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An appreciation: Edith Bunker, Jean Stapleton

Actress Jean Stapleton answers a question from a

Actress Jean Stapleton answers a question from a Soviet artist at a U.S.-Soviet round table discussion of mutual concerns in April 1983. From left: Earle Hyman, Edith Behr, Stapleton and Barbara Colton. Photo Credit: AP

Edith Bunker .?.?. Jean Stapleton .?.?. Where does one begin, the other end? Go ahead, try to figure that one out. I have since news of her death -- at age 90 - broke Saturday (she died Friday, her son told the world).

As Edith, she was one of the three or four most famous female TV characters in history. Edith Bunker was Edith: No doubt about that. That voice .?.?. yes, that voice alone survives as something so unique in the history of television that it may well be the most famous voice in the medium's history. ("Awwwchee." That about sums it up.)

But upon her death, ambivalence, at least on my part. I hope she was happy with that remarkable role that she brought to life so completely for -- how many years, nine? -- but in hindsight, that is it. Nothing more. Stapleton was a fine Broadway actress (would love to find her singing "Ya Gotta Have Heart" from "Damn Yankees" -- which apparently inspired Norman Lear to cast her -- but that was back in the day when phones were still attached to walls). She had roles before this and after. I'm sure many of them were excellent. But Edith was so huge, so all-compassing, that they survive as asterisks.

Stapleton was a remarkable woman and fine actress - New York-born, Broadway-bred, she understood what dramatic theater was about which, in a word, is "intimacy." Driving home a moment that 500 (or so) paying customers would or should remember for the rest of their lives, or at least the rest of the night.

But as Edith, she was support -- support to the real core of the show, support to his whims, and vices and gas and nonsense and prejudices and  avarice and stupidity and -- most of all -- his love. "All in the Family" could never completely decide what to do with Archie Bunker, and I don't think Edith, or Stapleton could either. The strange secret of "Family's" great success, or as has long been theorized, is that most viewers identified with Archie. In Archie they found someone who spoke what they felt, and if they missed the joke -- and many probably did -- no matter, because he would ultimately prevail, as the (ultimately) lovable average lunch pail Joe.

Bunker may have said foolish things, but the implication was always that he was a product of his time -- he and his cohorts were taught to hate, and taught very well, but nothing could change his fundamental decency. That was character. Everything else was the cultural dross of his generation .?.?. or such was Norman Lear's (and Bud Yorkin's) estimation.

You'll note here that a post about Edith Bunker turns automatically into a post about Archie Bunker and that was, and is to be, her fate. She was Carroll O'Connor's support .?.?. the one who was engineered to both sharpen his flaws as well as soften them. Stapleton's great accomplishment on the show was pretty simply: She made Archie worse, and also made him better. She punctured his bloviations, and she abetted his bloviations. Simply by staying with him -- and there were moments, famously, when she did not want to -- she affirmed him.

Stapleton and "All in the Family" were products of the early '70s -- a period of war, and terrible confusion in the country, and terrible anger, and a time of real agony, quaint as it may sound now, over gender politics, though it certainly wasn't called that at the time. Stapleton's Edith was a product of the moment, too: Would audiences have accepted a "liberated" Edith who pushed Archie out the door to the curb? Of course not: That'd be up to Maude .?.?. Maude -- Bea Arthur -- was of course Edith's cousin, and in one very obvious sense, Edith's revenge.

But as a supporting character on one of the most successful and popular sitcoms of all time, she would ultimately have to make Archie appealing because if Edith turned against Archie, America would turn against “All in the Family.”

It was as simple as that.

Edith's impact on TV? That's hard to gauge because in many ways, she was the end of the line. No spouse like her ever followed. Maude was Norman Lear's overcorrection, but in the 40 years since, TV actresses who play spouses have almost repudiated her. Only Marge Simpson and Lois Griffin come close, and they're cartoon characters.

It's clear even Stapleton tried to expunge the taint, sweet and gentle though it may have been, of Edith -- unsuccessfully. (She played Eleanor Roosevelt, which about as far from Edith as you could get.)

Below, I've grabbed some clips, and have posted a full episode -- the second part of Edith's 50th birthday. It was one of the most famous episodes in sitcom history -- she was nearly raped -- and deals with her conflicts over reporting the crime. Stapleton's excellent here, amid the slapstick that derails the power and horror of her ordeal. But that was the fault of the show, not hers.

Also: Check out the old appearance on "Dennis the Menace," where intimations of Edith can be heard.

And .?.?. her Archive of American Television interview. It's been very well-edited to contain her thoughts on the show and the character; discussion about Edith begins three minutes in.

And so farewell to a genuine classic of American TV and American culture.

(Of course, I close with one final clip. Guess which one .?.?.)


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