Among those in attendance: Zoe Caldwell, Marian Seldes, Lois Smith, Alex Baldwin, Ted Mann, Paul Libin, Sylvia Miles, Arthur Penn, Carol Kane, Scott Rudin, Maria Tucci, Roberta Wallach, Joan Copeland, Jacqueline Brooks, Brian Kellow, Melvin Bernhardt, Tom Viola, Rosemary Murphy, Betsy Von Furstenberg and Helen Stenborg.
“Anecdotes—where do you start?” her son, Danny Allentuck, sighed at the outset, uncorking a flood of happy, often hilarious memories of the actress who died March 13.
Phobias, he felt, was a very good place to start, and it also proved a fertile minefield of easy laughs for the other eight speakers who had their tales of her famed tics and twitches.
Stage fright seems to have been the one fear she conquered in life. She conquered it ferociously, winning Tonys for Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo and Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady and an Oscar as Emma Goldman in Warren Beatty’s "Reds." It was the mundane terrors that drove her up walls.
“The Queen of the Stardust Ballroom” was, said her son, “the Queen of the Fraidy Cats.” Fear of flying was just the tip of the iceberg. Stapleton took that a step beyond. She didn’t like the idea of planes overhead, either. So traveling with her anywhere was a nightmare. Eli Wallach, who also won a Tony for The Rose Tattoo, reported on the only known incident of Stapleton flying the friendly skies of commercial air travel, returning to New York from a San Francisco run of Tattoo—a flight her hubby, Max, had somehow talked her into. She insisted on interviewing the pilot beforehand, during which she made an impassioned plea for a parachute. Feeling shanghaied by her husband, her seat-mate of choice was Wallach, who, in flight, informed her he had to go to the bathroom. “Okay, let’s go!” she replied—and waited for him outside the bathroom, then informed him that would be it for this trip. She plucked from the booze tray when it rolled by and survived.
Her son (in The Glass Menagerie) and lover (in The Country Girl), George Grizzard, recalled how her pal, Norma Crane, tried logic to get her to take a plane instead of a boat to France to film "A View From the Bridge." “Maureen, that’s so dumb—six days on a boat! Six hours, Air France, you’re there!’ Maureen said, ‘Norma, I wouldn’t fly Air Christ.’”
Stapleton made two other transatlantic crossings—to play Big Mama to Laurence Olivier’s Big Daddy in 1976 and four years later for the movie "Reds." The first trip was on the QE II, the second was on a Polish tramp steamer. Either way, there was “an incident.”
Given Stapleton’s constant state of galloping paranoia, it is possibly a jest of God that there were times where her concerns were entirely justified. She was the first to detect the freighter had broken down and wound up drifting for two days. Then there was a freakish explosion on the QE II, and she was the first in the lifeboat distributing life preservers.
Bob Balaban, who played her about-to-be-son-in-law in Plaza Suite, added his phobia flourish: elevators: “I lived on a high floor so she screwed her courage to the sticking place, got into the elevator with a bunch of other passengers—and, of course, the elevator got stuck between floors. A couple of guys got her on their shoulders, pushed her out the top of the elevator where she waited until firemen came to slide open the door from above and get her out of the elevator. She comes in. She seems fine. Nothing unusal. Then some friends came in and told me about what had happened, and I went over to her and I asked her if she was all right. And she took my face in her hands and she kissed me and she said, ‘Honey, next time take an apartment on the second floor, you sonofabitch.’”
Out-of-town ordeals seemed, somehow, a little merrier with Maureen Stapleton around, according to Doris Roberts. “We were doing Paul Zindel’s play up in Boston, The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild, and we had no business at The Ritz Calrton—we didn’t have the money for that—but we were there, at The Ritz Carlton in Boston. That was Elizabeth Wilson, myself and Maureen, and we made a tenement out of The Ritz Carlton in less than two days. We’d go out and buy little jars of chicken and we’d put it out on the window sill because we didn’t have a refrigerator. I remember we came in one day with great big bags of apples and oranges and bananas and things like that, and her bag broke, and oranges are rolling all over the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton. I wasn’t a very good friend, because I ran to the elevator and pushed any button and got the hell out of there.”
Later, Wilson understudied Stapleton in Plaza Suite—and recalled Stapleton’s delight at that: “Oh, Liz, that’s great. You’ll never have to go on. I’ll never miss a performance. I’ve never missed a performance. And, honey, when you call in, at seven o’clock, you can be anywhere.” But, eventually, The Call came—the day Robert Kennedy died. Wilson, grieving herself and having trouble forming the words which she would be uttering for the first time, willed herself to the theatre—where she found Stapleton already in makeup.
The Cherry Orchard was the only time Frances Sternhagen crossed paths with Stapleton, and she brought a sprightly memory to the table about the rehearsing of that play: “We came to the scene where Lopakhin has brought the cherry orchard and comes and asks for the keys. Well, all the characters are extremely upset, and Varya hurls the keys at his feet—and Maureen said, ‘Wait! Why is everybody so mean to him?’ Immediately, everybody starts talking about history—the history of the world, of Russia, the Russian Revolultion, the relationship of the aristocracy to the peasants. Maureen, meanwhile, during all of this chatter, goes over to her purse, takes out a pack of cigarettes, pulls out a cigarette, lights it, takes a deep drag and then says, ‘Listen, I didn’t really want to know. I just wanted a cigarette.’”
The program, smartly produced and directed by Scott Barnes, opened and closed with Barbara Cook in song. “They Were You,” that lilting and often-overlooked waltz from The Fantasticks, backgrounded an excellent array of Stapleton stills through the years.
Getting the warmest laugh was a shot of her peering out from behind a huge blow-up of Joel McCrea. The knowing did the laughing: Stapleton said she went into acting because she “wanted to **** Joel McCrea.” As it was, she did manage to meet him once, at an Alexander Cohen’s “Night of 1,000 Stars,” with Patricia O’Haire of the Daily News playing Hawkeye for the occasion. McCrea’s wife (actress Frances Dee) was very much present, simpering on the sidelines and probably feeling more than a little unnecessary.
Happily, Stapleton got the last word via a well-selected and generous assortment of film clips, including her Oscar-nominated work in "Interiors," "Airport" and "Lonelyhearts." The latter, her film debut, rated two clips in which she managed to span a stunning spectrum of emotions—as a sex-starved married woman who seduces a lovelorn columnist (Montgomery Clift) and then turns vindictive and ugly when he won’t reciprocate.
Stapleton’s professional engine was her agent, Milton Goldman. They adored each other. Indeed, she once said, “If you ever decided to go straight, Milton, I’m your man.”
When he died, a lot of her interest in the biz died, too. For all practical purposes, she retired to Lowell, MA, and kept to herself. The Wallachs would visit her on her birthday, which, said Eli, “consisted of watching ‘Jeopardy.’” Other friends recalled unopened stacks of scripts accumulating by her door. “They just keep sending them,” she said.
Actors’ Equity Association printed up and distributed at the door some lovely remembrances from Kaye Ballard, Diane Keaton, Patricia Neal, Julie Harris, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Zoe Caldwell. Said the latter: “Maureen Stapleton was a great actress, and as such, should have been offered (and indeed played) the great roles. That she didn’t is sad for US. The only time I was onstage with Maureen was . . . to tap dance! Which she did, elegantly. Oh, Maureen! You gave us so much, and denied us too.”