Theatre yesterday and today



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On December 15th, 1981 the Hudson Valley Community College in the city of Troy, New York (population approximately 50,000) dedicated its new student theatre, naming it for the actress Maureen Stapleton. Born there on this date, June 25, 1925, the fifty-six-year-old was (not so coincidentally) receiving some of the best reviews of her career as the radical Russian Jewish immigrant Emma Goldman in Warren Beatty’s epic motion picture Reds.

Apart from Stapleton and Dave Anderson, a Pulitzer Prize winning-sports columnist for the New York Times, Troy isn’t exactly known for turning out people who went on to set the world afire. Yet a few months after the theatre was christened, the woman for whom it was named would thank the city of her birth in front of the millions watching the 54th Annual Academy Awards ceremony.

Maureen Stapleton and her well-deserved Academy Award (1982).

It was on this evening that Maureen Stapleton won her elusive Oscar after thirty-eight years in the business. Never anything close to a Hollywood regular, she had by then received four nominations after having appeared in merely a dozen movies. No mean feat. One out of three times at bat is pretty good, as statistics go.

The speech she gave that night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles captured Stapleton’s soulfulness and genuine good humor. She began by saying “I’m thrilled, happy, delighted—sober!” Then after the laughter died down, thanked Beatty and his co-star, Diane Keaton, and continued by saying, “I want to thank Troy, New York—my family, my friends—and everybody I met in my entire life.” Another huge laugh, followed by one last thank you, a perfect example of Stapleton’s forthright sentimentality: “And to my inspiration, Joel McCrea.” At that point (as easily viewed on YouTube), the show’s television director cuts to Warren Beatty’s reaction, only it was the response of the man seated next to Beatty that scored. Jack Nicholson, in his requisite dark glasses, nodded and mouthed approvingly “Joel McCrea,” clearly impressed. It's readily available on YouTube. You should check it out.

A movie star like McCrea may have been Stapleton’s inspiration, but Hollywood was never her main goal. A lifelong resistance to the West Coast was based on two things: her heart belonging to the New York theatre and her inability to board an airplane. Any job requiring travel had her agents painstakingly negotiating sleepers on board Amtrak’s best cross-country trains or, if Stapleton had to shoot overseas (particularly in winter when cruise ships were on hiatus), booking old-fashioned steamships. This made for some shaky voyages, on some of which her worst nightmares came true. When Beatty cast her in Reds, he knew he had his work cut out for him, as the film was shooting in Europe:

"I don’t think I’m being indiscreet by saying she sometimes has feelings of claustrophobia. Maureen doesn’t like to go into elevators, she doesn’t like to sit in the middle of a theatre, she likes to sit in the back and she doesn’t fly. I had tremendous difficulty in getting Maureen to say yes to this movie. And I wanted Maureen from the very beginning.

And we finally got to get her to come to do the movie on a Polish freighter that, sadly, ran out of gas in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. So when she got to England to shoot this part, she was pretty frazzled."

Stapleton as Emma Goldman in Reds (1981).

While writing Up in the Cheap Seats, and going over the 200 shows I saw as a teenager during the four-year period between 1969 and 1973, I found that of all the actors I saw who had their names above the title, Maureen Stapleton was up there more than any other. Devoting an entire chapter to her was an easy choice, and a delightful one to write and research. I had so much material that a lot was left out in the editing process, from which today’s column is culled.

She really was an actress of uncommon earthiness and humor in the roles she played, as well as in the life she lived. Not of her stage performances were ever shot for television, which is a terrible crime. And she only got to recreate one of them, when she appeared in one-third of the screen adaptation of Neil Simon's Plaza Suite. The stage version, consisting of three one-act plays, had her playing opposite the great George C. Scott, but when it was made into a film, Walter Matthau got to do all three with three different leading ladies. And as Stapleton herself remarked, “I was willing to settle for a solid single instead of a smashing triple.”

Maureen Stapleton in Plaza Suite (with George C. Scott). Illustration by Jeff York.

All you need to know to understand how compelling and how different she could be from role to role, is to go stream Reds, or watch her in the three other films for which she was Oscar nominated: as a young woman trapped in a loving but sexless marriage in 1958's Lonelyhearts; harrowing as the wife of man who carries a bomb on board a 747 in 1970’s Airport; and especially vivid as a down-to-earth widow freshly in love, living life to its fullest, in Woody Allen’s Interiors.

The chapter on Stapleton in Up in the Cheap Seats is titled "The Work Horse." I would like to think that if she were alive today, she would have approved of the moniker. She was as no-nonsense an actress as ever came down the pike. As my friend William Youmans told me when he was appearing in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes with her in 1982, Stapleton would stand in the wings and say, "Cut the fuckin' pauses and let's get outta here!"

But the truth is that she loved being on the stage. And the stage is poorer without her presence.

The Maureen Stapleton Theatre in Troy, New York

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: