Jean Stapleton, who played the scatty, but clever, Edith Bunker to the bigoted Archie Bunker in the 1970’s sitcom All in the Family has died according to her son John Putch who said that she died on Friday surrounded by her friends and family. She died of natural causes.
Jean Stapleton was an accomplished American character actress who worked on Broadway, television and in film. She began her career in 1941 when she was only 18 years-old. She worked in summer stock and made her New York debut in a play called American Gothic, it was an “Off-Broadway show.
She worked on many Broadway plays and did several “hit” musicals including Damn Yankees, Funny Girl, Bells Are Ringing, and Juno. She guest starred in many television series, including the role of Rosa Criley in the 1963 episode “The Bride Wore Pink” on NBC’s medical drama about psychiatry, The Eleventh Hour.
Her early work on television included roles in some of the most prestigious shows of that time; Starlight Theater, Robert Montgomery Presents, Lux Video Theater, Woman with a Past, The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, Dr. Kildare, The Patty Duke Show, Car 54 Where Are You?, Dennis the Menace, and Naked City.
And on an episode of The Defenders that was broadcast on 1 December 1962, Jean Stapleton guest-starred with her future television husband Carroll O’Connor.
But it was as gentle soul Edith Bunker that Jean Stapleton became known for. With her arms raised and with a weak wave of both hands, her clarion cry was usually, “Oh Awwwchie!” At the beginning of each episode, she and her television spouse the bigot of the seventies, played with magnificent sincerity by Caroll O’Connor, would sing an old classic song, Those Were the Days always ended with a high pitched squawk of a note by Jean, who was actually a brilliant singer.
The show, which was a re-working of an English television program called Til Death do us Part, seemed to be almost tailor made for audiences of the 1970’s. Archie and Edith shared their space with their daughter Gloria and her newlywed husband Michael “Meathead” Stivic. Like it’s English counterpart, each week would see the bigoted Archie get his come uppence. Usually with a helping hand from Edith.
Like many, I grew up watching the Bunkers and I remember one episode were Edith got angry. It was a true measure of the acting skills of Ms Stapleton that I can still remember the depth of her anger nearly 35 years later.
The actress continued to work after the show finished, but before the All in the Family pulled that final curtain, she had received three Emmy’s for her work in the show and two Golden Globes.
Edith Bunker might have gone on to pastures new, but Jean Stapleton continued to practice her craft and to work steadily on stage, television and film until she died on Friday aged 90.
Ms Stapleton appeared in made-for-TV movies and feature films such as Klute, the comedy Cold Turkey and the Faerie Tale Theatre episode Cinderella as the fairy godmother and as the Giant’s Wife in Jack and the Beanstalk. She also had a recurring role on television’s Scarecrow and Mrs. King as a British spy.
In 1996, she played opposite John Travolta, portraying the eccentric rooming-house owner, Pansy Milbank in Nora Ephron’s hit Michael. Stapleton also appeared in the 1998 feature You’ve Got Mail as a close co-worker in whom Meg Ryan’s character confides. Stapleton appeared on the CBS television series Touched by an Angel as an angel named Emma.
On April 24, 2000 she appeared with her old on-screen husband Caroll O’Connor on the Donny and Marie Osmond talk show. It was just a little over a year before O’Connor’s death. Donny and Marie asked Jean to sing as Edith Bunker. A request she turned down, joking that, she only does that, “for Pay.”
Stapleton later told the Archive of American Television that she does not like to replicate in casual settings the voices and mannerisms of characters whom she has created, as she feels that it trivializes and detracts from the characters as originally created.
Jean Stapleton and her famous alter-ego Edith Bunker both passed from this world on Friday the 31st of May 2013 aged 90, Ms Stapleton is survived by her two children, John and Pamela.
Those were the days.
By Michael Smith