Great Old Broad Series: Maureen Stapleton

 This Sunday's 2 p.m. screening at New Haven's Lyric Hall of the documentary "Broads," that features salty, outspoken interviews with actresses of a certain age remind me of some of my own favorite interviews of like-minded dames.

I'll post a series of these interviews in the next week or so. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did writing them.

Here was my story in 1992 with Oscar-winning actress Maureen Stapleton from her condo in the Massachusetts Berkshires:

 By FRANK RIZZO

    Maureen Stapleton greets her midmorning visitors with a slightly frazzled friendliness, ushering them in, then heading straight for the coffee pot and cigarettes.
    Barefoot and bemused in her flannel housedress, she looks like she is playing the part of a mad housewife instead of the more regal role of award-winning actress of the American stage, screen and television.
    But Stapleton's essence in any role is her unadorned realness, her no-nonsense, working-class attitude and her ability to simultaneously express fragility and strength.
    On Sunday afternoon, she will attend a benefit screening at the Bantam Cinema in the Bantam section of Litchfield for her acclaimed television film, "Queen of the Stardust Ballroom." In the 1975 movie, directed by Sam O'Steen from Jerome Kass's script, Stapleton plays a widowed grandmother who falls in love at a local dance hall with a widowed mailman, played by Charles Durning. Stapleton also will be on hand to answer questions from author-teacher-producer David Black and from the audience. The event will benefit the Northwestern Connecticut AIDS Project. (The film also was made into the Michael Bennett musical "Ballroom" in the late '70s, starring Dorothy Loudon. It had its pre-Broadway debut at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford.)
    Stapleton's modest brick condo tucked away in the Berkshire hills is filled with pictures of family and friends. Her Oscar, Emmy and Tony awards are casually scattered about the living room. If anyone, besides her grandchildren, are honored in the home, it's Clark Gable, an actor she never met.
    Since she was a girl, the 67year-old actress has been a lovestruck fan of Gable -- as well as Joel McCrea and Robert Taylor. Her Gable motif dominates the decor, from "Gone With the Wind" commemorative dishes to a mock poster with Stapleton superimposed over Vivian Leigh in the classic Scarlet and Rhett clinch.
    "Somebody once gave me a candle shaped like a bust of Clark Gable with a little wick coming out of his head," says Stapleton, taking a long drag from a special blend of multi-filtered Benson & Hedges. "But my son finally said, `Ma, that's enough.' " Like Stapleton herself, there's a mixture of complicated dynamics at work in the room. Right near her grandson's Nintendo, the candy bowls filled with Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and a pillow inscribed with a goofy line from a long-ago role ("I knew I shouldn't have had the noodle pudding at your cousin Eli's birthday party"), are two grand paintings by Howard Chandler Christie, giving the room an incongruous elegance.
    Asked about the previous night's Emmy Awards show, she says she watched it at a friend's house, without mentioning that she was nominated for her work in "Miss Rose White," a television film based on the play "A Shayna Maidel." (She says she is pleased that co-actor Amanda Plummer won instead for her performance in the same film.)
    Right now she is more concerned about the logistics of making it to Sunday's benefit show from the filming location of a new movie in Virginia. She insists she'll make it even if it means commuting by train. (She refuses to fly.)
    When asked the name of the new film, a panicked blank expression crosses her face.
    "I'll have to look," she says, bringing out a script called "The Mommy Market." She says Sissy Spacek is in the lead. She does not remember the name of the director.
    "I don't know any of the new people," she says. "If it's not George Cukor, I don't know who the hell it is."
    Stapleton says she grew up in Troy, N.Y. -- "nice, fat and unhappy."
    "That pretty much covers it," she says, pointing out that it was during the Depression, "and my mother and father separated when I was quite young, if you want to hear all the grisly parts. We had to move in with my grandma and all my aunts and uncles, so in a sense we were beggars, I guess, because we lived on other people's largess."
    What made her want to become an actress?
    "I don't know," she says, then reconsiders. "Oh, I do know: So I could meet Joel McCrea and Robert Taylor and Clark Gable."
    And also because she wanted to be Jean Harlow.
    "I thought if I ever became an actress I would automatically look like her," she says.
    Stapleton didn't head directly for Hollywood because "everything I read said that if you wanted to become an actress to be in New York to be in the theater first. So I just did what the book said."
    She began studying with Herbert Berghof in the mid-1940s and joined the Actors Studio, which also was the home for such actors as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Cliff and Paul Newman.
    Her first New York show was in 1946 in "The Playboy of the Western World."
    Her first starring role was in 1951 playing Serafina in Tennessee Williams' "The Rose Tattoo," a part originally written for Anna Magnani . "But she didn't want to do it on stage because she thought her English wasn't good enough. She said she would do the movie."
    The role of the middle-aged woman went to Stapleton, then 26,
    winning her the Tony Award. (Magnani went on to win the Oscar for the same role). "I was born old," she says of the casting. It started a pattern of often playing roles much older than her real age. In "Bye Bye Birdie" she played Dick Van Dyke's mother, though they were the same age. In "Toys in the Attic," she played Jason Robard's older sister although she was younger than the actor.
    "It went well," she says modestly of "The Rose Tattoo," an experience that others would call a triumph. But not Stapleton. "Oh, you enjoy [the successes.] But you never get secure because you'e not guaranteed that you're going to work again. When you're an actor, you're always semi-retired. A couple of years can go by before you get a job. Over the years there were periods where I didn't work for two or three years. It's not a profession you'd go into if you had a brain in your head."
    Stapleton didn't get to Hollywood until several years after her New York Stage debut. And her first role in 1958's "Lonelyhearts" produced her first Oscar nomination.
    Subsequent nominations included George Seaton's "Airport" in 1970, Woody Allen's "Interiors" in 1978 and Warren Beatty's "Reds" which finally got her an Academy Award in 1981 for playing Emma Goldman.
    "I'm just a worker," she says. "It's not like I'm a star or superstar. That's a whole different other category."
    In a career that spans six decades, Stapleton has worked with some of the best. But don't look for the dirt from her.
    "All the people I ever worked with are terrific and hard-working," she says with genuine enthusiasm On Katherine Cornell: "A very beautiful and of course a terrific actress. She was a lady."
    On Elizabeth Taylor: `I just adore her. I don't know how she got that way."
    On Barbra Streisand: "She's adorable."
    "Someone once said to me, `You fall in love with all your leading ladies,' and it's true."
    And she has valentines for the men she's worked with as well.
    Neil Simon is "a sweetie;" George C. Scott is "a big pussycat;" Mike Nichols is "so brilliant;" Ron Howard is "a doll."
    And Woody Allen?
    "Oh, poor Woody. Jesus. God almighty. That was a runaway horse, wasn't it? [Woody and Mia Farrow] seemed to have shut up now, thank God. But it's so horrible whenever people part from a marriage or a love affair. There is rage and hatred, all right. But this. I don't think he did that [child molestation.] I really don't."
    The only secrets Stapleton reveals are those about herself, usually not in the best of circumstances.
    Like the infamous Ann-Margret story.
    "What really happened is there was this party after the filming of `Bye Bye Birdie.' And there was Annie sitting on a couch and there were like six elderly guys [slobbering] over her for hours. And finally I said, `Annie, c'mon over here and sit with me. I'm the only one here who doesn't want to [expletive] you.'
    "Well, I heard so many versions of that story over the years and they all sounded like I was putting Annie down in some way. So years later, she came to see me in a play and I said, `Annie, I'm so sorry,' and I went on and on. And she said, `Aw, forget it. It's a classic.' "
    Then there was a recent memorial service for an old friend, the
    late actress Colleen Dewhurst, where Stapleton turned the air new shades of blue.
    "Oh Jesus," she says shuddering at the mention of the incident. "I just can't go to those things. I got so drunk. We went down that day and I drank all the way there. I drank when we got to the theater. And I brought wine out on the stage. Buy the time I spoke I was so plotzed and so vulgar and so awful. I'm not going to any more. And I don't think anyone's going to ask me. Noooooooo."
    Stapleton says she didn't always talk like a trooper.
    "When I first came to New York I didn't curse and my girlfriends didn't curse and we felt so out of it so we practiced cursing for three days. You had to say things like, `Pass the [expletive] coffee,' And `Gimme the [expletive] cream.' I picked it up very well. But I wish I could undo that."
    When it comes time for her picture, Stapleton straightens her housedress and turns to the photographer. "OK, what you see is what you get."