Stapleton made her Broadway debut in 1946 in The Playboy of the Western World. She shot to stardom in 1951 when she took on the lead role of Serafina in Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo, earning the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play. She would go on to appear in many other productions of Williams's plays, including 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and Orpheus Descending, two revivals (1965 and 1975) of The Glass Menagerie, and a 1966 revival of The Rose Tattoo. In the movie versions of The Rose Tattoo and Orpheus Descending (retitled The Fugitive Kind), the roles that she had created on stage were played by Anna Magnani; in the latter film, Stapleton played the supporting role of Vee. In 1976, she co-starred as Big Mama in a television version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, and Sir Laurence Olivier.
She won her second Tony Award, for Best Actress in 1971 for Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady and received a Tony nomination for her work in his 1968 comedy Plaza Suite, later appearing in the film version. Stapleton's other Tony nominations were for her performances in The Cold Wind and the Warm, Toys in the Attic, and the 1981 revival of The Little Foxes. She also appeared on Broadway in the The Crucible, The Country Girl, and The Gin Game.
In 1981, Stapleton won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role of Emma Goldman in Warren Beatty's Reds; she had previously been nominated for Lonelyhearts, Airport, and Interiors. She gave a memorable performance as Mae Peterson in the film version of the Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie even though she was the same age as Dick Van Dyke, who played her son. Stapleton's last screen appearance was in Rick McKay's documentary Broadway: The Golden Age, which is being shown this month on PBS.
Her Emmy Award was for the 1967 film Among the Paths to Eden, but Stapleton's best-known television role was that of Bea Asher in the 1975 film Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, the source material for the Broadway musical Ballroom. She received an Emmy nomination for her work in the TV movie and was also nominated for The Gathering and Miss Rose White.
Stapleton was married twice, to Max Allentuck and David Rayfiel. She is survived by her two children, Katherine Bambery and Daniel Allentuck, and her brother, Jack Stapleton.