Jean Stapleton, Archie Bunker’s ‘Dingbat’ TV Wife, Dies
Jean Stapleton, who portrayed a traditional homemaker on the front lines of social change as Archie Bunker’s loyal and underappreciated “dingbat” wife on the 1970s television show “All in the Family,” has died. She was 90.
The New York Times, citing her agent David Shaul, said Stapleton died May 31 at her New York City home.
As Edith, matriarch of the Bunker household of Queens, New York, Stapleton endured the resentful, bigoted rants of Carroll O’Connor’s Archie during the nine-season run of one of television’s most celebrated situation comedies.
She took his abuse, served his dinner, stayed off his favorite chair, kept peace with their daughter when he called her liberal husband “Meathead,” and listened to his diatribes against blacks (“spades”), Puerto Ricans (“spics”) and Jews (“hebes”).
When Edith went through menopause in one 1972 episode, Archie couldn’t abide her mood swings, irritability and sudden assertiveness. His traditional cut at her -- “Now stifle yourself, will ya?” -- sent Edith away crying, leaving him to note with wonder, “After 23 years of ‘stifles,’ the dingbat turns on me!”
“All in the Family” was a ratings leader for CBS from 1971 to 1979. Stapleton was nominated for Emmy Awards for eight of the nine seasons and won three times. O’Connor, who died in 2001 at age 76, won four Emmys as Archie Bunker. The show won four Emmys for best comedy series.
“It was very honest, very funny, at uncovering a lot of bigotry and prejudice and nonsense,” Stapleton said of the show in a 2000 interview with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation. “It was real life, and it was true and it was contemporary, and it brought up issues, too. I loved that.”
Humor, she said, takes bigotry and “reduces it to nothing.”
Jeanne Murray was born on Jan. 19, 1923, in Manhattan, the daughter of Joseph Murray, an advertising salesman, and the former Marie Stapleton, a professional singer.
Stapleton aspired to follow her older brother, Jack, into theater, and she stayed that course after he died while she was in high school. She worked as a secretary and took acting classes at night, landing a part in a 1947 production of “The Corn is Green” with New York’s Equity Library Theater.
An agent who saw the play offered her a part in the road company of “Harvey,” which became her break. She landed a role on Broadway at 20 in “In the Summer House” and went on to parts in “Damn Yankees,” “Bells are Ringing” and “Funny Girl.”
Her television series debut came in the soap opera “Woman With a Past” (1954), and she appeared in episodes of “Dr. Kildare” (1961) and “The Defenders” (1962).
Television producer Norman Lear, who had seen Stapleton in “Damn Yankees,” invited her to read for a new show he was creating that was based on the British sitcom “Till Death Us Do Part.” During two auditions in New York City, Stapleton said, she voiced the role of Edith Bunker without the nasal tone that eventually came to define the character.
She said she saw Edith as “not very bright, not well educated,” but with “a great sense of wisdom and heart” who loved her husband, warts and all.
Edith developed some independence during the series, taking a part-time job to bring in some extra money to the household.
Thanks to her role as Edith, Stapleton -- initially not drawn to political activism -- found herself in demand by the women’s-liberation movement. She was appointed to the commission that held the 1977 National Women’s Conference, which drew 2,000 delegates to Houston to write a platform for achieving equality.
“All in the Family” neared its end when the Bunkers’ daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), and her husband, Mike (Rob Reiner), moved West in the final episode of the 1977-1978 season.
After one final season, O’Connor steered the franchise into a spinoff, “Archie Bunker’s Place,” which ran from 1979 to 1983. Stapleton declined an invitation to join him and made only guest appearances.
At the start of the 1980-1981 season, Archie dealt with news that Edith had died of a stroke. Stapleton said Lear was hesitant to kill off Edith and agreed to do so only after she assured him it would be OK.
In her post-Edith years, Stapleton was nominated for an Emmy for portraying Eleanor Roosevelt in the TV movie “Eleanor, First Lady of the World” (1982). She co-starred with Whoopi Goldberg in the short-lived series “Bagdad Café” (1990). She was nominated for another Emmy for a guest appearance on “Grace Under Fire” in 1994.
Hall of Fame
On the big screen, she played bookstore bookkeeper Birdie Conrad in the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romantic comedy “You’ve Got Mail” (1998), directed by Nora Ephron.
The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences inducted her into its Hall of Fame in 2002.
Stapleton married William Putch, a producer and director, in 1957. Putch, who died in 1983, spent decades running the Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville, Pennsylvania, and Stapleton performed there during summer breaks from her TV career.
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