Actress Jean Stapleton, Who Played Edith Bunker, Dies at 90

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The American arts has lost one of its most solid actresses — a long time reliable character and supporting actress who shot to fame as the long-suffering but actually quite wise Edith Bunker, wife of Archie Bunker in the ground-breaking 1970s comedy “All in the Family.” She is dead at 90.:

Jean Stapleton, an actress whose portrayal of a slow-witted, big-hearted and submissive — up to a point — housewife on the groundbreaking series “All in the Family” made her, along with Mary Tyler Moore and Bea Arthur, one of the foremost women in television comedy in the 1970s, died Friday at her home in New York City. She was 90.

Her death was confirmed by her agent, David Shaul.

Ms. Stapleton, though never an ingénue or a leading lady, was an accomplished theater actress with a few television credits when the producer Norman Lear, who had seen her in the musical “Damn Yankees” on Broadway, asked her to audition for a series. The audition, for a character named Edith Bunker, changed her life.

The show, initially called “Those Were the Days,” was Mr. Lear’s adaptation, for an American audience, of an English series called “Till Death Us Do Part,” about a working-class couple in east London who had reactionary and racist views.

It took shape slowly. The producers filmed three different pilots, the show changed networks to CBS from ABC, and Ms. Stapleton acted in a film directed by Mr. Lear, “Cold Turkey,” before “All in the Family,” as it came to be known, was broadcast in January 1971. Then, for three or four months, hampered by mixed reviews, the show struggled to find an audience, but when it did, it became one of television’s most popular programs, finishing first in the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive seasons and winning four consecutive Emmy awards for outstanding comedy series. Ms. Stapleton won three Emmys of her own, in 1971, 1972 and 1978.

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Audiences who weren’t around to see “All in the Family” when it debuted in 1970 don’t appreciate how record-breaking it was. Norman Lear confronted the issues of bigotry and other issues using often searing humor — something that most television comedy of the era avoided, unless it was a segment with insult comic Don Rickles. And it was also groundbreaking for another reason: by the early 70s many TV comedies had moved to “canned laughter,” inserted in shows shot using a one camera technique. All the family proudly declared it was taped in front of a studio audience.

Stapleton’s Edith was a beloved character. And when Stapleton decided to leave and was killed off, “All in the Family” and a sequel show only starring O’Connor did not measure up — and an era fizzled to an end.

People were confused, though. NO that was not Stapleton’s real voice. She gave the character what she called “that nasal voice” that she had used in a supporting role in “Damn Yankees” on Broadway. And she was hardly ditzy. Watch this serious, fascinating interview with her:
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Stapleton loved the Edith character:

“She was a wonderful character who was loving and colorblind,” Stapleton told The New York Times of her character Edith. “I think she would be appealing at any time because of her freedom from hate and bigotry.”

Born on January 19, 1923, Stapleton attended Hunter College before launching a career in show business.

Her work on Broadway included turns in several hit musicals including “Damn Yankees” and “Funny Girl.” Stapleton was also nominated for an Emmy for her 1982 turn as Eleanor Roosevelt in “Eleanor, First Lady of the World,” and Aunt Vivian in ABC’s “Grace Under Fire.”

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The trailer for Eleanor:
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She even sang a song on the Muppets’ show:
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Jean-Stapleton
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–Doug Mataconis:

Playing the “straight man” in a comedy, even one that was as much social commentary as it was a comedy like “All In The Family,” is never an easy job, but Stapleton took the role of Edith Bunker and made it her own. Indeed, one wonders how the show itself would have worked without Stapleton’s Edith there to humanize Archie and, more than once, get the best of him notwithstanding all the barbs and insults directed her way. Her and O’Connor worked so well together it was almost like they really were married.

It’s been said more than once that a show like “All In The Family” would never make it on television today, and that’s likely true. It’s not just because of the frank way that the show dealt with topics that weren’t just controversial, but also taboo back in the 1970s, but also because it’s hard to believe that any other group of actors could have pulled off a show like that with any degree of credibility.

LA Times fills in some more blanks which again underscore what a serious and versatile actress she was:

She had been a veteran of stage, film and television when she was cast in the CBS sitcom opposite Carroll O’Connor’s loud-mouthed, bigoted Archie Bunker, who often addressed her as “dingbat.” She won three Emmys for the role.

“The benign, compassionate presence she developed made my egregious churl bearable,” O’Connor wrote of Stapleton in his 1998 autobiography. He died in 2001.

Born in New York City on Jan. 19, 1923, Stapleton was the daughter of a billboard advertising salesman and an opera singer.

In 1949, she got a break when she was cast in the national touring company of “Harvey.” Many characters later in summer stock, regional and off-Broadway plays, Stapleton starred as a wisecracking waitress in 1953 Broadway production of “In the Summer House.”

Stapleton went on to a feature role as Sister in “Damn Yankees,” singing the hit tune “You’ve Gotta Have Heart,” and reprised the role in the 1958 film. She also appeared in both the stage and film versions of “The Bells Are Ringing” as Sue, the proprietor of Susanswerphone Service. And she originated the role of Mrs. Strakosh in “Funny Girl,” which made a Broadway star of Barbra Streisand.

Some celebrity reactions on Twitter:

Bette Midler, who is iconic in her own right, tweeted about her peer saying, “Jean Stapleton, beloved as Edith in ALL IN THE FAMILY dies at 90. She was unforgettable in that role…rest in peace…”

Actress Alyssa Milano simply tweeted, “RIP,” while Debi Mazar tweeted, “R.I.P Jean Stapleton!!One of my favorites.”

Marlee Matlin left a beautiful message on her Twitter: “Jean Stapleton who played Edith Bunker was no dingbat. When I finally saw All in the Family with captions I realized she was brilliant! RIP.”

Marie Osmond also wrote about a memory of Jean, saying, “So remember Carroll O’Connor & Jean Stapleton on #DonnyandMarie talk show in 2000. Last TV interview together. Peace to you Jean.”

And Jean’s death seemed to really crush actress/comedian Sandra Bernhard, who tweeted the simple message, “suddenly they’re gone. and it’s too much to bear.”

But it wasn’t all actresses – Vegas actor Michael Chiklis also tweeted, “‘All in the Family’ star Jean Stapleton dies at 90. One of my favorites has passed away. Jean was Brilliant. RIP.”

  

4 Comments

  1. When Stapelton decided to leave the show, Norman Lear spoke with her about how they would respectfully have Edith die. She said, “Just have her die off, she’s only fiction.”

    Lear paused, then said, “Not to me, she isn’t.”

    And not to many of us either……..

  2. Very nice, Joe.

    Edith loved that SOB, Archie, and was much of the glue.

    Brilliant writing by Lear and acting by Stapleton.

    Peace.

  3. this is just a wonderful tribute to her Joe, and I love all the pictures and all the comments and links. She was such an intelligent soul. Archie Bunker show had many many writers and huge crews of people who made everything work… from what I hear, it was for a long time, ‘a golden time’ amongst many. Just clicked. Mostly because of— everyone associated, which numbered in the hundreds. I loved her ‘attack’ on Edith, the way a cellist ‘attacks’ the cello as a virtuoso. For Carrol and for Jean, I hope there’s beauty and peace now… both had some very hard times in life. May they both and all, rest in peace… and cavort with much laughter, always

  4. A loving roundup about a loveable character and a superior actress. Thanks, Joe.

    My spouse’s family was the embodiment of Archie Bunker’s. Father locked into stereotypes (his sister-in-law called him “Archie”), mother (of 10) too busy to be bigoted, and college attending kids seeing their parents as Meathead and Gloria did. They kept telling us about this great show that they all watched (and all liked – which was the show’s genius). We watched one show with them and wondered to each other what the fuss was all about. But giving it another chance, we got hooked as well. The timing for its broadcasting was impeccable.

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