Call for Book Reviewers and Bloggers

News
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA

LOS ANGELES — Jean Stapleton, who died Friday at age 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 among 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. Despite creator Norman 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 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 The 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.

Related Articles
17 Dec 2013
Some TV shows just aren’t willing to launch themselves into Christmas joy without also considering the validity of the Grinch's perspective.
1 Nov 2012
With All In the Family, Norman Lear created a rich stew of social commentary on working class life in Queens, placing the political right in the center of the domestic, where it's always been.
4 Oct 2011
Several "best" or "favorite" LGBT TV character lists have popped up in recent years, but they don't always include the most important LGBT characters. So, we pay tribute to the ten(ish) most significant LGBT characters in US television history.
26 Aug 2009
Where a thousand stone-faced social dramas have despaired over the decay of interpersonal relations and marital unity, this is the interpersonal angst of an Ingmar Bergman movie saved by a sitcom ending and a live studio audience.
Comments
Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements
Win a 15-CD Pack of Brazilian Music CDs from Six Degrees Records! in PopMatters Contests on LockerDome

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.