IT IS 11 p.m. in Boston. Jean Stapleton has finished her nightly stint in the title role of "Daisy Mayme" at the Shubert Theatre, changed out of her costume, waded through the autograph-hungry fans and ducked around the corner for a late snack.
The restaurant pianist spots her coming in the door strikes up the theme music from "All in the Family" and everybody in the place turns to her, applauding.
It has happened again: There is no escaping her popular identity as TV's Edith Bunker, a video fixture for ten of millions of viewers.
She flashes a graceful smile around the room, then covers her ears and strides quickly to a quiet table, where -- being Bostonians -- most of the other customers leave her undisturbed.
Stapleton, a tall, poised redhead in her mid-50s is not exactly running away from the role of Edith -- which took her from medium billing on Broadway posters to stardom and universal recognition -- but she is moving as fast as she can toward other things.
Identified with Edith since the TV series' mid-season debut in January 1971, Stapleton has now eased out of the role except for sporadic appearances on "Archie Bunker's Place," its sequel. (One such appearance will be tonight, when a full hour is devoted to a tumultuous Thanksgiving dinner at the Bunker home.) She talks about Edith with mixed feelings -- like a parent discussing a sell-loved but sometimes exasperating child who could easily engulf the parent's identity: "Some people may have trouble separating me from Edith Bunker, but I've never had any trouble separating myself. If they hail me as 'Edith' on the street, I turn around and correct them: 'Please call me Jean.'" At the same time, she will talk appreciatively of how the character has changed and grown during the years ("really a matter of collaboration, with the writers and the other members of the cast -- I have never seen such a team") and of the doors Edith has opened for her (including two Emmies, which she does not mention).
Stapleton's manner is more like that of a successful business executive than a wife and mother or an actress. She speaks slowly, thoughtfully, choosing her words with care. She is warm but guarded until she is sure the other party understands her. She walks down the street with the firm, confident stride of a woman who knows her worth -- worlds away from the self-effacing slouch of Edith Bunker. Seeing her without knowing who she is, you would guess that this woman is working hard to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed, as in fact she is.
That involvement, she insists, is not a reaction against the Edith Bunker image: "It was simultaneous but not really related. This is a persona decision - because I think it is a matter of simple justice, and because I think I can make a difference in the movement. Fame -- if it's not good for that, what is it good for? Edith Bunker has helped me to communicate with the housewives of America, and I have to be grateful to her for that."
But Stapleton has no intention of remaining a lovable dingbat in the public consciousness, and she opens here Tuesday in "Daisy Mayme" at the Kennedy Center. Her experience in the role of Daisy Mayme Plunkett began as a very short-range affair: a three-week run last year at the Totem Pole summer theater in Pennsylvania's Caledonia State Park. The theater ahs been managed by Stapleton's husband, actor-director William Putch for a quarter-century. Every summer, the Totem Pole is all in the family for the Putches (whose name is Italian -- Pucci -- modified by the odd spelling of an immigration officer in the last century). Bill directs, Jean takes two or thee roles, and their son and daughter act.
Daughter Pamela, 20, also has a role in "Daisy Mayme" at the Eisenhower Theatre. "She's getting credit for it from her college drama department," says her mother with a proud smile. "She'll be spending most of her junior year on the road and she's keeping a journal of what happens every day. We'll have the show in Florida for a month in January, and we're doing a week each in Cleveland and St. Louis."
On the road again after years of dividing hr time between television and the Totem Pole, Stapleton finds it exhilarating: "It's very stimulating to work with these audiences and to go from city to city. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed it." She touches her casual, trim hairdo in an unconscious gesture that syas how much she enjoys working for all those real people after years of being pumped to her audiences through a tube.
She began enjoying it right after high school in New York City (her accent is not Edith's, but it still carries traces of her origin). "The desire to act seized me right after graduation," she says, " and everything since then has been directed toward that goal."
Her first role (in New York but not on Broadway) was with Beatrice Lillie in a one-act sketch, "Two Dozen Double Damask Dinner Napkins," but for a long time, she recalls, my employment was not regular. I had plenty of time 'at liberty,' but it wasn't too bad. I could alwayd depend on summer theater, and in winter I would be in showcases or take under-five-line television roles." For a while, she worked and studied at the American Theatre Wing, a school of theater arts that was set up for veterans after World War II -- "not that I was a G.I., but they needed actresses."
In 1948, her first big break came when she was given a role with Frank Fay in the touring company of "Harvey" -- and when the show reached the National Theatre in Washington, she met her future husband: "Bill was working in a summer theater in Olney, and the National's stage manager and his wife were frineds of his. They brought me out to meet him, but it was years before we were married. Actually, I worked for him at the Totem Pole for season or two before we decided to marry."
Between the role of Myrtle May Simmons (Elwood P. Dowd's niece in "Harvey") and Edith Bunker, Jean Stapleton built a solid carrer as an actress and singer on Broadway and in films and television. Her Broadway debut was with Judith Anderson in "In the Summerhouse," and other Broadway shows included "Juno," "Rhinoceros" and Funny Girl." Her Hollywood credits include roles in "Up the Down Staircase," "Klute" and "Cold Turkey." Next month, on television, she will play the title role in a Hallmark Hall of Fame production, "Aunt Mary," which she discusses with enthusiasm:
"It's the story Mary Dobkin of Baltimore, who began 25 years ago coaching baseball teams of kids from low-in-come housing and has helped more than 50,000 kids. There's no way I can look like Mary Dohkin, who is quite a bit shorter than I am -- but I'm going to try to look like Eleanor Roosevelt [one of her idols] when I play her next year" in a television movie.
Some day, she would like to do Lady Macbeth and/or the nurse in "Romeo and Juliet." Stapleton sings a lot better than Edith Bunker (the character's voice is pitched several tones higher than Stapleton's). Her background includes musical comedies such as "Damn Yankees" and "Bells Are Ringing," in both of which she played on Braodway and on film, and she is looking for a new musical show -- she would like to see good music written for Mary 'chase's "Mrs. McThing." Meanwhile, she is privately studying Angela Lansbury's role in "Sweeney Todd," not because of any concrete prospect because she likes it and "just in case an offer should come along,"
But for now, there is the Kennedy Center and "Daisy Mayme," a vintage (if not quite classic) comedy written in 1926 by George Kelly, the playwright-uncle of Princess Grace, who is best-known as the author of a full-fledged classic, "The Show-Off," and a Pulitzer prizewinner, "Craig's Wife."
"Daisy Mayme" is a comedy of middle-aged romance, reflecting the world in which it originated -- a quiet, cosy, slightly stuffy universe in small-town Pennsylvania, where families are definitely not nuclear, there are strict rules of social conduct, the opinion of neighbors is terribly important, and nobody dreams that one day soon the stock market will come tumbling down and wipe out a way of life.
The play appeals, in 1979, to a somewhat specialized taste, but it offers an excellent vehicle for Stapleton as an unconventional woman -- middle-aged, unmarried, the self-made owner of a successful dry-goods business -- who barges into this provincial atmosphere and makes waves. Daisy has no relation to Auntie Mame -- although Stapleton says that "a lot of people seem to get them confused" -- and no resemblance at all to Edith Bunker.After the show, there is a lot less of a change in the transition back to Jean Stapleton.
At this point in her career, Stapleton stands somewhere between two extremes. At one end of the spectrum is an actress like Lucille Ball, who has probably become so identified with Lucy that audiences might have trouble now accepting her in any other role. At the other is Sarah Bernhardt -- so versatile that she once played Hamlet and got away with it. Stapleton notes happily that television producers and directors have shown no tendency to stereotype her as an Edith Bunker type -- as her upcoming roles demonstrate -- and that she has been offered many more roles than she can accept ("I have to send back a lot of scripts.")
Her training (with teachers who include Joseph Anthony, William Hanson and Harold Clurman) was "basically in 'the method,' with some added techniques and ideas," Stapleton says. "When I'm choosing roles, I like variety -- although it has to be right for me, of course. I wouldn't turn down a good dramatic role, but right now I'm leaning toward comedy -- I like the instant feedback you get from the audience in a comic role."
She can expect that kind of feedback in abundance during her run at the Kennedy Center -- as well as a little more distance from the character of Edith.
Roger Stevens, the man who brought Stapleton here (and who had collaborated with her in half a dozen stage productions long before she became Edith Bunker), said that "I have never seen her on television, and I didn't realize she had become such a celebrity."
He may be the only person in show business who could make that statement.