Jean Stapleton, who died Friday at the age of 90, was 48 when she became famous as Edith Bunker in “All in the Family.”
By the time that landmark sitcom premiered in 1971, she had been acting for 30 years on the stage, in movies and on television, mostly in small roles. She appeared in the Broadway musicals “Bells Are Ringing,” “Damn Yankees” and “Funny Girl” and was in the film versions of the first two.
“All in the Family” was the No. 1 TV show for five years, its cast, nominally headed by Carroll O’Connor as grumpy bigot Archie Bunker, as well known as the president. There are brilliant bits of acting all through the series, and watching it now, it’s remarkable how much of it rests on the four principals -- playing long, play-like scenes -- and how much it relies specifically on Stapleton, who earned three Emmys and two Golden Globe Awards in the role.
With her screeching and her fluttering, her hand-wringing and running about -- she was like a cross between Gracie Allen, Olive Oyl and a macaw -- Edith may have been an extreme type, but she was at the same time a subtle character. Indeed, she might have been the series’ most valuable one, without whom it might have collapsed completely into political point-making, bickering and bitterness. It was her self-appointed place to keep the family together, while forcing its members -- by the mere dint of her goodness -- to take stock of and account for themselves.
Given Edith’s perpetual patience, it was left to the actress herself to kill her off. In spite of Lear’s pleas to remain, Stapleton departed the show, which had morphed into “Archie Bunker’s Place,” in 1980, as Edith died of an off-camera stroke. Actors become actors in order to play many people, to live many lives. And though there is an obvious blessing in the steady work and stardom that a long-running sitcom brings, it is also, a dead end, a treadmill -- and for a 57-year-old actress with opportunities, perhaps something of a reminder of elapsing time. Whenever I saw her afterward, I always felt a kind of relief that she’d moved on, out of that house, that housedress, that voice. (Stapleton’s own voice was, by contrast, a mellow alto instrument.)
“I wasn’t a leading-lady type,” she once told Associated Press. “I knew where I belonged.” Her TV stardom meant that she did not lack for work -- she stayed busy for the next couple of decades -- and her choices meant that she didn’t lack for respect. Returning to the theater, she played in works by Tom Stoppard, William Inge, Noel Coward, Thornton Wilder, Horton Foote and Harold Pinter (earning a 1989 Obie Award for an Off-Broadway double bill of his “Happy Days” and “Mountain Language”). In the solo piece “Bon Appetit,” staged in 1989 at the Kennedy Center, she performed an operatic adaptation of a Julia Child cooking show.
In film, Nora Ephron used her in “You’ve Got Mail” and “Michael.” On television, she went into her aunt period: She was Aunt Vivian on “Grace Under Fire,” Aunt Mary on “Caroline in the City,” Aunt Alda on “Everyone Loves Raymond,” as well as Nana Silverberg on “Murphy Brown.” For Shelley Duvall’s Showtime series “Faerie Tale Theater” she played the fairy godmother in “Cinderella” and the giant’s wife in “Jack of the Beanstalk,” and in 1994 starred in Duvall’s short-lived but vibrant “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.”
One of the sad pleasures of writing this piece was rediscovering “All in the Family,” which in memory had resolved into one long, loud argument. A greater pleasure, perhaps, was discovering “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle,” a colorful cross between “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and “Auntie Mame,” in which Stapleton, in a topiary red wig and rainbow leggings, presided over an upside-down house with a talking tree for a butler -- a grand lady and a mad one. She was 71 then and raring to go.