By: Ellis Nassour
What I’ll always remember about Jean Stapleton is her wonderful giggle followed by an uproarious laugh. And when Miss Stapleton laughed, everyone heard. But there was so much more to this wonderful lady: her sweetness, kindness, and thoughtfulness.
Of course, being a musicals buff, I knew who Jean Stapleton was when she got the co-starring role in TV’s groundbreaking All in the Family. I remembered her from the film adaptations of Bells Are Ringing and Damn Yankees, and so regretted that I never got to see her do those roles onstage.
I actually got to know Miss Stapleton in early 1964, when she was cast as Mrs. Strakosh in Funny Girl. I was working in talent rep at the time and it was my job to visit with the wonderful dancer/singer and, sadly, late Danny Meenan, who played Danny Ryan. I would visit with him at least twice a week – before an evening performance and always following the Wednesday matinee to let him know what we had coming up for him in the way of publicity. Sometimes I was fortunate enough to grab a bite with him. Several times, Miss Stapleton and Kay Medford who was playing Mrs. Brice would join Danny. There was always laughter at the table.
When Mom visited the summer of ’86, the only show she wanted to see was the revival of Arsenic and Old Lace. She was a huge Stapleton fan from All in the Family, of course, and her portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt [First Lady of the World, which she also toured]. Also starring in that production as the other Webster sister was Polly Holliday, who also made a name for herself in a TV series, as Flo in Alice. So, before the matinee, I sent a note back before the show to both, and wondered what type of balancing act it was going to be after. Of course, Miss Stapleton had to be first.
I never had to worry about any balancing. About 15 minutes after curtain we were chatting away with the always effusive Tony Roberts, then were informed by Miss Stapleton’s dresser to come. I don’t imagine I have to tell you how lovely Miss Stapleton was. Lovely and gracious. Mom was in seventh heaven.
It didn’t seem we were outwearing our welcome but after 15 minutes I suggested we better try to say hello to Miss Holliday, whose door was closed. I knocked and all I heard was that she was sorry but she wasn’t having any visitors. I thought Mom would be crushed, but not at all. Not as long as she had her camera and Miss Stepleton didn’t mind my taking their photos. She signed the Playbill and we were on our way.
Miss Stapleton was a supreme class act. I got to see her perform three times with her husband Bill Putch, a wild man, at their summer stock Totem Pole Playhouse, in Chambersburg, PA’s Caledonia State Park. When Miss Stapleton was on hiatus, she was always back on the boards there.
When the tour of The Mystery of Edwin Drood was announced in 1988, George Rose was to recreate his role as the Chairman and Miss Stapleton was cast to play Princess Puffer [played on Broadway by Cleo Laine]. George had been a neighbor for years. We had developed a great bond of friendship. When they were rehearsing on Second Avenue, I visited several times. The chemistry and comradely between George and Miss Stapleton was divine.
It was wonderful to reconnect in person with her again. Sadly, during the break over Easter, George was murdered in the Dominican Republic. Miss Stapleton took the news quite sadly. They had become fast friends. [Clive Revill was cast in the summer tour]. I got to visit with Miss Stapleton twice during the run. The show must go on.
We corresponded, periodically spoke on the phone, but in person visits became rarer and rarer. These last years were very difficult, but then Miss Stapleton was well into her 80s. She was 90 when she passed away on Friday [May 31].
Jean Stapleton was quite the trouper. She loved live theater and the audience response. She would stay and autograph and pose for photos till the last was done. We are truly blessed to have so many indelible moments to share her gifts, but for me the most indelible moments will be remembering her graciousness and laughter