R.I.P. Jean Stapleton

Jean Stapleton, who took the role of a sweetly scatterbrained Queens housewife and transformed it into one of the most-loved characters in American television on All In The Family, has died at the age of 90.

For eight years, Stapleton played Edith Bunker on the top-rated sitcom, where she gladly suffered the foolishness of her bigoted husband and blurred the line between whimsical dottiness and common sense. The role made her famous and won her three Emmys and two Golden Globes. She inhabited the role to such a degree that, when Edith behaved uncharacteristically in one episode, telling her husband to go stifle his own damn self, teacups were dropped all over America. (It turned out that Edith was going through menopause.) But when the series was officially canceled, and her co-star, Carroll O’Connor, was repositioned into a spin-off series, Archie Bunker’s Place, Stapleton was ready to move on.

A character actress who started working in summer stock and touring companies when she was fresh out of high school, Stapleton’s big break came in 1955, when she won the role of Sister in the hit Broadway musical Damn Yankees. Not long after, she made her movie debut reprising the role in the 1958 film version. In 1956, she appeared in the Broadway musical Bells Are Ringing, and then again in its movie version in 1960. Throughout the 1960s, Stapleton appeared in the famous 1961 production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros starring Zero Mostel, and in the star-making 1964 Barbra Streisand vehicle Funny Girl; on such TV series as The Defenders, Route 66, Naked City, My Three Sons, The Patty Duke Show, and Car 54, Where Are You?; and in the movies Something Wild (1961) and Up The Down Staircase (1967). She also did her fair share of TV commercials.

 

In 1971, she had a small role in Klute, the thriller that won Jane Fonda her first Academy Award. But the most important role of her movie career was probably in the anti-smoking comedy Cold Turkey (1971), a film directed by Norman Lear, who a few months later would cast her as Edith Bunker.  Although Stapleton always gave credit to All In The Family for opening doors, she also referred to the show’s ‘70s heyday as a time when she was “confined” to a single, high-profile role, and kept on such a hectic schedule that it prohibited her from taking other jobs. (What jobs she did take during the series’ run were mostly in TV films: the 1973 Acts Of Love And Other Comedies, written by Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna; Tail Gunner Joe, a 1977 political biopic starring Peter Boyle as Senator Joseph McCarthy; and a 1979 TV production of You Can’t Take It With You.) 

When All In The Family metamorphosed into Archie Bunker’s Place, Stapleton agreed to make occasional appearances as Edith. But after five episodes, she begged off. After working around her for most of the first season, the writers finally, officially made Archie Bunker a widower, killing Edith off with a stroke that felled her during the season hiatus. It was a bold move, considering how strongly protective the TV audience had grown of the character: When guest actor David Dukes attempted to rape Edith on her fiftieth birthday (in a 1977 episode that was later used as an educational tool in rape crisis centers), Dukes reported receiving death threats.

 

Post-Edith, Stapleton starred in the 1981 TV movie Angel Dusted alongside her son, John Punch; played Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1982 TV movie Eleanor: First Lady Of The World (a role she tackled again almost 20 years later in the one-woman play Eleanor: Her Secret Journey); appeared in a 1985 cable TV production of Jules Feiffer’s Grown Ups; won an OBIE Award for her work in a 1989 Off-Broadway double bill of two Harold Pinter plays, The Birthday Party and Mountain Language; won raves for her performance in another theatrical double bill, Bon Appetit! (1991), in which she played Julia Child; co-starred with Whoopi Goldberg in the TV version of Bagdad Café (1990); and appeared in two movies directed by Nora Ephron, Michael (1996) and You’ve Got Mail (1998).

She also made occasional guest appearances on TV shows, including Murphy Brown, Caroline In The City, Grace Under Fire, Everybody Loves Raymond, Touched By An Angel, and Beakman’s World, where she sometimes turned up as Beakman’s Mom. In 2000, she made a surprise reunion appearance with Carroll O’Connor on Donny and Marie Osmond’s talk show, a year before O’Connor’s death.

However, outside of the short-lived Bagdad Café, she resisted tying herself down to another TV series, even famously turning down the role of Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote. “I think Angela Lansbury is wonderful in the role,” she told an interviewer in 1986, “and she wanted to enter television, so it worked out beautifully for everybody.” At the time, she was promoting her latest TV movie, an adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel in which she played a mystery writer named Ariadne Oliver. Speaking enthusiastically of the role, she said, “There’s a lot of character there, which is what I do.” 

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