Jean Stapleton, who played the better half to TV’s most significant icon as Edith Bunker on CBS’s All in the Family, has died at age 90, her family has confirmed. What a wonderful actress…
Stapleton won three Emmy Awards for her role as the long-suffering “Dingbat” on CBS’s groundbreaking 1970s sitcom, and without her contributions to the show, that controversial comedy may never have wound up as America’s most popular TV series in its day. Though Carroll O’Connor’s Archie constantly tried to get Edith to “stifle,” her spirit was indomitable.
So was her tolerant, supportive love of Archie, despite rather than because of all his foibles. Had Stapleton not infused the character of Edith with such a large heart, America might never have found it possible to embrace Archie despite his misguided views on race, religion, and so much else.
Stapleton, in real life, was much more refined and liberated – when I met her on one of the television press tours, she was gracious, polite and both well-spoken and outspoken. She dressed in an elegant manner that telegraphed the distance between her popular TV role and her actual persona – but she had played the part of Edith Bunker so well that, like O’Connor with Archie, nothing before or since would approach, much less eclipse, the All in the Family performances.
That’s true even though she supported Barbra Streisand in the original cast of Funny Girl, and also demonstrated her range, and comic gifts, by playing the female giant in Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre adaptation of “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
And without having to look anything up, I can point to three of Jean Stapleton’s episodes on All in the Family that I consider absolutely brilliant – and proof positive of her importance to one of TV’s most important series ever.
The premiere show – It took producer Norman Lear three tries, casting the roles of Archie and Edith’s daughter and son-in-law differently in each pilot, before nailing the core chemistry in his remake of Britain’s Till Death Us Do Part. But Archie and Edith were played by O’Connor and Stapleton in all three, because Lear knew perfection when he say it.
The opening of the series, in which Edith reacts to a surprise anniversary party, relies upon her tenderness, childlike enthusiasm, and genuine affection to ground the plot, and the series, with true emotion.
Sammy Davis, Jr. visits – One of the best and boldest sitcom episodes ever written. It’s performed impeccably – not only by Davis, who plays himself, and by O’Connor as a wildly inappropriate Archie, but by Stapleton as a starstruck, obliviously charming Edith. Our Rowan University TV History students see it every term. It always kills.
Edith confronts her would-be rapist – This episode of All in the Family had Edith, at age 50, being accosted, in her own home when Archie was away, by a twisted attacker who followed her home. The story line may sound unlikely, but Stapleton made the threat seem very real and very disturbing – and when, at the end, she finds a way to defend herself and thwart his unwanted advances, the studio audience can be heard exploding into a grateful cacophony of cheers and applause.
The opening theme – And in every show, All in the Family began by hitting an emotional home run during the opening credits – a scene that was funny and touching at the same time, and only got better with age, and the more times you watched.
During the opening credits, from the first episode on, Stapleton’s Edith and O’Connor’s Archie exposed their deep love of one another by performing “Those Were the Days,” singing a duet at the family upright piano, with Edith playing and Archie proudly piping in harmonies. What a great scene. What a fantastic start.
And for those of us who treasured both Jean Stapleton and All in the Family, what a wonderful memory.
Those were the days…