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My Interview With Jean Stapleton, Part of the Hartford Stage Family

ElectionsHartford StageJean StapletonShubert TheaterFranklin Delano Roosevelt

The news of the death of actress Jean Stapleton at the age of 90 was sad but not surprising this weekend. The actress was in failing health for years. Indeed she withdrew from the lead in the Hartford Stage production of Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful" in 2003,  never to act on stage again.

She graced Hartford Stage with several terrific performances beginning in 1999 in Horton Foote's "The Death of Papa" and then returning for two summer productions of her solo show about Eleanor Roosevelt: "Eleanor: Her Secret Journey." Her final stage performance was in the world premiere of Horton Foote's "The Carpetbagger's Children" which was presented art Hartford Stage and the Alley Theatre in Houston before making it off-Broadway to Lincoln Center.

She alsio tioured in the comedy "Arsenic and Old Lace" which played the Shubert Theater in New Haven following the Broadway run. That's when I first met and interviewed the gracious actress.

Here's my August 13, 1999 interview with the actress in advance of "Eleanor."

By FRANK RIZZO

      It was a moment actress Jean Stapleton will never forget: Meeting Eleanor Roosevelt.
    ``I was on tour. I believe it was in `Come Back Little Sheba' with Shirley Booth [in the early '50s]. We were in Chicago and we were told that Mrs. Roosevelt was seeing the play, so everyone stayed on stage afterwards and she came back. Well, she had this radiance I shall never forget. It was a spiritual emanation from her smile. Of course, everyone was so awed nobody could say a word or make any small talk. She had to do it all. But I'll never forget that radiance of her smile!''
    Now Stapleton is portraying the former first lady in the one-woman show, ``Eleanor: Her Secret Journey,'' tonight through Aug. 22 at Hartford Stage.
    The actress clearly enjoys talking about Roosevelt, who is receiving a resurgence of attention recently, in part due to Blanche Wiesen Cook's acclaimed second volume of her Eleanor Roosevelt biography. Also making Roosevelt timely is the current first lady's admiration for Eleanor and her role as an active and controversial spouse of a president.
    Stapleton rejects the idea of connecting herself with the historical figure she plays. ``I think it's bunko, this merging of personalities and the roles you play,'' Stapleton said during an interview in her Manhattan apartment. ``And speaking of bunko, [Edith] Bunker is an example of that. Many people are so surprised that I'm not like that woman.''
    The popularity of her beloved television character from ``All in the Family'' has often overwhelmed an esteemed, nearly 60-year career on stage, movies and television. She is careful to put her art, craft and career in perspective. For her, Stapleton says, Eleanor is just a great part, not a means for self-revelation, personality analysis or spiritual channeling.
    A Long Relationship
    The no-nonsense Stapleton says her involvement with Roosevelt began in the late '70s, near the end of the long run of TV's ``All in the Family,'' when several people suggested that she play the former first lady. Her early research took her to Eleanor Roosevelt's private home in upstate New York, Val-Kill, which the first lady built as a refuge from the busy life and pressures of the administration of her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
    After Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962 at age 78, Val-Kill gradually fell into disrepair. Stapleton was involved in a campaign that led to its being designated a national historic site. At a fund-raiser, Stapleton performed a 10-minute monologue written by Rhoda Lerman, who was writing a historical novel, ``Eleanor,'' which was published in 1979.
    Not long after, Stapleton had the chance to explore the character for the television movie ``Eleanor: First Lady of the World,'' for which she received an Emmy nomination. During the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1992, Stapleton was asked to make an expanded live performance, and that evolved into ``Eleanor: Her Secret Journey,'' also by Lerman and directed by theater veteran John Tillinger.
    ``It starts in 1945 at Val-Kill, where she declares herself a free woman and no longer the first lady anymore,'' says Stapleton. ``She is turning down all public appearances because she feels her public life is over, and that makes her very happy. And while she begins to tell the story to the audience, the phone rings and it's Mr. Truman inviting her to be a delegate to the first meeting of the United Nations in Paris. She turns him down flatly, and then she goes into a memory that begins in 1919, and she goes through a lot of memories.''
    Some of these include her early marriage, her conflicts with her mother-in-law, her influential friends and the infidelity of her husband.
    ``She speaks of many intimate things,'' says the 76-year-old actress. ``And she realizes by the end of all this that she and Franklin did share this dream together about building a lasting peace, and in their fight for human rights. And she is very emotional by then, and she goes to the phone, calls Mr. Truman up and accepts his offer.''
    Stapleton says she was aware of Eleanor Roosevelt at a young age.
    ``My dad was crazy about her -- and he was quite a Republican -- but he just loved her for all the reasons people love her: her integrity, her political life and her opinions. He read her `My Day' column every day in the New York World Telegram. And I got sick of hearing about her. So that was how much I was connected to her [as a young girl].
    ``But then I saw what she was doing in the Second World War and, of course, I began to appreciate her. But it wasn't until this [play] that I got into her life deeply, and I was quite taken when I did.
    Her Secret Journey
    ``The play is about her growth, her inner growth, her secret journey. In the beginning, Franklin called her ambivalent, and she was. She was unsure of herself, shy and untrusting. And when she meets [financial guru] Bernard Baruch on a ship to France, they had a stimulating conversation. When he asked about her opinions, she always quoted her French schoolmistress. She didn't have the courage to state her own opinions, and so he drew her out.
    ``After that, it was a constant growth through experience. She learned to use her position to be of service and, in so doing, she began to find her own interests. It's just human development. It certainly filled an emptiness in her life. And we all know that she became Mr. Roosevelt's `legs' in the Second World War, going everywhere on behalf of her husband. So she gained all this experience and she just blossomed.''
    Did Eleanor Roosevelt ever consider elective office?
    ``Someone asked her [after her husband died] if she would run for president, and she said no, because she didn't want to interfere with her children's chances. I think one of them was interested in running for political office. But I always say if she were with us now she would run -- and she would win.''
    After FDR's death in 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt embarked on a fulfilling, rich and exciting life as an elderly person, an important issue in Stapleton's own life.
    ``I was thinking about it the other day,'' she says. ``Why does the concept of retirement seem so foreign to me and so unacceptable? It's because when you're doing something you love, there is no retirement. You don't retire from something you love and that has been such a large part of your life. A lot of people retire because they can't wait to put the work behind them and do what interests them. At least I hope they do, instead of just `I'm gonna die folks, what's the use?' Too many people accept that. Take Eleanor. She didn't live to die, but a lot of people do, you know.
    ``I think it's just outrageous that people are stereotyped, and age is a stereotype. And when they put your age in a parenthesis after your name, it's just very irritating because it's nothing to do with you. It really doesn't. But I think it's unfair to categorize people that way. But, more and more, we know the boundaries are changing anyway, thankfully.''
    Admiration, Not Identification
   
    Stapleton says he admires Eleanor but does not necessarily identify with her.
    ``It's a wonderful role,'' she says, ``but I don't know what else I could say to be personal about it. I'm an observer, you know. I have to be curious as an actor and explore and do research and find out about the character that I play. But you don't become the character. That's all nonsense. Balderdash! And the public and the people on TV always want to hear about that. But [as an actor] you just leave the theater, and it's over, and you don't think about it another minute.''
    Does she have heroes?
    ``I'm always inspired by wonderful actors.''
    Any in particular?
    ``Oh, I don't know. I didn't have any personal attachment to anyone that way, frankly. I didn't model myself after anybody. I saw John Gielgud do `Hamlet,' and I was thrilled with what I saw, and as soon as I graduated from high school the desire to act seized me. That's the best way I can describe it. There were lots of actors I admired. I adored Lawrence Olivier. When I met him once at the academy in L.A., I had to get away, and my husband said, `What's the matter with you?' And I was crying and I had to go behind a pillar.
    ``I was also inspired by my teachers, none of whose names would be familiar to you. Great teachers, all who sprang from a group in New York called the American Actors Company, of which [playwright] Horton Foote was a founder, although he didn't teach. But in my thinking, we are all specific individuals, and no one can take anyone else's place.''
    Stapleton will revive ``Eleanor'' in Florida in January, and she hopes to perform the show in Washington and, of course, New York.
    ``Hillary hasn't seen it, but she wants to,'' Stapleton says. ``I met a very good friend of hers who saw [the show] in Santa Barbara, and I'm sure she reported to Hillary. And [Hartford Stage artistic director] Michael [Wilson] sent her a letter inviting her to come.''
    Does she see a connection between Hillary and Eleanor?
    ``Definitely,'' she says. ``That's her inspiration. That's her life. That's what Hillary does, so she's closer. I think Eleanor's a wonderful model, too. I understand how much [Clinton] admires and draws from what Eleanor did. And I think Hillary would be a wonderful official in elective office. I really do.''

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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