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Jean Stapleton, known to millions of viewers as the lovable Edith Bunker on the classic CBS sitcom All in the Family, died Friday of natural causes at her home in New York City, her family announced. She was 90.
Stapleton won three Emmy Awards out of eight nominations for her role as the “dingbat” wife of blue-collar bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor). She received Emmy noms for two other performances: as Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1982 CBS telefilm Eleanor, First Lady of the World and for a guest appearance on the ABC series Grace Under Fire.
Despite a lifetime career in acting, Stapleton didn’t attain stardom until she was nearly 50 years old, when All in the Family became a hit. Along with O’Connor, Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers, she starred on the groundbreaking show, which aired from 1971 through 1979.
Following the departure of Struthers as Edith and Archie’s daughter, Gloria, and Reiner as their “meathead” son-in-law, Michael, Stapleton remained, appearing regularly but not weekly, on the spinoff Archie Bunker’s Place. After one season, however, she became tired of the role. The show’s 1980 season then began on a bittersweet note, with Archie mourning the death of Edith from a stroke a few months earlier.
It was writer-producer Norman Lear who lifted her to stardom. Lear remembered her from her role in the 1958 film Damn Yankees — where she sang the hit tune “You’ve Gotta Have Heart” — and cast her opposite O’Connor in Those Were the Days, a 1968 pilot for ABC that was based on a hit BBC series, Till Death Us Do Part. The network didn’t pick it up.
Lear and partner Bud Yorkin remade it once more for ABC, with different castmembers for the Mike and Gloria parts — Reiner and Struthers. The network passed again. Eventually, Lear and Yorkin sold it to CBS, whose new president, Robert D. Wood, took it on as a midseason replacement and renamed it All in the Family.
The show, set in a working-class neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., debuted on Jan. 12, 1971, and was no instant smash. However, the ratings inched up during the summer, and CBS shifted it to its fall lineup in the 8 p.m. Saturday slot, where it attracted a wide audience.
The Edith character was meant to be the naive voice of truth to husband Archie, the bigoted loading-dock worker who railed against the political and social upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s. With her high-pitched voice, penchant for malapropism, addled enthusiasm and big heart, Edith became a more important character than Lear had imagined. She was lovable in the role, and audiences embraced Edith for her well-meaning, decent ways.
Many of the series’ most poignant moments came with Stapleton’s character as the centerpiece of the story. Edith went through menopause in the second season and was nearly raped in the eighth. She found a lump in her breast in the 1973 episode “Edith’s Christmas Story”; breast cancer was not talked about on television in those days.
All in the Family captured four consecutive Emmys for best comedy series, with Stapleton winning in 1971, 1972 and 1978.
In a 2000 interview with the Archive of American Television, Stapleton recalled Lear’s difficulty in allowing the Edith character to die when she wanted out.
“Norman said on the phone, ‘I just haven’t been able to say yes to this.’ … I said, ‘Norman, you realize don’t you, she is only fiction,’ And there was a long pause. And I thought I’ve hurt this dear man that I love so much. And then the voice came back to me, ‘She isn’t.’ But, shortly thereafter, he gave the word, and they made Edith die.”
In 1984, Stapleton was offered the lead role in a proposed CBS series about a teacher turned mystery writer, but despite announcements in the Hollywood trade papers, she turned down the part in the show that would become Murder, She Wrote, starring Angela Lansbury.
Jeanne Murray was born Jan. 19, 1923, in New York and graduated from Wadleigh High school. She received her dramatic training in off-Broadway productions at the American Theater Wing, and her first Broadway appearance came as a a wisecracking waitress in 1953’s In the Summer House.
Stapleton garnered TV roles in the 1960s on such hits shows as Route 66, Dr. Kildare, Studio One and Philco Playhouse. In a 1962 episode of the CBS legal drama The Defenders, she played a woman who fingers a murderer — played by O’Connor.
She also won a few supporting parts in feature films, including Bells Are Ringing (1960) — she played Sue, the proprietor of Susanswerphone Service and sang “The Bells Are Ringing” — Something Wild (1961), Up the Down Staircase (1967), Cold Turkey (1971) and Klute (1971).
In 1974, Stapleton made her Los Angeles stage debut in The Time of the Cuckoo at the Music Center.
After All in the Family, Stapleton starred in several telefilms, including CBS’ Aunt Mary (1979), where she played an embittered old woman who becomes coach of a Little League team.
Eleanor: Woman of the World (1982) looked at the immortal first lady in the years after the death of her husband, Franklin Roosevelt.
In the 1990s, Stapleton continued a healthy acting career, with parts onstage and in telefilms and features. She appeared in the sitcom Caroline in the City and in the 1996 film Michael, starring John Travolta.
A gifted singer, she performed on such variety shows as The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour and The Carol Burnett Show. Of course, she sang “Those Were the Days” with O’Connor under the opening credits of each episode of All in the Family.
Other leading roles came in such TV productions as You Can’t Take It With You (1979), Angel Dusted (1981) and Isabel’s Choice (1981).
Her appearances became less frequent in the late 1980s, but she continued to appear onstage. She starred on Broadway in a 1986 revival of Arsenic and Old Lace and in Juno, Rhinoceros and Funny Girl. Off-Broadway, she toplined The Birthday Party and earned an Obie Award.
Stapleton returned to sitcoms in 1990, co-starring with Whoopi Goldberg in CBS’ Bagdad Cafe. She also starred in the 1993 TV movie Ghost Mom for Fox and played the title role in the 1994 Showtime series Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. She turned in a memorable appearance as Miles Silverberg’s (Grant Shaud) aunt in a 1996 Murphy Brown episode titled “All in the Family” and appeared in You’ve Got Mail (1998).
Stapleton was married to William Putch, a producer/director of the Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville, Pa., where she appeared regularly for many seasons. He died in 1983.
Putch, her husband of 25 years, suffered a fatal heart attack in Syracuse, N.Y., where he was directing his wife onstage in the comedy The Showoff. (She decided the show must go on.) They met in 1956 when Stapleton was in a production of Harvey in Washington.
Survivors include their two children, producer Pamela Putch and director John Putch, and her cousin, musical theater actress Betty Jane Watson.
“Being the children of a beloved Mother on Television means sharing the spirit of who Jean Stapleton was with her friends and fans,” her children said in a statement. “It is with great love and heavy hearts that we say farewell to our collective Mother, with a capital M. Her devotion to her craft and her family taught us all great life lessons.”
Watch Stapleton as the always curious Edith in a memorable scene from a 1976 episode of All in the Family: