35 years ago, the actress sang the body electric.
The handful of actresses I associate with motherhood include ’80s movie and TV staples Dee Wallace, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Joanna Kerns, Judith Light, and Meredith Baxter. They were the ones that comforted me when I was a kid. But when it comes to images of grandmothers, only one woman comes to mind: Maureen Stapleton.
On January 17, 1982, Stapleton was only 55 years old. She had three Academy Award nominations under her belt and was about to receive her fourth. She would win that Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at the end of March for her performance as Emma Goldman in Reds. But on this particular night, she was on television in the title role of The Electric Grandmother.
The Emmy-nominated NBC special, part of the network’s Peacock Theatre, was co-written by Ray Bradbury based on his 1962 Twilight Zone episode “I Sing the Body Electric,” the plot of which he also later adapted for print as a short story. It’s about a robot grandmother purchased by a widower (Edward Hermann) to help out with his three kids after his wife dies.
If the premise sounds familiar, chances are it’s being confused with so many other sitcom ideas of the time. Mothers were dying all over the place on TV in the ’80s, yet the typical reason was to show dads and other men attempting to be Mr. Moms in an era when divorce and women’s lib was forcing more paternal involvement with children. Less common were the shows where Dad just hired a nanny or remarried.
The Electric Grandmother could have easily been a pilot for a series, minus the end when we see the three siblings she took care of as an elderly trio recalling her arrival and how it took a while for the girl among them to accept her. It’s the classic stepmother narrative, only the new family addition also like a surrogate mother for Hermann’s character, as well as for his kids.
In my head, Stapleton has always primarily been the sweet old lady ideal for grandmother-ness. But looking back on The Electric Grandmother, she also should get points for being one of the creepiest. She dispenses milk and cocoa from her fingertips, produces fortune cookies with printouts quoting the children, can also playback what they say as recorded, and sleeps in the basement sitting upright in a rocking chair while plugged into the wall.
Also, she arrives in a fashion that makes Mary Poppins’ approach seem totally normal. It’s via helicopter airlift, delivering her inside of a sarcophagus complete with death mask. Why would a grandmother meant to sub in for a dead mother be introduced to small children lying immobile in a tomb. To stress the idea that she’s a maternal figure resurrected?
And why would a robot grandmother that lives forever wind up in a nursing home for her kind and not know anything about her grandkid-clients’ lives beyond childhood? Grandparents last our whole lives as long as they’re alive (my one remaining grandparent just turned 91, and we’re in touch). It’s sad how the Electric Grandmother keeps noting how she lives and remembers forever but basically winds up in storage following her brief duty.
Stapleton would go on to reaffirm her status as the grandmother figure for my childhood in the 1985 movie Cocoon and its sequel, Cocoon: The Return. In these movies she’s one of the retirement home inhabitants rejuvenated by extraterrestrial life forces. Her character is married to Wilford Brimley’s, which is perfect since between that and his role on Our House, he was the grandfather figure for my generation, despite him being much younger than he looked. They’re also the only characters shown to be grandparents.
For years, The Electric Grandmother and the Cocoon movies were pretty much all I knew Stapleton from, plus her smaller hilarious roles in Johnny Dangerously and The Money Pit (neither of which hit me was the same woman until I was older). Later I would go back and check out Reds, Woody Allen’s Interiors, for which she earned her third Oscar nomination, the musical Bye Bye Birdie where she’s only 37 playing much, much older, and more, but she’ll always just be my screen-surrogate grandmother.
The Electric Grandmother has still never received more than a VHS release, but you can find bootleg copies streaming online.