Asked what she wanted inscribed on her gravestone, Maureen Stapleton once said, ”A very distant date.” Alas, that date has arrived; the Oscar-winning actress died today at age 80. Paradoxically, Stapleton always seemed old; in her late 30s, she starred in Bye Bye Birdie as the mother of Dick Van Dyke, who was only a few months her junior. Stapleton (no relation to All in the Family star Jean Stapleton) played memorable older dames in movies like Airport, Cocoon, The Money Pit, and especially Reds, in which her performance as 1910s radical Emma Goldman won her the Academy Award. She was also a celebrated stage actress who won her first Tony at 24 for Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo.
Her 1995 autobiography A Hell of a Life is the rare celebrity memoir that’s a must-read. Not only did she have juicy dish about practically everyone of importance of her era from Hollywood and Broadway — including Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Nancy Reagan, Laurence Olivier, and Burt Lancaster, who she once drunkenly tried to slug at a Hollywood party — but she was also endlessly quotable about herself. After she won her Oscar for Reds (her first win after four nominations), a reporter asked her backstage how it felt to be acknowledged as one of the greatest actresses in the world. She replied, ”Not nearly as exciting as it would be if I were acknowledged as one of the greatest lays in the world.” A hell of a life, all right.