Maureen Stapleton, the Oscar-winning character actress whose subtle vulnerability and down-to-earth toughness earned her dramatic and comedic roles on stage, screen and television, died Monday in Lenox, Mass., from chronic pulmonary disease. She was 80.
The actress was a noted interpreter of Tennessee Williams’ works, such as “The Rose Tattoo” and “Orpheus Descending.” While she appeared in only a dozen or so films, she picked up four supporting actress Oscar nominations along the way, starting with her debut in 1958’s “Miss Lonelyhearts,” for “Airport” in 1970 and subsequently for Woody Allen’s “Interiors.” She won in 1981 for “Reds,” in which she portrayed the fiery revolutionary Emma Goldman.
To prepare for the role, Stapleton said she tried reading Goldman’s autobiography but soon chucked it out of boredom.
“There are many roads to good acting,” Stapleton, known for her straightforwardness, said in her 1995 autobiography, “Hell of a Life.” “I’ve been asked repeatedly what the ‘key’ to acting is, and as far as I’m concerned, the main thing is to keep the audience awake.”
Besides her two Tonys, one for “Rose Tattoo” in 1951 and the other, 20 years later, for Neil Simon’s “The Gingerbread Lady,” Stapleton also distinguished herself in television with such dramas as “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom” and her Emmy-winning “Among the Paths of Eden” in 1968.
Her other film credits include the 1963 musical “Bye Bye Birdie” alongside Ann-Margret and Dick Van Dyke; “Johnny Dangerously”; “Cocoon”; “The Money Pit”; and “Addicted to Love.”
Brought up in a strict Irish Catholic family with an alcoholic father, Stapleton left home in Troy, N.Y., right after high school. With $100 to her name, she came to New York and began studying at the Herbert Berghof Acting School and later at the Actors Studio.
Stapleton soon made her Broadway debut in Burgess Meredith’s 1946 production of “The Playboy of the Western World.”
At age 24, she became a success as Serafina Delle Rose in Tennessee Williams’ Broadway hit “The Rose Tattoo” and went on to appear in numerous other stage productions, including Lillian Hellman’s “Toys in the Attic” and Neil Simon’s “The Gingerbread Lady.”
She starred opposite Laurence Olivier in Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Stapleton’s friendship with Williams was well known, and he wrote three plays for her, but she never appeared in any of them.
Along the way, she led a chaotic personal life, which her autobiography candidly described as including two failed marriages, numerous affairs, years of alcohol abuse and erratic parenting of her two children.
Stapleton is survived by a son, a daughter and a brother.
(Richard Natale contributed to this report.)