To most television viewers in the 1970s, Jean Stapleton was the working class housewife ditz with the screechy New York voice who put up with a domineering, bigoted husband – brilliantly and hilariously, and with a kind of love for stagecraft, and indeed for Archie Bunker that defined that sitcom era.
Ms. Stapleton, who died over the weekend, was much more than Edith Bunker of course, although that’s the role she’ll be most remembered for, the one that won her three Emmys and two Golden Globe awards.
She spent years performing in live theater alongside such actors as Barbra Streisand and Art Carney, did a one-woman show as Eleanor Roosevelt, and helped run a regional theater with her late husband William Putch.
News of her passing brought an outpouring from her Hollywood colleagues.
"Jean was a brilliant comedienne with exquisite timing,” said Rob Reiner, who played her son-in-law, dubbed “Meathead” by Archie. “Working with her was one of the greatest experiences of my life."
“No one gave more profound 'How to be a human being' lessons than Jean Stapleton,” said Norman Lear, producer and director of “All in the Family,” the show featuring the Bunkers and assorted other characters which ran from 1971 to 1979.
TV comedy veteran Roseanne Barr tweeted that Stapleton was "a great actor whose range was unbelievable, deep and majestic."
The late Carroll O’Connor, who played Archie opposite Stapleton’s Edith, wrote in his 1998 autobiography: “The benign, compassionate presence she developed made my egregious churl bearable…. Her idea of Edith Bunker was not only original and perfectly suited to the American audience, but very comical and emotionally moving."
Critics remember her with respect and fondness too.
“Stapleton’s performance showed the strength it took, at a time when families were being torn apart, for Edith both to stand up for herself and keep the peace,” writes Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik. “What at first may have seemed like submissiveness in Edith was actually something much tougher: unconditional love. At a time when Americans needed it, Jean Stapleton made Edith a mother to us all, a reminder that in the midst of every living room war were decent people trying to do right.
“All in the Family” reflected the turbulent times in which it was set – the end of the Vietnam War, civil rights and racial desegregation, the burgeoning women’s movement. It confronted tough issues, but it also acted as an antidote, leavening social angst and weariness with humor.
For example, Stapleton said in an interview with the Archive of American Television in 2000, “The civil rights issue went right through our series.”
"There's nothing like humor to burst what seems to be an enormous problem,” she said. “Humor reduces it to nothing and wipes it out. That's what humor does. That was a great part of that show in terms of every issue."
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,” the late Mr. Foote told the Associated Press in 2002. “She has a wonderful sense of character. Her sense of coming to life on stage – I never get tired of watching.”
For a time in the 1970s when “All in the Family” was breaking TV ground, much of America did not tire of watching Jean Stapleton either.