Stage, film, and television actress Jean Stapleton, best known for her role as Archie Bunker’s devoted wife Edith on All in the Family, died on June 1 at her home in New York City. She was 90.
As originally envisioned by All in the Family creator Norman Lear, Edith Bunker was a tart voice of truth meant to put her bigoted husband Archie in his place. Even in the January 1971 pilot episode of the immediately controversial series, Edith gives it right back to her husband, like every sitcom wife from Alice Kramden in the past to Peg Bundy in the future.
Jeanne Stapleton Murray was born in 1923 and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She chose acting over music shortly after high school, and by the late 1950s she was working steadily in live TV drama, on stage (she was in the original cast of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros), and in Hollywood, where she recreated her scene-stealing turns from Broadway’s Bells are Ringing and Damn Yankees. By then she was married to producer-director William Putch; the two ran a summer repertory at the Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville, Pa., until his death in 1983 (the two had two children together: a daughter, producer Pamela Putch, and son, actor John Putch.)
It in was Yankees that Stapleton first registered on Family producer Norman Lear. She was his first and only choice for Edith Bunker, who, in the hands of the beloved actress, became one of the most fully human characters in television history. In the process, the character also humanized Archie, and gave America a vantage point from which to consider him. Archie may have been close-minded and foul-mouthed, but Stapleton’s Edith was open-hearted and forgiving — a naive, bird-like woman in a lumpy housedress who was always closer to the heart of the matter than anyone else on the show.
Stapleton came away from the series with three Emmys, three Golden Globes, and an iconic status that threatened to limit what she did afterward. (What she didn’t come away was rich: like all the Family cast, she signed away residual rights for upfront cash early on.) So permanently had the unassuming actress stamped the particulars of Edith — the fluttering hands, the Noo Yawk shriek — that everyone assumed they belonged to her.
Post-Family, Stapleton did all sorts of un-Edith things: She won an Obie for playing Harold Pinter off-Broadway. She sang in the opera Candide. She famously turned down the lead in Murder She Wrote, but appeared in movies like You’ve Got Mail and Michael. And she played Eleanor Roosevelt twice, in an Emmy-winning 1982 CBS movie and in a 2001 one-woman touring show.
“She was a great human being,” Stapleton told an interviewer about Roosevelt during the show’s run. “And that’s what you have to do: Play the human being.” From first ladies to commoners, Stapleton did just that.