People don't call her Edith anymore, and that's just fine with actress Jean Stapleton.
"It's so necessary to keep putting your own identity out there," says the actress who won three Emmys playing the "dingbat" wife of Archie Bunker in the landmark '70s television series, "All in the Family."Since the series left the air in 1980, Stapleton has shown audiences that she is more than Archie's wife.
She especially has shown her range in television movies. She played the part of the mother of a drug addict in "Angel Dusted," a woman battling for her job rights in "A Matter of Sex," a neighborhood activist in "Aunt Mary," a manipulative mother in "Grown-Ups" and Eleanor Roosevelt in "Eleanor: First Lady of the World."
She also has been hitting the road in the national touring companies of the comedy "Arsenic and Old Lace" and the Broadway musical "Drood!"
As Princess Puffer, the opium-dispensing brothel matron, the 65-year-old actress is a far cry from Edith Bunker.
And in an interview at the Shubert Performing Arts Center in New Haven last month, it was clear that Jean Stapleton is her own woman.
An elegant-looking woman, smartly dressed and stylishly coifed, Stapleton speaks in a refined, yet personable, manner. Addressing members of the Foundation for the Shubert, she spoke affectionately of her past roles, yet she was hardly sentimental about them. She was the professional who saw each of her roles primarily as an opportunity to work her craft.
Stapleton says the close identification of her with Edith has lessened over the years. "One of the reasons I know is when people address me by my own name," she says. "That's when I know it's getting across."
"All in the Family" was far from the first major role for the seasoned actress. On Broadway she sang scene-stealing songs in "Damn Yankees," "Bells Are Ringing" and "Funny Girl," and she performed with Zero Mostel in Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" and with Judith Anderson in "In the Summerhouse."
Over the years, Stapleton has taken on a new role, that of an activist in helping to preserve intimate-sized theaters such as the Shubert.
"I'm profoundly dedicated to the need to preserve our theaters," she says. "If we don't have theaters for our plays, where is the theater going? Developers are making theaters too big because the economy is forcing them to make it that size to make money. They are not thinking of the art side, which must be considered."
Playing "Drood!" in mammoth theaters and 10,000-seat arenas can distort the work's original intent and charm.
"That was a nightmare I wouldn't like to repeat," she says of the arena performances. "This musical, unlike a lot of the new spectacle musicals, which seem to be the only ones to be succeeding fully, is made for this size theater. (The Shubert) is a charming jewel, and coming back is a rebirth, truly. This is where our show, and all plays, belongs. It's a joy to be here."
Although Stapleton prefers to do intimate plays and musicals in intimate theaters, she has high praise for the touring musical circuit in general. "They are preserving the American musical theater by producing revivals such as `Man of La Mancha,' `The Sound of Music' and `South Pacific.' God bless them, even if (we play) in a big barn."
Of her frequent appearances around the country in plays and musicals, she says, "I don't do it because I love to tour but because I love to work."
Stapleton has been working steadily since she decided to become an actress when she was in high school in New York.
Some of her earliest acting jobs were in the fledgling television medium. "We used to dream about regional theater, or decentralized theater, which is what we called it. But it didn't exist."
Stapleton appeared in early television programs such as "Studio One," "Philco Playhouse" and "Omnibus" and later dramatic series such as "The Defenders" and "Dr. Kildare." She often played simple and honest women, which was to become one of her greatest casting strengths.
Ironically, it was her reputation as a stage actress that helped her get her greatest television role.
"Norman (Lear, the producer of `All in the Family') saw me in `Damn Yankees.' He knew what kind of character work I did in comedies," she says.
Stapleton read for the part of the long-suffering wife of the bigoted Archie Bunker. "Each time I read," she says, "the script was improved, and I thought it was just wonderful. But this on TV?
"In the first script (Edith) had a line per page. That was all. But they were all zingers. Her whole purpose was to puncture the hot air coming from Archie in a very funny way, and that's all there was. As a matter of fact, in the beginning it was a very subordinate role. But it grew from what we all brought to it.
"Someone defined a (television) series as an organism, in that it grows with the writers and actors and the director, and that's exactly what we did. The writers got clues from what I was doing, and I got clues from what they were doing. It was a collaboration."
Stapleton said she would consider another television series "if it was an extraordinary idea and right for me and had the writing of the same quality (as `All in the Family'). But I can afford to be choosy now."