Jean Stapleton, beyond Edith Bunker: a devoted theater actress

Jean Stapleton playing Eleanor Roosevelt in a 2000 production of "Eleanor: Her Secret Journey" at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills.
Jean Stapleton playing Eleanor Roosevelt in a 2000 production of “Eleanor: Her Secret Journey” at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Before her caterwauling duet of “Those Were the Days” with Carroll O’Connor became a signature moment of CBS’ “All in the Family,” actress Jean Stapleton had already sung her way through a number of now-classic stage musicals in her career as a New York theater actress.

Stapleton, who died Friday at 90 in New York, was a Broadway veteran by the time TV producer Norman Lear cast her as Queens housewife Edith Bunker in “All in the Family.” Her biggest stage hits included supporting roles in the original Broadway productions of “Damn Yankees,” “Bells Are Ringing” and “Funny Girl.”

“All in the Family” intervened in 1971 and thereafter she devoted much of her working life to the popular sitcom. Still, she managed to find time in her busy schedule to appear in a Los Angeles production of Arthur Laurents’ “The Time of the Cuckoo” in 1974 at the Ahmanson Theatre.

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Stapleton played a repressed American secretary who finds romance while vacationing in Italy. In an interview with The Times shortly before the play opened, the actress said, “‘Cuckoo’ has the same excitement for me as would returning to Broadway... I may play the lead, but I can’t consider myself a star.”

In 2000, Stapleton was back in L.A. theater in the one-woman show “Eleanor: Her Secret Journey” at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills. The actress played Eleanor Roosevelt in the years after the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

With “All in the Family” behind her, Stapleton returned to regular stage work. She played Julia Child long before Meryl Streep did in a production called “Bon Appetit!” at the Kennedy Center in 1989 and a couple of years later at New York’s Classic Stage Company, a theater that developed a fruitful relationship with Stapleton.

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The actress appeared in a handful of plays by Horton Foote, including “The Carpetbagger’s Children” at Houston’s Alley Theater in 2001 and at Lincoln Center in New York the following year. She also won acclaim for her appearance in plays by Harold Pinter, winning an Obie Award in 1990.


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Jean Stapleton dies at 90; was Edith Bunker in ‘All in the Family’