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While best known for her role on the classic 1970s Norman Lear sitcom, Stapleton’s career in New York theater spanned a half-century, from her first roles in the early 1950s through to her final Off Broadway appearance in a 2002 Lincoln Center Theater production of Horton Foote‘s The Carpetbagger’s Children.
“The theater is where Jean Stapleton started, and she often returned to the stage throughout her lengthy and multi-faceted career,” said Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League. “While we all feel like we knew her, thanks to her iconic television role playing Edith Bunker in All in the Family, the Broadway community claims her as one of our family.”
Following her early experience in summer stock theater, Stapleton made her Broadway debut in 1953 in the play In the Summer House, written by Jane Bowles with music by Paul Bowles. The cast was headed by Judith Anderson and Mildred Dunnock.
Other plays in which Stapleton appeared include the 1961 Broadway premiere of Eugene Ionesco‘s Rhinoceros, alongside Zero Mostel and Eli Wallach; and a 1986 revival of Joseph Kesselring‘s Arsenic and Old Lace, with William Hickey, Polly Holliday and Tony Roberts.
While Edith’s tone-deaf warbling of “Those Were the Days” on the opening titles of All in the Family make Stapleton seem an unlikely musical performer, she was cast in the Broadway premieres of a number of major musicals over the years.
First up was Damn Yankees in 1955 with Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston. She returned the following year in Bells Are Ringing with Judy Holliday. In 1959 she starred with Shirley Booth and Melvyn Douglas in the Marc Blitzstein–Joseph Stein dramatic musical Juno. And in 1964 she appeared with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.
She reprised her roles in the screen versions of Damn Yankees and Bells Are Ringing.
Stapleton’s Off Broadway debut was in a 1953 Circle in the Square staging of Martin Wolfson‘s American Gothic, in an ensemble cast that included Jason Robards.
Pointing to a versatility of which many fans of Stapleton’s television work might have been unaware, her other Off Broadway credits also include Classic Stage Company productions of Harold Pinter‘s The Birthday Party, Moliere‘s The Learned Ladies and John Osborne‘s The Entertainer.
Stapleton’s husband, William Putch, to whom she was married from 1956 until his death in 1983, ran the Totem Pole Playhouse in Pennsylvania, where his wife was a frequent performer.
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