She won a Tony Award in 1951 for Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo, in which she played a frowsy, warm-hearted widow of Italian descent. She was unanimously acclaimed for her work and became an instant stage star. "No one else in the theatre could have played a loser with so much warmth, dignity and grace," wrote Brooks Atkinson. The role made her a star and remained one, despite her unglamorous, matronly figure and broad, peasant features.
Afterwards, Williams used her again and again, seeing the actress as a dependable intepreter of his material. She played on Broadway in Williams' All in One in 1955, in which she performed in the one-act 27 Wagons Full of Cotton; as Lady Torrance in the original production of Orpheus Descending (another part originally intended for Magnani); as Amanda in a 1965 revival of The Glass Menagerie; a 1966 revival of Rose Tattoo; and yet another production of The Glass Menagerie in 1975.
Ms. Stapleton grew up in Troy, NY, the daughter of an alcoholic father and a suffering mother, who separated when she was a child. She moved to New York City at the age of 17 with one hundred dollars in her purse. She studied with Herbert Berghof at the New School. She was a student at the Actors Workshop when she was cast in The Rose Tattoo, a play Williams had written for Anna Magnani, who was not available. Ms. Stapleton was very young for the role, but she convinced the author and producers through several readings that she could handle the part. (Later, she was sometimes called "The American Anna Magnani.")
She was equally skilled as comedy, making the most of Neil Simon's Plaza Suite in 1968 and The Gingerbread Lady in 1970. She won another Tony for Gingerbread Lady .
Her other Broadway credits included Elizabeth Proctor in the 1953 production of The Crucible, the original Toys in the Attic in 1960, The Cold Wind and the Warm in 1958, and a 1981 revival of The Little Foxes. She was nominated for Tony Awards for every one. In film, she won an Oscar for playing anarchist Emma Goldman in "Reds." She was nominated for the prize for her first role, "Lonelyhearts," in 1958. Other credits include "Airport," "Interiors," "The Fugitive Kind," "Cocoon," "Nuts" and "Plaza Suite." Simon cited that she would have made more films if she would fly—a mode of transportation she always refused to use. A woman of many phobias, she also wouldn't ride in elevators, and lived in fear of being shot while performing onstage (leading to some very active performances).
She was married twice, to David Rayfiel (1963-66) and Max Allentuck (1949-59). She had two children with the latter. She spent her later years in Lenox, near her daughter Katharine Bambery's family.
As an actress, Maureen Stapleton was known for being adept in gaining the audience's empathy, and never giving less than her full energies to a performance. She was not, however, poetic about her profession. She once described her work thusly: "I do a job. I get paid. I go home." Another time, she said her main responsibility was to make sure the audience didn't fall asleep.
In private life, she was famed as a devoted friend, a truth-teller, a dedicated drinker, and for possessing one of the funniest and foulest mouths in the business. When Simon sent The Gingerbread Lady to her to read, her response was "You bastard. You no-good dirty bastard. When do we go into rehearsal?" It was one of her cleaner utterances.
She also often turned her salty sense of humor on herself. In her autobiography, "A Hell of a Life," she recalled acting a scene with Marilyn Monroe at the Actors' Studio, and the audience being impressed with Monroe's work. It was "too bad the public wanted her to be a ditzy blonde," she observed. "See how lucky I was? I never had that problem. People looked at me on stage and said, 'Jesus that broad better be able to act.'"