Sunday night, when they clutch their Oscars to their bought-and-paid-for bosoms, I will think of Maureen Stapleton’s golden statuette and its resting place.
The half a dozen or so times I visited her tiny condo in Lenox, Mass., she had positioned Oscar on the lower shelf of one of those $39.95 television stands (some assembly required) right near the living room window, a place of far greater prominence, however, than she granted the Emmy, which served as a doorstop in the bathroom.
Mo never was one for pretension; she was “shanty Irish” from South Troy and damned well proud of it. In Chapter One of her 1995 autobiography, “A Hell of a Life,” she wrote: “If you want to know me, you have to know where I come from, and Troy is my hometown.”
Her brother, Jack Stapleton, told me a few days ago that he dearly desires to see the Oscar and her other awards permanently on display at Hudson Valley Community College, where they named the theatre and the drama program after her. Maureen now is one of just 12 actresses who have won the three big ones, Oscar, Emmy and Tony. Those other actresses have names like Helen Hayes, Audrey Hepburn, Maggie Smith and Ingrid Bergman. But Jack does not control the awards; that lies elsewhere in the family, and so far, no need for HVCC to create a place of honor.
Who knows, maybe Maureen would have considered it too pretentious, but she did show up those couple of times when the college honored her, the first time with her buddies, Eli Wallach and his wife Anne Jackson, in tow. Despite the lifelong anxiety attacks and reluctance to make public appearances, I think she would have liked this hometown attention.
The first time I met her, she was seated at the bar at Krause’s on the Mohawk River, with owner Steve and his wife, helping the bartender to unload all, and I do mean all, of the joint’s extra wine supply. It was early in the seventies and I introduced myself, told her I had long known her brother, Jack, who owned a gin mill on Troy’s east side (which Maureen would promote whenever she made it on Johnny Carson’s show). Anyway, I tell her that and I tell her that I always had considered her to be a very sexy — in an earthy sort of way — stage actress. Maureen gives me the evil eye and she says, “Ya’ know somethin’? You are either blind or you are a bleeping liar.” We hit it off.
In 1981, she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the role of anarchist Emma Goldman in “Reds,” Warren Beatty’s movie. In her acceptance remarks, Maureen says “I want to thank Troy, N.Y. … and everybody I ever met in my entire life.” That made her the tenth female actress to score acting’s triple crown, the Oscar, Emmy and Tony.
Two weeks later, she is visiting the newsroom of the station where I used to work, the day after the funeral of a mutual friend, and after the requisite party to ease the pain of his passing, Maureen is wearing a house dress that must have cost all of $19.99 and her eyeballs look like they have been gone over with a blowtorch. One of the young interns comes over to me and wants to know why everybody’s making such a fuss over “that woman.” “That woman,” I tell him, “won the Academy Award a couple of weeks ago.” The kid probably still has trouble lifting his lower jaw.
The woman was a thing of beauty. On those few occasions when I went over to her place in Lenox to do stories with her, I would stop at the grocery store in the middle of town and call to see if she needed something, knowing exactly what she would need: “Oh, you are a lifesaver. How about pickin’ me up a six-pack, alright?” And it was more than alright if Maureen would make us welcome for a couple of hours.
Mo did a made-for-TV movie in 1992, “Last Wish,” where she played the mother of NBC News correspondent Betty Rollin. It dealt with the suicide of Rollin’s own terminally ill mother at a time when assisted suicide was a red-hot topic. Stapleton’s performance achieved all sorts of critical acclaim, and the next day, when I called her, she was getting phone calls from New York, California, London, all over the place. She argues with me that she can’t do an interview; I promise to get her two six-packs, and she accedes.
For almost the entire time we are there, Maureen is seated at the kitchen table, in bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, drinking beer from the bottle and puffing cigarettes one right after the other, just like they always did in South Troy.
The phone calls are incessant. She gets one from Toronto: “Oh, you are so sweet, Arthur, for remembering me. Of course I recall that movie we worked on together; how could I ever forget? We had such a wonderful time, didn’t we?”
This stuff goes on for, I don’t know, maybe three or four minutes, when Maureen puts her hand over the speaking end of the phone, leans toward me and says, “I haven’t got a bleepin’ clue who this guy is.” She then goes back to the call.
Jack Stapleton is not sure if he will watch the Oscars on Sunday night, but if he does, he will think about his sister’s hardware and how good it would look on display at HVCC.