Maureen Stapleton, who created a gallery of pugnacious, sometimes profane but always vulnerable heroines on Broadway, in films and on television and who won an Academy Award for her fiery performance as the anarchist Emma Goldman in Reds, died on Monday at her home in Lenox, Mass. She was 80.
The cause was chronic pulmonary disease, said her son, Daniel Allentuck.
Stapleton had one of the most honored acting careers of her generation. Her Academy Award for Reds, Warren Beatty's 1981 epic about the Russian Revolution, came on her fourth Oscar nomination. She also won two Tony Awards and an Emmy among many nominations.
Stapleton's story embodied the classic theatrical cliche. A small-town girl nurtured on long afternoons at the movies, she came to New York in 1943 with dreams of becoming a star in the theater. She worked at a variety of jobs salesgirl, hotel clerk, artists' model while attending acting school. Then, not long after her theatrical baptism in summer stock and a few small roles on Broadway, fortune smiled.
It was 1950. Tennessee Williams had written a play called The Rose Tattoo, and he wanted the renowned Italian actress Anna Magnani to play the lead role, that of Serafina Delle Rose, an earthy Sicilian-American widow looking for love. But Magnani declined, fearing that her English was inadequate for Broadway. Other actresses were auditioned, without success. Harold Clurman, who had directed Stapleton earlier that year in Arthur Laurents' Bird Cage, suggested to the producers that they audition her. After repeated callbacks, she was told she had the part.
The Rose Tattoo opened at the Martin Beck Theater in February 1951. Brooks Atkinson, writing in The New York Times, called the performance "triumphant" and praised her ability to convey not only the coarseness of the plainspoken Serafina but also her moments of exaltation. The play ran for 300 performances then toured for six months.
The Rose Tattoo fulfilled Stapleton's childhood dream of becoming a star and also earned her a Tony Award. But the stress of her first major role also brought her face to face with the demons that would pursue her throughout her career. She began to drink, though she always maintained that she drank only after a performance. (She routinely vomited before curtain time.) She also became convinced that someday, someone in the audience was going to kill her.
Stapleton's growing paranoia led her to seek out a psychotherapist after the show ended its tour, but a cure for her ills she also had a lifelong fear of elevators and airplanes proved elusive. One therapist was to treat her for 14 years. Despite her problems with alcohol and bouts of anxiety, her life seemed to be on a positive track. She married Max Allentuck, general manager for the producer Kermit Bloomgarden. They had a son, Daniel, and a daughter, Katherine. When word came that Williams was ready with a new play, Orpheus Descending, she was told once again that he wanted Magnani to play the heroine, a frustrated Italian-American storekeeper in a small Southern town whose world is torn apart by the arrival of a handsome newcomer. But Magnani declined again, and the role went to Stapleton.
The play opened on Broadway in March 1957 and drew mixed reviews, but Stapleton won raves in the lead role of Lady Torrance, Williams's gritty, sex-starved heroine.