LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jean Stapleton‘s Edith Bunker was such a dithery charmer that we had to love her. And because she loved her bombastic husband Archie, we made room for him and TV’s daring “All in the Family.”
It took an actress as smart and deft as Stapleton to create the character that Archie called “dingbat,” giving a tender core to a sitcom that tested viewers with its bigoted American family man and blunt take on social issues.
Stapleton, 90, who died Friday of natural causes at her New York City home, was the sweet, trusting counterpoint to Carroll O’Connor’s irascible Archie on the 1970s groundbreaking show from producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin.
“No one gave more profound ‘How to be a Human Being’ lessons than Jean Stapleton,” Lear said Saturday.
While Edith faced problems, including a breast cancer scare, with strength, it was the demanding Archie who presented her greatest challenge. Stapleton made her much more than a doormat, but the actress was concerned about what the character might convey.
Edith’s flighty manner, cheerfully high-pitched voice and family loyalty enchanted viewers, while Stapleton viewed her as oppressed and, she hoped, removed from reality.
“What Edith represents is the housewife who is still in bondage to the male figure, very submissive and restricted to the home. She is very naive, and she kind of thinks through a mist, and she lacks the education to expand her world. I would hope that most housewives are not like that,” Stapleton told the New York Times in 1972.
Her character regularly obeyed her husband’s demand to “stifle yourself.”
But Edith was honest and compassionate, and “in most situations she says the truth and pricks Archie’s inflated ego,” Stapleton added.
“She was unforgettable in that role,” Bette Midler posted on her Twitter account Saturday.
Roseanne Barr lauded Stapleton in a tweet as a “great actor whose range was unbelievable, deep and majestic.”
The stage-trained actress was little known to the public before “All In the Family,” the top-rated CBS sitcom that also starred Sally Struthers as the couple’s daughter and Rob Reiner as their liberal son-in-law Mike, aka Meathead.
“Jean was a brilliant comedienne with exquisite timing. Working with her was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Reiner said in a statement.
Stapleton was surrounded by family and friends when she died.
“It is with great love and heavy hearts that we say farewell to our collective Mother, with a capital M,” said her son and daughter, John Putch and Pamela Putch, in a statement. “Her devotion to her craft and her family taught us all great life lessons.”
She proved her own toughness when her husband of 26 years, William Putch, suffered a fatal heart attack in 1983 at age 60 while the couple was touring with a play directed by Putch.
Stapleton went on stage in Syracuse, N.Y., that night and continued on with the tour. “That’s what he would have wanted,” she told People magazine in 1984. “I realized it was a refuge to have that play, rather than to sit and wallow. And it was his show.”
She received eight Emmy nominations and won three times during her eight-year tenure with “All in the Family.” The series broke through the timidity of U.S. TV with social and political jabs and ranked as the No. 1-rated program for an unprecedented five years in a row. Lear would go on to create a run of socially conscious sitcoms.