Hiya Edith!” crow her fans when they spot her. She promptly corrects them without spoiling their fun. “Call me Jean,” she asks diplomatically. “Edith Bunker has gone on vacation.” Strictly speaking, that’s true, since Archie Bunker and the rest of his All in the Family TV menage are enjoying their customary between-seasons hiatus. For Jean Stapleton it is a distinction of profound importance. After seven years as America’s favorite Dingbat, she is determined not to be written off as a real-life scatterbrain.
So with Edith in mothballs, what is Jean Stapleton doing? Enough to give Archie angina. Appointed by President Ford to the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year—the year was 1975, but the commission is still doing business—she is also taping radio spots and plugging away furiously on behalf of the imperiled Equal Rights Amendment. Professionally, she is angling to play Eleanor Roosevelt in a projected final TV instalment of the trilogy based on Joseph Lash’s best-selling biography. “Jane Alexander, who has played the part so far, isn’t interested in going on with Eleanor in the later years,” says Jean, “and I hugged her for saying so. Those years were not only dramatic, they saw the real blossoming of the woman.”
Soft-core feminist Stapleton is a long-time admirer of the late First Lady. “As a child, I thought of her as an ugly woman—everyone did,” she recalls. “But once I was on tour with Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba, and Mrs. Roosevelt came onstage to greet us. There was such a radiance about her that you saw a beautiful woman. We were so awestruck that nobody could even make small talk.”
Last year, Stapleton visited the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park, N.Y. and was shocked to discover that Mrs. Roosevelt’s historic Val-Kill cottage had been sold by her family and allowed to deteriorate. Val-Kill was Mrs. Roosevelt’s private residence from 1926, when FDR had it built for her, until her death in 1962. To help a local committee buy and restore the home, Jean agreed to be made up as Mrs. Roosevelt and tape a 13-minute fictional monologue. The tape, donated by All in the Family producer Norman Lear, is entitled Soul of Iron and will be shown to civic and feminist groups. Congressional hearings have already been held on a bill to designate Val-Kill as a national historic site, and Jean recently buttonholed Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus for his support of the project. “The committee had been trying to get an appointment with Secretary Andrus for months,” she says, “but they didn’t have the power of television.”
Why does she feel so strongly about the project? “For Eleanor Roosevelt, Val-Kill was as much a state of mind as an actual place,” says Stapleton. “Her life exemplified the emerging woman—a human being in her own right—and I’d like to hear every woman ask herself ‘Where is my Val-Kill?’ It’s a place to be yourself and not play a role.”
Playing roles, of course, is what Jean Stapleton does so well. From June 4 to July 16, she will be starring in The Reluctant Debutante and The Show Off at Pennsylvania’s Totem Pole Playhouse. Her producer-director husband, Bill Putch, who runs the place, spends half the year in Hollywood with her, guest-directing for Lear’s Tandem Productions. (A sometime performer, he appeared this season in three episodes of the ABC series Family.) Daughter Pam, 17, will be studying dramatic arts at Carnegie Tech in the fall, and son John, 15, has become a semiregular on the Lear series One Day at a Time.
Jean will be heading for the West Coast in July, when All in the Family begins its eighth and final season of taping. “I’ll be sorry to see it end,” she says, “but it’s a healthy step. I don’t know how much more you can do with that show.” Meantime, she will be fighting for ERA, confident that the Dingbat would approve. “Edith is the soul of justice,” Jean maintains. “If she understood ERA clearly, she’d be all for it.”