Jean Stapleton, Who Played Archie Bunker’s Better Angel, Dies at 90
David F. Smith/Associated Press
By BRUCE WEBER
Published: June 1, 2013 388 Comments
Jean Stapleton, the character 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, not only one of the foremost women in television comedy in the 1970s but a symbol of emergent feminism in American popular culture, died on Friday at her home in New York City. She was 90.
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Her agent, David Shaul, confirmed her death.
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 new series. The audition, for a character named Edith, changed her life.
The show 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 held 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” was first broadcast in January 1971.
For three or four months, hampered by mixed reviews, it struggled to find an audience, but when it did, it became one of the most popular shows in television, 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, ’72 and ’78.
“All in the Family” was set in Queens. Most of the action took place in the well-worn but comfortable living room of the Bunker family, led by an irascible loading-dock worker named Archie whose attitudes toward anyone not exactly like him — that is, white, male, conservative and rabidly patriotic — were condescending, smug and demonstrably foolish. Memorably played by Carroll O’Connor, Archie bullied his wife, patronized his daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), and infuriated and was infuriated by his live-in son-in-law, a liberal student, Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner), whom he not-so-affectionately called Meathead.
Archie employed the vocabulary of a bigot and wielded the unenlightened opinions of a man from a bygone era who refused to admit the world was changing so much that it was no longer his naturally inherited domain.
But he was essentially harmless — small-minded but not meanspirited, ignorant but not unfeeling. Critics routinely referred to him as “a lovable bigot,” as if such a thing were possible. Edith loved him, certainly, though he referred to her, in her presence, as a dingbat and was perpetually telling her to shut up. “Stifle yourself,” was how he put it.
Edith was none too bright, not intellectually, anyway, which, in the dynamic of the show was the one thing about her that invited Archie’s outward scorn. Ms. Stapleton gave Edith a high-pitched nasal delivery, a frequently baffled expression and a hustling, servile gait that was almost a canter, especially when she was in a panic to get dinner on the table or to bring Archie a beer.
But in Edith, Ms. Stapleton also found vast wells of compassion and kindness, a natural delight in the company of other people, and a sense of fairness and justice that irritated her husband to no end and also put him to shame. She was an enormously appealing character, a favorite of audiences, who no doubt saw in the ordinariness of her life a bit of their own, and in her noble spirit a kind of inspiration.
Edith was not, like Ms. Moore’s Mary Richards, a spirited young professional seeking traction in a mostly male workplace, nor was she like Ms. Arthur’s Maude, a brassy, clamorously insistent personality.
Rather, when the issues of “All in the Family” centered on Edith — as when she went through menopause, beset with hilarious mood swings — she became an emblem of all housewives who felt their problems pooh-poohed at home, as if nothing they ever suffered was worth the attention of their husbands and children.
“What Edith represents is the housewife who is still in bondage to the male figure, very submissive and restricted to the home,” Ms. Stapleton, a confirmed if not necessarily outspoken feminist, said in an interview in The New York Times in 1972, with the show still early in its life. (It ran until 1979, and a continuation, “Archie Bunker’s Place,” that starred Mr. O’Connor but not the rest of the cast, lingered until 1983.) “She is very naïve, and she kind of thinks through a mist, and she lacks the education to expand her world.”
Yet as the ‘70s went on, and the women’s movement gained a hold in the public mind (and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment began gaining a hold in Congress and in statehouses), Edith herself gained a measure of strength and self-respect that deepened her character movingly.
In one episode, against Archie’s wishes, she took a volunteer job as a “Sunshine Lady,” providing company and support for the residents of an old-age home, and when Archie tried to force her to quit because he didn’t want her working out of the house, her explosive adamancy took him, and the show’s viewers, by surprise, a triumph for her character that made the episode among the show’s most affecting.
“A question I am most asked by the press is, ‘Do you think Edith would support the E.R.A.?’ ” Ms. Stapleton said in 1978, in accepting an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Emerson College in Boston. She concluded, “Of course Edith Bunker would support ratification of the 27th Amendment to the Constitution, because it is a matter of simple justice — and Edith is the soul of justice.”
She was born Jeanne Murray on Jan. 19, 1923, in Manhattan. Her father, Joseph, was an advertising salesman; her mother, Marie Stapleton, was a concert and opera singer, and music was very much a part of her young life.
Jeanne was a singer as well, which might be surprising to those who knew Ms. Stapleton only from “All in the Family,” which opened every week with Edith and Archie singing “Those Were the Days,” Ms. Stapleton lending a screechy half of the duet that was all Edith.
Ms. Stapleton herself had a long history of charming musical performances. She was in the original casts of “Bells are Ringing” on Broadway in the 1950s and “Funny Girl,” with Barbra Streisand, in the 1960s, in which she sang “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty” and “Find Yourself a Man.” Off Broadway in 1991, she played Julia Child, singing the recipe for chocolate cake in the mini-musical “Bon Appétit.” On television, she sang with the Muppets.
After high school, Ms. Stapleton worked as a typist and a secretary, taking acting classes at night. This is also when she changed her name to her mother’s, feeling it was, as she put it once, “more distingué” than Murray. Her older brother, Jack, had done the same. She was not, as often presumed, related to the actress Maureen Stapleton.
Ms. Stapleton studied and performed with the American Actors’ Company, whose alumni include Horton Foote and Agnes DeMille, and did a great deal of summer stock. She toured opposite Frank Fay in “Harvey,” and was the understudy for Shirley Booth in the touring company of “Come Back, Little Sheba.” Even during her television heyday, Ms. Stapleton’s schedule almost always included summer shows because her husband, William Putch, whom she married in the late 1950s, operated the Totem Pole Playhouse in Pennsylvania.
Mr. Putch died in 1983. Ms. Stapleton is survived by their two children, Pamela and John.
In 1953 she made her Broadway debut as the owner of an oyster bar who dispenses advice to Judith Anderson and Mildred Dunnock in Jane Bowles’s play “In the Summer House,” directed by Jose Quintero. In addition to her musical experience, her Broadway credits include the Eugene Ionesco farce “Rhinoceros” (1961), and, much later, a revival of “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1987).
In the movies, Ms. Stapleton reprised her roles in “Bells Are Ringing” and “Damn Yankees,” and she appeared in “Something Wild” (1961) as the well-meaning neighbor of a rape victim (Carroll Baker) and as a secretary in “Klute” (1971), a thriller about a detective and a call girl starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.
“All in the Family” was Ms. Stapleton’s first television series, but before that she had appeared as a guest on several shows, including “Dr. Kildare,” “My Three Sons,” “Car 54, Where Are You?” and the courtroom drama “The Defenders,” in which she played the owner of a boardinghouse who accused a tenant — played by Mr. O’Connor — of murder.
Ms. Stapleton bowed out of “All in the Family” as a series regular in 1979, but she appeared in several episodes the next year, after the title of the show had been changed to “Archie Bunker’s Place.” The opening episode of the second season of “Archie Bunker’s Place” dealt with the aftermath of Edith’s death.
After “All in the Family,” Ms. Stapleton purposely sought out roles that would separate her from Edith, and in so doing she led a busy and varied, if less celebrated, performing life. She turned down a chance to star as Jessica Fletcher, the middle-aged mystery writer at the center of “Murder, She Wrote,” which became a long-running hit with Angela Lansbury.
But she appeared as a guest on numerous television series, including “Caroline in the City” and “Murphy Brown”; starred with Whoopi Goldberg in a short-lived series, “Bagdad Café”; did turns in films (“You’ve Got Mail,” “Michael”); and made several television movies, including “Eleanor: First Lady of the World” (1982), in which she starred as Eleanor Roosevelt. The film led to a one-woman show that toured the country.
Perhaps the most significant work of her later life, however, was Off Broadway, where she performed in challenging works by Mr. Foote (“The Carpetbagger’s Children”), John Osborne (“The Entertainer”) and Harold Pinter (“Mountain Language,” “The Birthday Party”) to sterling reviews.
“She brings supreme comic obtuseness to Meg, the pathetic proprietor of a shabby seaside boarding house,” Frank Rich of The Times wrote of Ms. Stapleton’s performance in “The Birthday Party.” Contrasting her role with that of her “broadly drawn Edith Bunker,” Mr. Rich concluded, “Ms. Stapleton’s Meg is the kind of spiritually bankrupt modern survivor who makes one question the value of survival.”
After “All in the Family,” it was Ms. Stapleton’s lot to live in Edith’s wake. In 1977, she was one of 45 International Women’s Year commissioners who convened the National Women’s Conference in Houston, a federally financed gathering of 2000 delegates from the 50 states, for the purpose of helping to form national policy on women’s issues.
On the third day of the conference, Ms. Stapleton left the commissioners’ seating area and wandered onto the conference floor among the delegates. She was besieged.
“Look, it’s Edith!” delegates and photographers shouted. “Look, it’s Edith!”