Jean Stapleton belongs to a particular category of American clowns. Not the Jerry Lewis pratfall school, or the Woody Allen cerebral school, or the Steve Martin goofball school. Hers is the Carol Burnett there's-a-person-underneath-this-costume school. Stapleton portrays the unglamorous frump, the wallflower everyone secretly thinks he or she is. Downtrodden people everywhere identify with her.
"I need a part with a curve," she said, seated in front of the mirror in the dressing room at the Eisenhower Theater, where she opened in "The Late Christopher Bean" last night. "I mean not just a straight leading woman. I can be quite dull in that."
They used to be called "character roles," before that redundancy became too cumbersome. Sometimes it means, simply, older women or ones who aren't supposed to be beautiful -- the sister, the housekeeper, the heroine's pal, the mom. Stapleton has played the pushy housekeeper in "The Corn Is Green," the invalid wife in "Waltz of the Toreadors," Helen Keller's mother in "The Miracle Worker," and Aunt Eller in "Oklahoma," to name a handful of her stage roles. Not to mention Edith Bunker of "All in the Family," who was weepingly put to rest just over a year ago after nearly 10 years of television life.
Since then Stapleton, as unlikely a celebrity as your Aunt Sue, has set about erasing Edith Bunker from her image and reasserting the actress.
"First I went on talk shows, something I never expected to do," she said. "I found that helped a lot, because you go on as yourself and just talk."
She appeared on television variety shows like "Sonny and Cher" and "The Carol Burnett Show" that would allow her to do something non-Edithy, and formed a company to develop story ideas under an arrangement with CBS, such as a recently finished film about Eleanor Roosevelt that will air sometime in the spring.
The company has two employes: Stapleton and a business manager. The idea was to give her more control over the development of projects. "At each stage I have approval," she said. "It certainly is different from the days before the series when I took what came along."
Stapleton supported herself as a typist and later a secretary during the eight or nine lean years before she began to get regular work in the theater. She couldn't afford to go to college. Her mother was an opera and concert singer, her father was in outdoor advertising, and the Depression hit them hard. "My mother even took in lodgers. You could write a play about some of them."
But she will not be the one to write the play. "I'm not very good at dialogue," she said with a nervous modesty. She turned down a request to speak at the National Press Club, too, because "that's an important forum and you have to research and really say something."
Stapleton is reticent off the podium as well. She didn't want to talk about her two children, who are actors, "so that they can get out from under my shadow." A few years ago when she and her son costarred in a television movie she wouldn't even have her picture taken with him at the screening.
She didn't want to talk about being a devout Christian Scientist, which she is, and she didn't want to talk about the Totem Pole Playhouse, the summer theater in Pennsylvania that her husband William Putch manages and where "The Late Christopher Bean" was done a few years ago.
"I think the idea of summer theater is somehow a put-down in people's minds," was all she would say. "This is an entirely new cast and production."
Putch, who is directing the play, also directed her last major stage vehicle, "Daisy Mayme," another vintage comedy, and is putting together a musical based on "The Portable Dorothy Parker," in which Stapleton will play the writer.
The Playhouse, which Putch has managed for 28 seasons and 250 productions, has been a base for her since 1958. Many of the parts she has played there, such as Amanda in "The Glass Menagerie," are roles she would not ordinarily have been cast in, but have allowed her to explore her craft in a way that playing one character on a long-running television series does not.
She consciously used her fame as Edith Bunker to speak out in favor of the ERA, and she says now that she was surprised to discover that she quickly became a symbol for ERA supporters. "So many just thanked me for being there, giving support as a celebrity."
She finds no irony in the fact that her public identity was entwined with the image of a housewife, as in Edith Bunker, while in her own life she has nearly always held a job in addition to being wife and mom.
"We're all homemakers," she said with a burst of a laugh. "That's one thing the opposition has tried to do, make homemaking a separate thing that is somehow threatened by the ERA. Everybody makes a home somehow, and I've certainly done my share."
At 59, Stapleton is at a delicate point, aware of the benefits of fame bestowed by Edith Bunker, yet unwilling to be, shall we say, stifled by an unrelenting pigeonhole and the massive television audience that hates to lose its icons. Whether she can expand into the roles she'd like to play -- like Juno in "Juno and the Paycock," or the nurse in "Romeo and Juliet" -- remains to be seen. She wants to do more musicals (she had parts in the original productions of "Damn Yankees" and "Funny Girl," to name two) and would love a new show along the lines of "Sweeney Todd," and a new Neil Simon play. She emphasizes the new.
"Fame is not a goal," she said. "It came very suddenly to me because of the series. It's very interesting to suddenly be on the other side."
Is she bothered by the feeling of being watched?
"It doesn't help me to think about that, so I don't."