Jean Stapleton first played the part of Eleanor Roosevelt for a Senate subcommittee. In a short film Stapleton made in 1977, she advocated turning Val-Kill, a cottage near Hyde Park where Mrs. Roosevelt lived following FDR's death, into a national historical site.
It must have been a good performance; the measure was approved. As an encore of sorts, Stapleton plays Mrs. Roosevelt again tonight at 9 on Channel 9 in the CBS movie weightily titled "Eleanor, First Lady of the World." The film was made by Tandem Productions (now Embassy Television) as part of the agreement it reached with Stapleton when she bolted the cast of "All in the Family" three years ago, forsaking the great role of her career, national mother-figure Edith Bunker, who may be, to members of some generations, as much of a folk-heroine as Eleanor Roosevelt is.
Stapleton, a tall and dignified actress who is not easily goaded into giggles (though, once goaded, she dissolves attractively), says, as she sits in an office at Tandem in Hollywood, that the Roosevelt project has been in the works for four years. It concentrates on the postwar years when, as a fledgling delegate to the United Nations, Mrs. Roosevelt threw herself into the writing and ratification of the universal Declaration on Human Rights.
"It's a public event which really occupied her life and, I think, caused her to blossom into a very radiantly beautiful and successful woman and world statesperson," Stapleton says (almost recites). "I think she's the epitome of what I think is a genuine Christian spirit, and I think she must have derived strength from her religious convictions, which were strong, but which she didn't impose on anybody else."
Stapleton thinks the tale of Mrs. Roosevelt and the declaration--and the skepticism of such chauvinistic pigheads as John Foster Dulles (unflatteringly played by E.G. Marshall), which she had to overcome--makes "a great woman's story." And, she says, "I hope that this film will help to emphasize her importance in history," especially in light of snide gossip in the past few years about Mrs. Roosevelt's (and, for that matter, Mr. Roosevelt's) personal life.
Curtis Roosevelt, grandson of Eleanor and FDR, was a consultant to the film, is portrayed as an almost insufferably wholesome young man in it, and is heard in the concluding narration. The film, alas, is stuffy and static, and the fact that the script went through three or four rewrites shows this isn't electrifying drama. And as a portrait of a Great Lady of History, it certainly suffers by comparison to the recent syndicated production, "A Woman Called Golda" starring Ingrid Bergman. But Stapleton brings warmth and authority to the part. And she obviously meant this as a labor of love.
"I'd like to do a whole series on women in history," she says, "not necessarily portraying every one myself, but it's a part of our American history that's not been touched, and I'd like to see these stories dramatized." Stapleton is an ardent supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, and participated in a press conference last year at which it was announced that some Hollywood filmmakers would refuse to make movies in any state that hadn't ratified the amendment. "I haven't heard anything about it since the press conference that launched it. Not a word."
Has she herself ever felt oppressed as a woman? "No, I haven't, but I am aware of the inequities in other fields. I've learned about it. And I can help my sisters in other fields. It's a simple matter to me."
Stapleton is known to be touchy about the subject of Edith, whom she would like to leave dead and buried. She is asked if she feels haunted by the character (who was killed off in a memorable episode after Stapleton had left the show). "It's there, and it's on, and it's on in every city," she says, referring to "All in the Family" reruns, "and I still get letters, and I'm approached as if it's current to some people. And I have to realize that.
"When somebody calls me 'Edith' in the street, that's a haunt. Which I don't care for, and I correct them. I say, 'My name is Jean.' " She laughs. "I notice I get more intense about that as time goes on. But really, I think I'm learning to realize that it will be there, always, and that it's brought me all this opportunity to play these other roles. I'm having a wonderful time, and I should be affectionate about it, and glad. And I am.
"It doesn't bother me. It's not, shall we say, a ball and chain."
"Eleanor, First Lady of the World" benefits from location shooting in Paris, London and, briefly, Hyde Park, before the fire that damaged the buildings there. While shooting in front of Claridge's on a London Sunday morning, Stapleton overheard passers-by commenting on the commotion.
"One passer-by said, 'Who is that woman?' The others all said, 'That's Eleanor Roosevelt.' And the person said, 'I didn't know she was still alive!' " Stapleton laughs again, but actually, Eleanor will be alive--or virtually, anyway--for two hours tonight in prime time. It's not a hot show. But it has awfully good intentions, just like the woman who stars in it.