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Leaving Edith Bunker behind

"All I ever want to do is fine material. That's it," Jean Stapleton pronounces. She doesn't care how large a part is, just "how good it is. Does it jump out at you? That's something I can tell after reading 10 pages into a script."

She has had a number of scripts "jump out" at her of late. Tonight, she will appear in the world premiere of Horton Foote's "The Carpetbagger's Children" at the Tony Award-winning Alley Theatre in Houston.

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Ms. Stapleton, best known for her role as television's Edith Bunker in "All in the Family," plays Grace Anne, one of three sisters who tell the story of the carpetbagger's family, each from her own perspective. Grace Anne is the independent woman among the three, a quality that frees her from the domination of the family. Stapleton characterizes Grace Anne as "strong-willed" and having "guts."

Stapleton has just appeared in the CBS movie "Like Mother, Like Son: The Strange Story of Sante and Kenny Kimes," based on a true story of a mother-son grifter team convicted of the 1998 murder of Irene Silverman. Stapleton played Mrs. Silverman. "It was a good part," she says. "I've been a character actress since I was 18. I always thought the character parts were more interesting than the ingenues."

Stapleton has also been touring the country in her New York-bound one-woman show, "Eleanor: Her Secret Journey," which depicts the odyssey that Mrs. Roosevelt made publicly and privately as she turned herself from a shy girl into a magnificent woman. Arrangements are being made for Stapleton to appear in "Eleanor" at the Arena Theatre in Washington Sept. 28 to Nov. 17.

First Broadway, then 'All in the Family'

A vivacious woman with an intelligent liveliness and a sense of humor, Stapleton says she went into theater because the desire to act suddenly "seized me."

"I'm glad I was born in New York City because I could never have afforded to come to New York to study," says Stapleton. She worked as a typist and secretary to help support herself.

She first met Foote, considered to be one of America's greatest living playwrights, when she worked in the 1940s as an apprentice with the American Actors Company, of which Foote was one of the founders.

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Stapleton almost made her Broadway debut in Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful," but her part was cut in tryouts. She was then discovered by famed Broadway playwright and director George Abbott, who heard her sing and said, "We must find a part for her in our next musical." She first appeared on Broadway in the 1953 production "In the Summer House" and then in a series of musicals and films including "Damn Yankees," "Bells Are Ringing," and "Funny Girl."

TV critics have used the word "inspired" to describe Norman Lear's casting of the stage-trained Stapleton in his comedy series "All in the Family" in 1971. Edith Bunker was a brilliant part, and Jean became a national icon. Edith's and Archie's chairs are now in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, emblematic of their place in cultural history. The chairs also grace a stamp in the Postal Service's "Celebrate the Century" collection.

Despite the brilliance and popularity of her portrayal of Edith, Stapleton left "All in the Family" after nine seasons. The mystery series "Murder, She Wrote" was originally developed for her, but she didn't want to commit herself to another TV series. She wanted the freedom to do a variety of projects.

In 1984 she made her operatic debut in Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," followed the next year by an operatic double bill "Bon Appetit!" and "The Italian Lesson," to music of Lee Hoiby. She later appeared in stage roles in "Cinderella," "Arsenic and Old Lace," and two Harold Pinter plays - "The Birthday Party" and the American premiere of "Mountain Language," for which she won an Obie.

Stapleton also played Philamente in Moliere's "The Learned Ladies." Moliere, she notes, "was the perfect step toward playing Shakespeare." Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, says he cast her as the Nurse in "Romeo and Juliet," because "the part requires great humor, warmth, and believability. Very few parts in Shakespeare allow a personality and experience of Jean's range and her particular bent for comedy."

Dancing with John Travolta

In recent films, she gave Meg Ryan "ditsily" regal support in "You've Got Mail," and she danced with John Travolta in "Michael." Stapleton appeared in the American premiere of Tom Stoppard's "Indian Ink" in San Francisco. Although famed for her comedic skills, she drew audiences to tears at the end - and accolades from the author. Said Carey Perloff, American Conservatory artistic director and director of "Indian Ink": "Stoppard just loved Jean. He found her so professional, still so eager to learn, always ready and open to improving anything and totally without temperament."

After not seeing Stapleton for almost two decades, playwright Foote attended one of her off-Broadway plays. Afterward, he went backstage to see her. All smiles, he said, "I loved your work." Recalling it, Stapleton rolls her head back and says, "It was like receiving my Ph.D!"

Then Foote asked her to be in one of his plays. Now she has virtually joined the Foote ensemble of actors, appearing in his plays in regional theater, off-Broadway, and on television.

Of Stapleton's role in "The Carpetbagger's Children," Foote says, "I always look forward to working with her. I am grateful for her talent. She is one of our most skilled actresses. I'm grateful she has taken time to be in six of my plays."

Stapleton says, in turn: "Whenever Horton Foote asks you to be in a play, you make time for it."

In private life, Stapleton was married to the late William Putch for 27 years and has two children, John, a filmmaker and actor, and Pam, an NBC vice president. The couple owned and operated the Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville, Penn.

"I married a summer theater," she says.

'The Carpetbagger's Children,' directed by Michael Wilson, runs through July 1 at the Alley Theatre in Houston. Then it moves to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis Aug. 8 to Sept. 2, and the Hartford (Conn.) Stage Company, Sept. 7-23. It's directed by Michael Wilson, artistic director at Hartford.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor