LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jean Stapleton’s Edith Bunker was such a dithery charmer that we had to love her. And because she loved her bombastic husband Archie, we made room for him and TV’s daring “All in the Family.”
It took an actress as smart and deft as Stapleton to create the character that Archie called “dingbat,” giving a tender core to a sitcom that tested viewers with its bigoted American family man and blunt take on social issues.
Stapleton, 90, who died Friday of natural causes at her New York City home, was the sweet, trusting counterpoint to Carroll O’Connor’s irascible Archie on the 1970s groundbreaking show from producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin.
“No one gave more profound ‘How to be a Human Being’ lessons than Jean Stapleton,” Lear said Saturday.
While Edith faced problems, including a breast cancer scare, with strength, it was the demanding Archie who presented her greatest challenge. Stapleton made her much more than a doormat, but the actress was concerned about what the character might convey.
Edith’s flighty manner, cheerfully high-pitched voice and family loyalty enchanted viewers, while Stapleton viewed her as oppressed and, she hoped, removed from reality.
“What Edith represents is the housewife who is still in bondage to the male figure, very submissive and restricted to the home. She is very naive, and she kind of thinks through a mist, and she lacks the education to expand her world. I would hope that most housewives are not like that,” Stapleton told the New York Times in 1972.
Her character regularly obeyed her husband’s demand to “stifle yourself.”
But Edith was honest and compassionate, and “in most situations she says the truth and pricks Archie’s inflated ego,” Stapleton added.
“She was unforgettable in that role,” Bette Midler posted on her Twitter account Saturday.
Roseanne Barr lauded Stapleton in a tweet as a “great actor whose range was unbelievable, deep and majestic.”
The stage-trained actress was little known to the public before “All In the Family,” the top-rated CBS sitcom that also starred Sally Struthers as the couple’s daughter and Rob Reiner as their liberal son-in-law Mike, aka Meathead.
“Jean was a brilliant comedienne with exquisite timing. Working with her was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Reiner said in a statement.
Stapleton was surrounded by family and friends when she died.
“It is with great love and heavy hearts that we say farewell to our collective Mother, with a capital M,” said her son and daughter, John Putch and Pamela Putch, in a statement. “Her devotion to her craft and her family taught us all great life lessons.”
She proved her own toughness when her husband of 26 years, William Putch, suffered a fatal heart attack in 1983 at age 60 while the couple was touring with a play directed by Putch.
Stapleton went on stage in Syracuse, N.Y., that night and continued on with the tour. “That’s what he would have wanted,” she told People magazine in 1984. “I realized it was a refuge to have that play, rather than to sit and wallow. And it was his show.”
She received eight Emmy nominations and won three times during her eight-year tenure with “All in the Family.” The series broke through the timidity of U.S. TV with social and political jabs and ranked as the No. 1-rated program for an unprecedented five years in a row. Lear would go on to create a run of socially conscious sitcoms.
Stapleton also earned Emmy nominations for playing Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1982 film “Eleanor, First Lady of the World” and for a guest appearance in 1995 on “Grace Under Fire.”
Her big-screen films included a pair directed by Nora Ephron: the 1998 Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romance “You’ve Got Mail” and 1996′s “Michael” starring John Travolta. She also turned down the chance to star in the popular mystery show, “Murder, She Wrote,” which became a showcase for Angela Lansbury.
The theater was Stapleton’s first love and she compiled a rich resume, starting in 1941 as a New England stock player and moving to Broadway in the 1950s and 60s. In 1964, she originated the role of Mrs. Strakosh in “Funny Girl” with Barbra Streisand. Others musicals and plays included “Bells Are Ringing,” ”Rhinoceros” and Damn Yankees,” in which her performance — and the nasal tone she used in “All in the Family” — attracted Lear’s attention and led to his auditioning her for the role of Archie’s wife.
“I wasn’t a leading lady type,” she once told The Associated Press. “I knew where I belonged. And actually, I found character work much more interesting than leading ladies.”
She confounded Archie with her malapropos — “You know what they say, misery is the best company” — and open-hearted acceptance of others, including her beleaguered son-in-law and African-Americans and other minorities that Archie disdained.
As the series progressed, Stapleton had the chance to offer a deeper take on Edith as the character faced milestones including a breast cancer scare and menopause. She was proud of the show’s political edge, citing an episode about a draft dodger who clashes with Archie as a personal favorite.
But Stapleton worried about typecasting, rejecting any roles, commercials or sketches on variety shows that called for a character similar to Edith. Despite pleas from Lear not to let Edith die, Stapleton left the show, re-titled “Archie’s Place,” in 1980, leaving Archie to carry on as a widower.
“My decision is to go out into the world and do something else. I’m not constituted as an actress to remain in the same role…. My identity as an actress is in jeopardy if I invested my entire career in Edith Bunker,” she told the AP in 1979.
She had no trouble shaking off Edith — “when you finish a role, you’re done with it. There’s no deep, spooky connection with the parts you play,” she told the AP in 2002 — but after O’Connor’s 2001 death she got condolence letters from people who thought they were really married. When people spotted her in public and called her “Edith,” she would politely remind them that her name was Jean.
Stapleton was born in New York City to Joseph Murray and his wife, Marie Stapleton Murray, a singer. She attended Hunter College, leaving for a secretarial stint before embarking on acting studies with the American Theatre Wing and others.
Stapleton had a long working relationship with playwright Horton Foote, starting with one of his first full-length plays in 1944, “People in the Show,” and continuing with six other works through the 2000s.
“I was very impressed with her. She has a wonderful sense of character. Her sense of coming to life on stage — I never get tired of watching,” Foote told the AP in 2002. He died in 2009.
Her early TV career included guest appearances on series including “Lux Video Theatre,” ”Dr. Kildare” and “The Defenders.”
Her post-”All in the Family” career included a one-woman stage show, “Eleanor,” in which she portrayed the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Stapleton spent summers working at the Totem Pole Playhouse near Harrisburg, Pa., operated by her husband, William. She made guest appearances on “Murphy Brown” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” and even provided the title character’s voice for a children’s video game, “Grandma Ollie’s Morphabet Soup.”
For years, she rarely watched “All In the Family,” but had softened by 2000, when she told the Archive of American Television that enough time had passed.
“I can watch totally objectively,” she said. “I love it. And I laugh. I think, ‘Oh,’ and I think, ‘Gee, that’s good.’”
Associated Press writers Jake Pearson in New York and Nedra Pickler in Washington contributed to this report.