Jean Stapleton: She'll Always Be Our Edith Bunker, Too
If you’re of a certain age and were watching television regularly on Saturday nights in the better part of the 1970s, Jean Stapleton was probably a big reason for watching.
If you’re a lot younger, her real name might not resonate so much, but Edith Bunker, the character she played on the hit social and political bellwether sitcom “All in the Family” from 1971 to 1979, will probably hit a memory note.
Stapleton, playing wife to the late Carroll O’Connor’s bigoted Archie Bunker, easily riled and to fulminate about all the liberal irritants of his times, was, as one writer noted, the heart of that show, created by Norman Lear from a British working-class sitcom. Her Edith, big-hearted, sweet, but stridently voiced opened the show each week with she and Archie singing off-key but happily, “Those Were The Days,” a song that soon became one of those un-melodic melodies you couldn’t get out of your head.
“All in the Family” was a life-and-mood-changing television show—somehow “The Beverly Hillbillies” or “Mr. Ed” didn’t quite seem so funny anymore. Instead, Lear’s show—and O’Connor’s and Stapleton’s and their daughter and hippie son-in-law’s—seemed more real, more pungent and earthy like a late-delivered tabloid. From there, you got “Maude” and the life and struggles of single women, and black—racially and otherwise—comedies and the old silliness retreated, at least until Charlie Sheen came along.
The show—in which Bunker regularly railed against peaceniks, blacks, gays, liberal politics, women’s liberation, potheads and his son-in-law, whom he delighted in calling "meathead"—was a watershed in some ways. It also made everybody in it famous, including Stapleton. Edith wasn’t a feminist. She was one of those good-hearted women spending her life with a husband she loved, but who didn’t shower her with respect. He often called her "dingbat," a not so endearing term. But Edith, who felt real and complicated with Stapleton’s performances, undid him with illogic, kindness, humor and irony that was likely unintended but confounded Archie in mid-rage.
Stapleton was a stage actress who was little known at the time and not much of a politically conscious person at that. She had performed in musicals like “Damn Yankees,” in Pinter plays and those gems penned by Horton Foote and would continue to do so after she left the show, fearing herself typecast, the curse of being on a hit television show.
She went back to the stage, performed a one-woman show about Eleanor Roosevelt (as well as one on Julia Child, pre-Streep, at the Kennedy Center) and worked hard for the Equal Rights Amendment.
Yet, most likely many fans passed on her real name over the weekend. They probably said: "Edith died at the age of 90."