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Jean Stapleton, TV's Edith Bunker, dies at 90

Jean Stapleton, the stage-trained character actress who played Archie Bunker's far better half, the sweetly naive Edith, in TV's groundbreaking 1970s comedy "All in the Family," has died. She was 90.

Stapleton died Friday of natural causes at her New York City home surrounded by friends and family, her children said Saturday.

"It is with great love and heavy hearts that we say farewell to our collective Mother, with a capital M," her son and daughter, John Putch and Pamela Putch, said in a statement. "Her devotion to her craft and her family taught us all great life lessons."

Little known to the public before "All In the Family," Stapleton co-starred with Carroll O'Connor in the top-rated CBS sitcom about an unrepentant bigot, the wife he churlishly but fondly called "Dingbat," their daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and liberal son-in-law Mike, aka Meathead (Rob Reiner).

Stapleton received eight Emmy nominations and won three times during her nine-year tenure on the show. Produced by Norman Lear, the series broke through the timidity of U.S. TV with social and political jabs. It was the No. 1-rated program for an unprecedented five straight years. Lear would go on to create a run of socially conscious sitcoms.

"No one gave more profound 'How to be a Human Being' lessons than Jean Stapleton," Lear said Saturday. In a statement, Reiner added: "Jean was a brilliant comedienne with exquisite timing. Working with her was one of the greatest experiences of my life."

Edith charmed viewers but Stapleton saw her as "submissive" and, she hoped, not very representative. In a 1972 New York Times interview, she said she didn't think Edith was a typical American housewife -- "at least I hope she's not."

"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," said Stapleton, whose character regularly obeyed her husband's demand to "stifle yourself."

Stapleton also earned Emmy nominations for playing Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1982 film "Eleanor, First Lady of the World" and for a guest appearance in 1995 on "Grace Under Fire."

Her big-screen films included a pair directed by Nora Ephron: the 1998 Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romance "You've Got Mail" and 1996's "Michael" starring John Travolta. She also turned down the chance to star in the popular mystery show, "Murder, She Wrote," which became a showcase for Angela Lansbury.

The theater was Stapleton's first love and she compiled a rich resume, starting in 1941 as a New England stock player and moving to Broadway in the 1950s and '60s. In 1964, she originated the role of Mrs. Strakosh in "Funny Girl" with Barbra Streisand.

Other musicals and plays included "Bells Are Ringing," "Rhinoceros" and "Damn Yankees," in which her performance -- and the nasal tone she used in "All in the Family" -- attracted Lear's attention.

"I wasn't a leading-lady type," she once told The Associated Press. "I knew where I belonged. And actually, I found character work much more interesting than leading ladies."

But Stapleton worried about typecasting, and, despite pleas from Lear not to let Edith die, Stapleton left the show, retitled "Archie Bunker's Place," in 1980, leaving Archie to carry on as a widower.

She had no trouble shaking off Edith -- "when you finish a role, you're done with it. There's no deep, spooky connection with the parts you play," she told the AP in 2002.

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