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Jean Stapleton: As Edith Bunker, She Really Was Archie’s Better Half

Asked to describe Edith Bunker, the character she portrayed in the classic 1970s sitcom All in the Family, actress Jean Stapleton put it this way in a 1972 interview with the New York Times: “I hope she’s not the typical American housewife.” YouTube Preview Image

Jean_Stapleton_1977Indeed, Stapleton, who died on May 31 at age 90 in New York City, portrayed a character who was the very antithesis of a liberated woman: a working-class Queens housewife who was screechy voiced and docile to the point of being timid, and continually berated by her loutish husband as a dim-witted “dingbat” who should “stifle yourself.”

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

May 1974: Actors Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton sing as they sit at a piano, in a still from the television series ‘All in the Family’. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

But underneath the mousy, submissive persona, Stapleton managed to ennoble Edith with a host of other qualities. She was resilient, brave, honest and compassionate, with an intuitive wisdom that helped her to navigate both her husband’s intransigence and crises such as a breast cancer scare and having to fend off a sexual assault by a stranger. (Here’s a compendium of the woes that Edith faced on the show.)  By dramatizing women’s struggles for millions of TV viewers each week, the character literally became a poster child for the feminist movement, appearing in ads that touted the Equal Rights Amendment.

“In most situations she says the truth and pricks Archie’s inflated ego,” Stapleton explained in 1972.YouTube Preview Image

Bringing such a complex character to life required deft, subtle acting skills, and Stapleton – a veteran stage and screen actress with 70 TV and movie roles to her credit – had plenty of those. Producer Norman Lear reportedly picked her for Edith because he’d liked her performance as Sister Miller in the original Broadway version of Damn Yankees in the 1950s, and after All in the Family, Stapleton won acclaim for her portrayal of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. YouTube Preview Image

Here are some intriguing facts about Jean Stapleton and her signature role:

 

Here’s a clip of what would be Stapleton and O’Connor’s final TV appearance together on the Donny and Marie show in April 2000, a little more than a year before O’Connor passed away. YouTube Preview Image

Photo (Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton): CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images