Maureen Stapleton (1925-2006) is one of those great character actors that I am just crazy about. I loved the film version of the musical Bye Bye Birdie (1963) as a child, and I still do. Stapleton played Dick Van Dyke‘s mother in the film and she received an Academy Award nomination for it, although, at just 36-years-old, she was only six months older than Van Dyke. When asked if she minded being regularly cast as an older woman she merely shrugged and said:
I was born old.
At the finish of filming Bye Bye Birdie there was a wrap party. The director George Sidney, the producers, and the cast, including stars Van Dyke and Janet Leigh, each gave little speeches extolling the extraordinary special gifts of newcomer Ann-Margret. When it was her turn to speak, Stapleton announced:
I guess I’m the only person in the room who doesn’t want to fuck Ann-Margret.
Van Dyke also recounts a delicious anecdote about Stapleton in his dishy, sweet memoir, My Lucky Life In And Out Of Show Business (2011). They were at a party where it seems Stapleton showed up with her own salad, which she ate with toothpicks, and then spent most of her time sprawled out on the floor. Van Dyke asked her: ”Maureen, wouldn’t youlike a chair?” She answered: ”I’d tell you where I’d like to sit, but your wife is here.”
In case you don’t know, Bye Bye Birdie is a musical film based on the 1960 Broadway production of the same name. It has a tuneful score by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams.
According to Ann-Margret, she was cast when Sidney saw her dancing at the Sands Casino on New Year’s Eve 1961. Sidney was understandably smitten.
Sidney was only going to produce and Gower Champion was set to direct, but Champion told Sidney he could not see it as a film, so Sidney stepped in. Sidney:
That was a great deal of fun. It was a young people’s picture, with a lot of bright, gay noisy cast members yelling and screaming.
Stapleton did win an Academy Award. It was for her small but powerful role as anarchist Emma Goldman in Warren Beatty‘s excellent Reds (1981), she gave what I consider the best acceptance speech of all time:
I want to thank everybody I ever met in my entire life.
Minutes after winning her Oscar, a reporter asked her how it felt to be recognized as one of the greatest actors in the world. Stapleton:
Not nearly as exciting as it would be if I were acknowledged as one of the greatest lays in the world.
When they asked her if she had expected to win, she answered:
Yes, because I’m old and tired and I lost three times before.
I cannot recall another actor with such a down-to-earth personality, completely devoid of pretension.