production.

At night, Stapleton took lessons as part of the original 1947 class of 20 in the Actors Studio, along with the likes of Marlon Brando, David Wayne, Patricia Neal, Mildred Dunnock, Tom Ewell, Kevin McCarthy, Sidney Lumet, John Forsythe, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson. It was illustrious company, but time proved that Stapleton could hold her own with the best of this elite group.

All of this was necessary preparation for a career that resulted in her 1981 induction into the Theater Hall of Fame, as she became the go-to actress for playwrights as varied as Tennessee Williams (a Tony-winning turn in The Rose Tattoo, Orpheus Descending), Neil Simon (Plaza Suite, another Tony for The Gingerbread Lady), and Lillian Hellman (Toys in the Attic).

In contrast, film acting was not an easy adjustment for Stapleton to make. “I found it somewhat demoralizing, not being able to act the way I felt I must act,” she told the Ross sisters. “There are so many reasons for that. For one thing, you sit around for hours, and then, suddenly, you're told you're on. I was never ready. I was too accustomed to the discipline of going on at eight-forty. In the theatre, when you don't have to do one of those guts-away parts, it makes it much easier on your private, away-from-the-stage life.”

Eventually, Stapleton got the hang of it, gaining three Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress in Lonelyhearts, Airport and Interiors before taking home an Oscar trophy for her role as radical Emma Goldman in Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981).

Stapleton’s Emmy came for the 1967 TV drama Among the Paths to Eden. She just missed joining the elite company of EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winners, as she was also nominated for a Grammy in the Best Spoken Word category for her recording of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Her bluntness, even occasional raunchiness, only occasionally masked her insecurities, which over the years found outlets in alcoholism, pill-popping, weight gains and phobias (fears of elevators, airplanes and even being killed by audience members).

Any of these could have been fatal to her career (at her first Hollywood party, she took a drunken swing at Burt Lancaster). But therapy eventually helped her cope with these problems, and the humor and lack of pretentiousness that turned colleagues into friends also kept success from going to her head. As she noted in A Hell of a Life, “I've been asked repeatedly what the 'key' to acting is, and as far as I'm concerned, the main thing is to keep the audience awake.”

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