Jean Stapleton: a life after Edith Bunker

Call Jean Stapleton Jean. Don't ever call her Edith. Miss Stapleton, co-star with Carroll O'Connor of ''All in the Family'' for eight years, loved Edith Bunker, the character she played. But now that period of her life is over and she doesn't like being identified as Edith.

''I think of Edith as just a role I played. I don't watch the reruns. I want to put a lot of distance between that image and whatever else I do. I don't miss Edith - but I do miss my colleagues on the show.

''Recently I was acting at the Totem Pole Playhouse (a summer theater in Chambersburg, Pa., owned by Miss Stapleton and her husband, director Joseph Putsch) when a woman came backstage and called, 'Hi, Edith.' I replied, a bit irritated: 'My name is Jean. Call me Jean.'

''My husband roared because he said my words were like a dart aimed at her. But I am now trying to be pleasanter about it. I really do appreciate the affection.''

As part of Miss Stapleton's plan to shuck the career image of Edith, she is appearing next week in a teleplay in which she plays a woman totally unlike the Edith in her past: ''Isabel's Choice' (CBS, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 9-11 p.m.).

It is the story of a female secretary to a top officer of a company who finds herself in an executive position when he is replaced. Miss Stapleton is allowed to wear stylish clothes and evolve into a well-adjusted businesswoman who, in the long run, is forced to face the same kind of decisions which bothered her former employer, now her fiance. When he insists that she quit her job and emancipated life style to enjoy a married life with him, Isabel must make a much bigger choice than might appear on the surface.

Produced by Gabriel Katzka and Stuart Millar, ''Isabel's Choice,'' is directed with great sensitivity by Guy Green, from an enlightened script by Oliver Hailey. It is a benevolent feminist fantasy which at its best deals skillfully with the complexities of feminism. Even at its simplistic worst, it at least gives us a glimpse of a well-dressed, well-groomed, total pro at work - the Jean Stapleton beyond Edith Bunker.

Miss Stapleton - in New York for the announcement of the formation of the Wonder Woman Foundation, a new group that provides financial grants to working women over 40 and which honors women of achievement - believes that ''Isabel's Choice'' is not just a film for women. ''While I believe it makes a statement that feminists will love, I also think it has something to say to men,'' she says.

The next major role for Jean Stapleton is that of Eleanor Roosevelt. ''I am so excited about it,'' she says. ''It covers the 1946-48 period when she was appointed to the UN General Assembly as a delegate by Truman who called her 'the first lady of the world.' That's the title.''

''But it is basically about Eleanor Roosevelt's achievement in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We are attempting to paint a personal character portrait around that event. It's a hard job because she was never a very public person about herself - her whole focus was on her work.''

Won't there be some negative reaction from old-timers who still think of Eleanor as partly a kind of comic figure?

''Many people only think of Eleanor Roosevelt as an ugly duckling with buck teeth and a high voice - the way she was always caricatured. But she blossomed into a very beautiful woman with an inner radiance.

''Despite what people remember, she had one of the most mellifluous voices - I have tons of recordings and interviews. She worked on that voice in the early years.

''It was only when she was under pressure that her voice began to get a little higher. But she overcame even that. Hers was a beautiful, cultured voice. Maybe some people will say that isn't true. But what do I care; I know it is true.''

Miss Stapleton plans to act early next year in a Kennedy Center revival of Sidney Howard's ''The Late Christopher Bean,'' which she hopes will get to New York in the spring. The Eleanor Roosevelt film will probably air on CBS later in 1982.

So the Edith Bunker shuffle is gone for good?

She shakes her head, then nods affirmiitively. ''The shuffle is gone for good.I was never attached to it. The shuffle belonged to that character and I loved doing it because it evoked laughter and was right for Edith.''

But will there never be a revival of Edith Bunker?

''Heavens, no.The death of Edith was discussed at length by the cast of 'All in the Family.' It was necessary because it would have been dishonest for her to get a divorce - the Bunkers would never divorce each other. If we sent her off for a long visit to California, she would still be hovering over the series, making it difficult to enlarge and expand Archie's life.

''The last person to agree to that was Norman Lear (the executive producer and creator of the character). She meant so much to him. I remember talking to Norman on the phone and I said, 'Norman, she's only fiction.' And there was dead silence. I thought, 'I've said the wrong thing. I have hurt Norman Lear, the last thing I would ever want to do.'

''After a long pause, he said: 'To me, she isn't only fiction.'

''So we agreed that attention had to be paid to Edith, and the Edith Bunker Memorial Fund was established, administered by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, for the support of women's issues and the passage of the ERA.

''I am very proud of the way the whole problem turned out. But personally I realized it was a darn good thing for it to be that way because, somehow, the public cannot separate me from the character of Edith. If she is gone, it helps me personally in their minds because they know I am somebody else now.''

If Archie Bunker saw ''Isabel,'' what would he get from it?''I'm afraid Archie would think Isabel a fool. I think he would feel her choice is very foolish and he wouldn't understand it. He'd say it was just another one of those movies he doesn't believe have any reality. In fact, he would switch the dial long before the ending.''

Having come full sweep from Edith Bunker, unliberated housewife, to Isabel Cooper, liberated executive, does Jean Stapleton have any regrets about having played Edith?

''No. That was a marvelous part of my career. I wouldn't trade one minute of it. It took me so far in so many ways. But I have no regrets about it ending as it did. It was getting to be a chore. An artist doesn't paint the same canvas for his entire career, an actor doesn't play the same part.''

Miss Stapleton maintains a very private personal life - she is reluctant to discuss her family, even though her husband, son, and daughter are all actively involved in the entertainment field. And she insists on keeping it that way for this interview.

''I'm even more zealous now about my personal life than I used to be, because so little is regarded as private these days.

''However, I think this is a very exciting period and I am publicly glad to live in a time when myths about women are being cut down. I want to do my part.

''I'm glad to be in a position where I can help to keep alive certain things that are important - such as the solving of problems through peaceful means.

''And I am gratfeul for TV films like 'Isabel's Choice' and the Eleanor Roosevelt story. TV films can now cover contemporary issues and use women of my age who are a large part of the population. The audience can identify with both Isabel and Eleanor.

''I feel that I am performing a real service as well as entertaining people in doing these parts. That's what the theater is all about. That's what communications is all about.

That's what Jean Stapleton is all about, too.

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