Jean Stapleton just may have cornered the market on beloved icons.
After all, Edith Bunker, the character Stapleton created on the watershed 1970s CBS series "All in the Family," is one of the most cherished characters in television history, registering right up there with Lucy Ricardo on the lovable dingbat scale.
And Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Stapleton portrays in "Eleanor: Her Secret Journey," Rhoda Lerman's one-woman drama opening Sunday at the Can~on Theatre, is arguably one of the most revered women of the 20th century, a globe-trotting humanitarian whose life in the public eye continued long after the death of her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
But what do the fictional Edith Bunker and Eleanor Roosevelt have in common, other than the simple fact that Stapleton has played them?
Both became unlikely advocates for controversial causes.
"When I moved out to L.A. to do 'All in the Family' in the early '70s, it was at the same time that the feminist movement was just getting started," recalls Stapleton. "I was certainly not an activist at that time, but I gladly supported the [Equal Rights Amendment]. Then I moved out here, to this very politically active community. Suddenly, whooo! I was swept into this enormously exciting time. And of course, [creator] Norman Lear was very active in liberal causes, and he was a great influence.
"Then, ERA supporters used Edith Bunker's picture in magazine ads with the caption reading 'Second Class Citizen.' That summer, I got a call from the White House. I thought it was a joke. But they invited me to be a commissioner at a huge national women's convention in Texas. That's when I met all these fabulous women, strong supporters of the women's movement: Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and more, just wonderful people from all the states. It was very inspiring. And all of that happened just because of the series, because fame struck. Zap, like that."
Public Versus Private Life--a Choice
The lightning bolt of fame was a defining factor in Roosevelt's life as well. Although she became an intrepid fighter on behalf of women and minorities, Roosevelt was an improbable public figure. A shy and uncertain society girl thrust into the public eye by her marriage, she paid a bitter price for her celebrity.
That psychic struggle--the gap between Roosevelt's public and private persona--is precisely the focus of Lerman's play.
"The play starts in 1945, shortly after the death of Franklin," Stapleton says. "Eleanor has left Washington. Her public life is over, and she's not at all sad about that. In fact, she's very pleased, and looking forward to a wonderful private life. Then the phone rings. It's a call from President Truman, asking her to be a delegate to the United Nations. She flatly tells him no. But then, she starts to experience memories from her past life, including her terrible memories of the battlefields in World War I. And she realizes that this is an opportunity to advance the cause of human rights. It's a real struggle for her.
"People wonder why Eleanor stayed with Franklin, despite his philandering with press secretary Lucy Mercer and their estrangement. But she and Franklin had an agreement--to help bring peace to the world. I think that was really the foundation of their marriage. And through her humanitarian work, Eleanor resolved all those painful things in her marriage and her past and found her role in the world."
Stapleton's fascination with her subject goes back nearly 30 years when the actress began gathering background on Roosevelt's life for a television movie. On a visit to Val-Kill, Roosevelt's New York home, Stapleton met Lerman, who was researching her soon-to-be-published book "Eleanor: A Novel."
Horrified to learn that Val-Kill was in private hands and slated for conversion into a senior citizens' facility, the two women became involved in efforts to preserve the site. Lerman wrote a monologue about Roosevelt that Stapleton subsequently performed at a fund- raiser. Their cause triumphed. Val-Kill was saved, and a collaboration was born. Lerman contributed source material to "Eleanor: First Lady of the World," which aired on CBS in 1982 with Stapleton in the title role. Lerman's play, starring Stapleton, has been touring since 1998 and is tentatively scheduled for a New York run this spring.
Lerman's play steers clear of recent charges that the first lady had a lesbian affair with journalist Lorena Hickock. "I don't know and I don't care," Stapleton says on the subject. "There was obviously a deep connection between them. But I also get the firm sense that Eleanor was very fond of men."
A vigorous woman, Stapleton looks years younger than her age, which is . . . forget it. She's not telling. "Why shouldn't I look wonderful?" she jokes. "The idea of aging is such a cliche, so misleading."
Biographical sources give Stapleton's birth year as 1923, but whatever her age, one wonders why an actress of her stature and reputation has undertaken the rigors of a national tour--a solo show, no less.
"It's fun!" Stapleton insists. "And we're not doing one-night stands and split weeks anymore. We're settling in for longer runs now. The most exhausting part is packing and unpacking."
Stapleton once actually met Roosevelt, who came backstage when the actress was touring in "Come Back, Little Sheba" in the early 1950s. For Stapleton, it was a transcendent experience.
"She was very tall, with the most radiant smile I had ever seen," says Stapleton. "Her radiance was more than physical. She illuminated the space around her. I'll never forget it. She was magnificent."
* "Eleanor: Her Secret Journey" opens Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Ca~non Theatre, 205 N. Can~on Drive, Beverly Hills. Regular schedule: Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 3 p.m. Ends Oct. 8. $40-$50. (310) 859-2830.