New York — Jean Stapleton, long the beloved Edith Bunker of ''All in the Family,'' doesn't have to fuss anymore about people who insist upon identifying her personally as Edith. From Wednesday forward, in the eyes of millions of American TV viewers, she will probably be Eleanor Roosevelt.
Eleanor, First Lady of the World (CBS, Wednesday, 9-11 p.m.) is the moving tale of a woman alone. It takes Eleanor Roosevelt's life from shortly after FDR's demise in 1945 until the passage of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1946. Like her life itself, this story of Eleanor Roosevelt's search for a life for herself is not without controversy.
Cinderella stories need villains, but scriptwriters Caryl Ledner and Cynthia Mandelberg have painted too much of the story from a palette with only black and white. Mrs. Roosevelt is always the heroine; the ever-present arch villain is John Foster Dulles, who disagrees with President Harry S. Truman's decision to appoint her to the American UN delegation. Throughout the film he is portrayed by E.G. Marshall as a sneering, disbelieving, nay-saying antagonist without any redeeming political or human values. ''More dangerous than the Russians,'' Eleanor observes.
This tale of the metamorphosis of Eleanor is a wonderful fable indeed. From the first moments when she is uncertain which way to turn, and considers giving the attention to her grandchildren that she had never managed with her own children, to her doubts about her own ability to serve in the international arena, Jean Stapleton's Eleanor Roosevelt manages to give the honesty and sense of humanity she possessed.
Miss Stapleton accomplishes this with a minimum of makeup, only a faint, restrained hint of the stuff of professional impersonation (in this case large front teeth and a high-pitched voice). Instead, she relies on projecting an inner glow which somehow she converts into an impression rather than a mimicry of the real Eleanor.
It is a superb performance, which gets to the essence of a vivid character who considers ''failure just a rough spot on the road to success.'' Miss Stapleton's subtle accomplishment will undoubtedly vie with the recent Ingrid Bergman portrayal of Golda Meir at Emmy time.
Miss Stapleton and I had a recent opportunity to chat about the role. ''Somebody in the street yelled 'Hi, Edith' at me this morning,'' she said, ''but I didn't even look back because I don't answer to that name. I'm Jean.''
Miss Stapleton says that the film was shot on location in London, Paris, and Hyde Park. In London outside of Claridge's, where they were shooting, ''our producer heard two women discussing me. 'Who is that woman?' one asked the other. 'That's Eleanor Roosevelt,' the other replied. 'Oh, I didn't realize she was alive!' ''
''Now, that's the kind of reaction I was really waiting to hear.''
Miss Stapleton would like very much to do Gilbert and Sullivan, in which she would sing and do some comedic acting. ''I'd like to do Buttercup in 'Pinafore' and Hannah in 'Ruddigore.' ''
She would also like to play other important women of history in a biographical series. ''Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for instance, had a fabulous life -- the stuff of interesting theater.''
Miss Stapleton hopes that the production of ''Eleanor'' will serve the purpose of ''telling her inspiring story to a whole generation of kids who either don't remember her at all, or have forgotten.
''Also, I hope it will wipe the memory of me as Edith from their minds. If my fans call me 'Eleanor' from now on, I'd be thrilled.''