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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Jean Stapleton: Some Thoughts.

I've mentioned several times here about how the actress Estelle Harris, who played George Costanza's mother on "Seinfeld", was the spitting image of my mother.
Perhaps more vocally than visually.
She was fairly close visually as well.
But Jean Stapleton was much closer visually.
And when "All In The Family" first came on, and she came on, with that dingbat voice of hers, all of my relatives were astounded by the resemblance to my mother.
The difference between Estelle Harris and Jean Stapleton was that what Jean Stapleton was doing on "All In The Family" was an affectation.
She didn't really talk like that.
In interviews, she sounded like a regular, intelligent person.
Intelligent enough to realize that when she was going to audition for Norman Lear, she'd have to "dingbat it up"
I've worked with Estelle Harris.
She is the genuine article.
She really talks like that.
This is not to imply that Estelle Harris is a dingbat.
Far from it.
It's simply how she really talks.

As an actress, Jean Stapleton was quite adept at shifting gears.
My first exposure to her work was when I saw the movie musical "Damn Yankees"
She was also in the Broadway version before that.
It was a small part, and she sang the reprise of "You Gotta Have Heart"
And she was in full dingbat mode.

My next exposure was the movie musical "Bells Are Ringing"
She was also in the Broadway version before that.
It was a larger part than in "Damn Yankees", but still relatively small.
Still a dingbat.

Shortly after that, I saw her on Broadway in "Funny Girl"
She played one of Fanny Brice's neighbors in her old neighborhood.
She had two songs.
Full-out dingbat.
She was not Kay Medford's understudy as Fanny's mother.
Someone else replaced her when Kay Medford left.
She made a very positive impression on me and just about everybody else in those three roles.

I've come to believe that a little of her went a long way.
And maybe that's why she was never promoted to Kay Medford's part.
Maybe they thought so too.

She wasn't used in the movie.
They brought in Mae Questel, who was the voice of Olive Oyl and Betty Boop.

Just coincidentally, this past Sunday night, Jean showed up in an episode of "Naked City" on MeTV.
They didn't show it as a tribute to her.
It had been scheduled to be aired before she died.
But there she was, in a drama, sounding like a human being.
I didn't even know she operated in that mode back then.
But she was smart enough to know that "Naked City" wasn't looking for a dingbat.

I'm sure she killed in the room when she read for Norman Lear.
But I don't think he has the slightest idea that a little of her went a long way.
I think that she was the fatal flaw in "All In The Family"
Her onscreen presence was way overextended, and she was consistently shrieking.
Maybe I'm swayed because she cut a little to close to the bone in resembling my mother.

The show has not aged well.
It was very good for its time, but was totally topical.
It was all about Nixon.
And nobody either remembers Nixon anymore, or gives a crap about Nixon any more.
So all it is now is loud, and shrieking, and dated.
This is the tone that was set for most of the shows from the Norman Lear empire.
Ms. Stapleton eventually opted out of the show, fearing that she would be typecast.
Of course she was, but it was by her own hand, and most likely what got her the gig in the first place.
Maybe she was just tired of the shrieking.
I know I was.
I was getting enough of it at home.

And she did successfully make the transition to character parts.
Much more subdued ones.
Where a lot of her went a long way.
For which we should all be grateful.

With the Tony Awards coming up, the next two posts will be Broadway Report Cards.

Then, back to the OTN.


My books ,"Show Runner" and it's sequel,"Show Runner Two", can be found at the Amazon Kindle Store.
Along with the newer ones, "The Man Is Dead", and "Report Cards".
You can search by typing in my name, Cindy Williams, Laverne & Shirley, The Odd Couple, or Happy Days.
Check them out.
You don't need a Kindle machine to download them.
Just get the free app from Kindle, and they can be downloaded to an IPhone, IPad, or Blackberry.
The paperbacks, "Mark Rothman's Essays" and my new novel, "I'm Not Garbo" are not
e-books. But they are available for people without Kindle.
I have many readings and signings lined up for those, and the thing about Kindle is you can't sign one. If you'd like one of the paperbacks, personally autographed, contact me at
And now, we've got my reading of my "Laverne & Shirley Movie" screenplay on YouTube.



  1. Yes, many "All in The Family" episodes were topical and are now dated. But there were just as many non-political episodes, and those are hilarious and hold up well. In addition to some typical sitcom themes, they also did some ground-breaking episodes about menopause, impotence, job loss, aging, discrimination and infidelity. The main cast of four was so good I think the show could have dispensed with the political themes altogether, and the quality would not have suffered.

  2. 42 years ago. That's a long time for ground to be broken.

  3. I always wondered about Norman Lear and his contention that All In The Family was trying to expose bigotry by showing what an intolerant person Archie Bunker was. I think it might have been a wash because a lot of folks hailed the character as a straight shooter. Not everyone gets satire.

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About Me

Hi. I am, according to my Wikipedia entry,(which I did not create) a noted television writer, playwright, screenwriter, and occasional actor. You can Google me or go to the IMDB to get my credits, and you can come here to get my opinions on things, which I'll try to express eloquently. Hopefully I'll succeed. You can also e-mail me at Perhaps my biggest claim to fame is being responsible, for about six months in 1975, while Head Writer for the "Happy Days" TV series, for Americans saying to each other "Sit on it."