After Winning a 'reds' Oscar, Fearful Flier Maureen Stapleton Takes a Slow Train to Texas

updated 05/03/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When she won this year's Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as flinty anarchist Emma Goldman in Reds, Maureen Stapleton, 56, proclaimed: "I'm thrilled, happy, delighted, sober. "A few days later, boarding the Amtrak sleeping car at L.A.'s Union Station, Stapleton was none of the above. An avowed hodophobe (one who fears travel), she fears flying most of all, and thus has made as many as 10 transcontinental train trips in one year. Even before riding the rails to Texas Woman's University in Denton, Stapleton had fortified herself with a farewell champagne party. In Texas, she was to guest-star in two performances (at $25,000 each) of The Glass Menagerie. Due to a derailment on the track ahead, however, the trip turned into a grueling four-day marathon. During the journey Stapleton confided the fears, frustrations and the fun of her life to PEOPLE'S Suzanne Adelson.

Tuesday, 10:30 p.m. Stapleton zooms into the station, just minutes before departure. She travels light: one suitcase, two paper bags. The bulge in the bag is not her Oscar (it's being engraved) but a supply of Korbel champagne to boost her courage for the trip. "Let's just get through this with a couple of laughs," winks Maureen. Her accommodations—a sofa unfolded into a bed, a chair, a tiny wash basin—are hardly an Oscar winner's due, but Stapleton, wearing the Michaele Vollbracht caftan Elizabeth Taylor gave her last year, is not one for show anyway. Always a weight worrier (she once ballooned to 210 pounds), Staple-ton says she has finally given in to "middle-aged spread."

11 p.m. The train clacks into the night as Stapleton alternately smokes Merits and sips champagne. She may have had a drinking problem once, but "never while working," she says. She drinks more often while traveling. After one airplane flight 30 years ago, she vowed "Never again." Last winter, refusing to jet to London for her six-week, $100,000 stint on Reds, she signed on a Polish freighter instead. "It sure wasn't a Princess cruise," she cracks.

Midnight Off to the club car for three hours of penny-ante poker while sipping rosé wine. When an ex-marine unfairly berates her as "a rich, jet-setting movie star," she tells him to "f____ off." Then, glaring, she adds: "Would I be on this goddam train if I were a jet-setter?" The other passengers beam.

Wednesday, 6:30 a.m. Maureen is breakfasting in the dining car, which suddenly jerks to a stop. A freight train ahead has derailed, stalling her train in Tucson. Amtrak suggests it might fly passengers to their destination. "Not me you won't," cries Stapleton. "This is my first train wreck." She heads back to the club car and joins other passengers in games to pass the time. "I can't cope with real life," Maureen laments. "That's why I hid out in the movies when I was a kid." Her Irish Catholic father was a "severe drunk" who left her civil service worker mother and brother Jack, now 52 and a N.Y. tavern owner, when Maureen was about 5. Living with a grandmother and two aunts in Troy, N.Y. made her feel like "a poor relation," and the movies, she figured, were her way out of a "fat, unhappy childhood." Joel McCrea, whom she finally met at the recent Night of 100 Stars benefit, became her inspirational idol. At 17, weighing 170 pounds and with only $100 in her pocket, she set out to make it in Manhattan. She took odd jobs, enrolled at the Actors Studio and did summer stock before landing her first Broadway role in The Playboy of the Western World with Julie Harris. At 25, she was a Tony-winning star as the passionate widow in Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo. "I always played an older woman," Maureen observes. "Never the ingenue, always the character actress."

2 p.m. In her compartment, Maureen uncorks a fresh bottle of champagne and talks about men, a hard subject for a two-time divorcée. "I never learned marriage," she says flatly. "That is something I flunked." She wed theatrical manager Max Allentuck, now 70, in 1949. She still lives in the four-story Manhattan brownstone they bought then. They divorced a decade later but they're friends now due mostly to their two children—Danny, 31, a filmmaker, and Kathy, 27, who works in a Stock-bridge theater. She freezes at the mention of a brief second marriage in 1963 to writer David (Lipstick) Rayfiel. "Can we forget that one?" she asks, then offers: "I fall for tall white Protestants and tall white Jews." Her grand passion began in 1967 when she met legendary Broadway director George (Damn Yankees) Abbott, now 95. The affair ended in 1975. "At his age," says Maureen, "he wasn't looking for marriage. There were no sweet nothings, believe me. But he made me laugh inside."

Thursday, 7 a.m. Maureen arises and shouts, "We're moving." The previous evening she had checked into a Tucson hotel for a luscious shower ("We're a smelly bunch," she cracked), then had accepted a dinner invitation from an off-duty flagman and his 15-year-old daughter, an aspiring actress. Back on the train, exhausted, she was asleep by 8 p.m. Elated to be moving after an 18-hour delay, Maureen washes her hair in the lavatory basin and wraps her head in a towel.

Friday, 3 a.m. We arrive at San Antonio, and despite the hour Maureen is lively. A professor from the college has been waiting to drive us the remaining six hours to Denton. Some way down the road a Texas-size thunderstorm convinces us to check into a motel.

That evening Maureen is electrifying the students in her first rehearsal. After her performances she'll head to New York to begin the TV film based on Barbara Goldsmith's best-seller Little Gloria...Happy at Last, with Bette Davis and Angela Lansbury. "I do a job, I get paid, I go home," says Stapleton. Her inspiration? "Pain. Everybody in this business had some misery growing up." And her goal? "The security of money and never having to travel again." Tucking an unfinished carafe of rosé wine under her raincoat, along with some leftover chicken Hawaiian from a campus dinner, Stapleton explains that after 14 years of therapy she's still a child of the Depression who "can't throw anything away." Clearly there is psychic baggage too. "I've been looking for answers all my life, and you know what?" she asks with a thin smile. "There ain't any."

From Our Partners