Character actress of stage, television, and film Jean Stapleton (b. New York, NY, 19 January 1923; d. New York City, NY, 31 May 2013) remains unforgettable among American television audiences for her portrayal of Edith Bunker, the devoted “dingbat” wife of Archie Bunker on nine seasons of the prime-time situation comedy All in the Family during the 1970s. Her personal awards for this show included three Emmy wins, two Golden Globes, five more Emmy nominations, and five more Golden Globe nominations. She also received Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for the roles of Eleanor Roosevelt in the TV movie Eleanor, First Lady of the World (1982), and Aunt Vivian in ABC’s Grace Under Fire (1994). A trained singer, she performed in musicals both on and off Broadway (Damn Yankees, Bells Are Ringing, Juno, Funny Girl), and was seen in numerous non-musical plays (In the Summer House, Rhinoceros, Arsenic and Old Lace).
Jeanne Murray was the daughter of Joseph Murray, a billboard advertising salesman, and Marie Stapleton Murray, a classical and opera singer. As a child Jeanne loved the movies, attending double features at the neighborhood theater every Saturday morning (for a dime), but modestly imagining she would grow up to be a music critic. Only after she graduated, at age sixteen, from New York’s Wadleigh High School and started college at Hunter did she catch the acting bug. She quit school and learned secretarial skills to support herself while she studied and performed with the American Actors Company (founded by Horton Foote, Mary Hunter, Agnes DeMille, and others; active until 1945). She made her stage debut in summer stock in 1941, at the Greenwood Garden Playhouse, Peaks Island, Maine. For her stage name she chose her mother’s maiden name, which, she would explain, sounded “more distingué” to her than Murray, but in fact it was the name her older brother Jack, who died while she was in high school, had chosen for his own stage career.
Before making her New York debut off-Broadway in American Gothic in November 1953, Stapleton toured nationally in Harvey with Frank Fay, and as Shirley Booth’s understudy in Come Back, Little Sheba. Less than two months after the opening of American Gothic, she was taking her first Broadway bows in Jane Bowles’s In the Summer House, playing the witty waitress Inez at The Lobster Bowl restaurant, sharing the stage with theatrical giants Judith Anderson and Mildred Dunnock.
Stapleton’s performance opened doors to a career on series television, and before her next Broadway opportunity, she had guested on Starlight Theatre, Lux Video Theatre, Robert Montgomery Presents, The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, and in two episodes of the daytime drama Woman with a Past (1954).
Then in 1955 she landed a part as a baseball fan, Sister Miller, in the original cast of Damn Yankees. This musical gave her a chance to demonstrate her vocal skills singing the hit tune “You’ve Gotta Have Heart.” A year later she sang in another hit, Bells Are Ringing, in the weightier role of Sue, the owner of a telephone answering service. When these shows were adapted for film, in 1958 and 1960 respectively, Jean Stapleton reprised both her roles. During the run of Bells Are Ringing, Stapleton married Bill Putch, an itinerant concert promoter who also ran a summer stock theatre, the Totem Pole Playhouse outside Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and nearly every summer for 25 years afterward, she was a major local attraction.
She was featured on Broadway fairly steadily for the next few years, in the short-lived Blitzstein musical Juno (1959), in Eugene Ionesco’s non-musical farce Rhinoceros (1961), and as Mrs. Strakosh in Funny Girl (1964), with fast-rising star Barbra Streisand, singing “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty” and “Find Yourself a Man.”
But now Jean Stapleton found her considerable energies absorbed more and more by the world of television and film; after Funny Girl she would not return to Broadway for over twenty years, when she would take on the role of Abby Brewster in the 1986 revival of Arsenic and Old Lace.
The decade of the sixties saw Stapleton as a guest on a dozen television series shows, among them Dr. Kildare, Naked City, Dennis the Menace, Jackie Gleason, Car 54, Where Are You?, Route 66, My Three Sons, and The Patty Duke Show. In one 1962 episode of the courtroom drama series, The Defenders, she played a witness to a murder; the murderer was played by the equally obscure actor Carroll O’Connor, who some years later would play Archie, Edith Bunker’s husband, for ten seasons.
In 1968, TV comedy writer and budding producer Norman Lear was attempting to adapt a British comedy series, Till Death Do Us Part, for the American audience. He chose Jean Stapleton to play the long-suffering, fair-minded, but uneducated wife of a self-satisfied blue-collar bigot. Two pilots, made in 1968 and 1969, failed to win the approval of ABC executives, but the third pilot was picked up by CBS as All in the Family. (The two ABC pilots were not released until the late 1990s.) When it premiered in January 1971, the ratings were not promising, but the series took several Emmy Awards that season, and gradually built up momentum in summer reruns. In its second season it was the top rated show on television, and it remained at the top for five years. (Meanwhile Stapleton had participated in another Norman Lear project, the feature film comedy Cold Turkey, shot in 1969 and released in 1971.)
All in the Family was popularly known as “Archie Bunker,” for the cigar-chomping incorrigible played by Carroll O’Connor. But it might as well have taken the name of Stapleton’s character, Edith Bunker. If Archie’s rudeness and intolerance for minorities, liberals, and women’s liberation made one’s skin crawl, Edith’s “dingbat” innocence and naïve generosity invariably smoothed the waters and brought a smile to one’s face. Before All in the Family, TV sitcoms had been careful not to cause offense to anyone; clearly this one was operating in a radically different sphere.
The role of Edith Bunker was carried over into the show’s sequel, Archie Bunker’s Place (1979–1983), but only for five episodes in the first season. Jean Stapleton had had enough of it, and wanted to be “written out.” She feared that her versatility as an actress would be “buried” in the character: “I want to put a lot of distance between that image and whatever else I do.” The death of Edith (by means of a reported stroke) was “necessary because it would have been dishonest for her to get a divorce. The Bunkers would never divorce each other. If we sent her off for a long visit to California, she would still be hovering over the series, making it difficult to enlarge and expand Archie’s life.”
But killing off Edith Bunker was almost too painful for Norman Lear. “She meant so much to him. I remember talking to Norman on the phone and I said, ‘Norman, she’s only fiction.’ And there was dead silence. I thought, ‘I’ve said the wrong thing. I have hurt Norman Lear, the last thing I would ever want to do.’ After a long pause, he said: ‘To me, she isn’t only fiction.’” Ultimately Stapleton and Lear confirmed Edith’s reality by establishing an Edith Bunker Memorial Fund, administered by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund for the support of women’s issues and the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Edith Bunker had started out as anything but a feminist. But over the years, she seemed to gain confidence and a modicum of independence. In 1977 Jean Stapleton was appointed, to her surprise, by President Jimmy Carter to the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year, which included Bella Abzug, Maya Angelou, Betty Ford, Coretta Scott King, Gloria Steinem, and 36 others. The Commission organized the National Women’s Conference in Houston, a gathering of 2000 delegates from all 50 U.S. states to formulate national policy on women’s rights.
One of the first roles Stapleton took on after leaving the Bunker household was Isabel Cooper in the TV movie Isabel’s Choice (1981). In dramatic contrast to Edith, Isabel was a well-dressed executive secretary for a large corporation who must choose, first, between a major promotion and loyalty to her longtime boss, then between marriage and her high-powered job.
Stapleton’s next big television assignment was as Eleanor Roosevelt in Eleanor, First Lady of the World (1982), a program that covered the period 1946 to 1948, after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, when his First Lady became U.S. ambassador to the UN General Assembly and began her endeavors to draft a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Screenwriter Rhoda Lerman had worked with Stapleton previously on a project to preserve Mrs. Roosevelt’s Upstate New York home, Val-Kill, and their collaboration eventually bore fruit in a one-woman show, Eleanor: Her Secret Journey, with which Stapleton would tour nationally for many years after 1998.
Following the the death of her husband in 1983, Stapleton continued to be seen on television throughout the decade (as a guest on Faerie Tale Theatre 1983 and 1985, Great Performances 1985, The Love Boat 1986, Trying Times 1989; in TV movies Something’s Afoot 1984, A Matter of Sex 1984, Dead Man’s Folly 1986, Tender Places 1987, Mother Goose Rock ‘n’ Rhyme 1990),
In 1989, with roles in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and Mountain Language at the East 13th Street Theatre off-Broadway, Stapleton won two Obie Awards for Performance. These inaugurated a string of off-Broadway appearances, beginning with the classical Molière comedy The Learned Ladies in 1991. Bon Appetit, also presented in 1991, was a musical with Jean Stapleton as the sole performer; she played Julia Child, the songs were by Lee Hoiby, the lyrics borrowed from Julia Child and Ruth Draper, and “Jean Putch” was listed as Costume Designer.
Stapleton had always been a favorite actress of playwright Horton Foote, in whose The Roads to Home she appeared in 1992, Night Seasons in 1994, and The Carpetbagger’s Children, with Hallie Foote and Roberta Maxwell, in 2002. She also played major parts in TV broadcasts of Foote’s The Habitation of Dragons (1992) and Lily Dale (1996). In 1996 she joined the cast of the off-Broadway revival of John Osborne’s The Entertainer.
In 1990–91 Jean Stapleton accepted another recurring role on television, co-starring with Whoopi Goldberg in fifteen episodes of Bagdad Café. Other series on which she occasionally appeared were Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (in the title role, 1994), Beakman’s World (as Beakmom, 1995–96), Everybody Loves Raymond (1996), Murphy Brown (1996), Style & Substance (as the Julia Child character from Bon Appetit, 1998), and Touched by an Angel (2000). The feature films she made during this period were Nora Ephron’s hit Michael (as Pansy Milbank, 1996), You’ve Got Mail (1998) with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, and Disney’s animated Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998) as the voice of Mrs. Jenkins, John Rolfe’s maid. Stapleton rarely appeared on talk shows, but was a frequent presence at Tony Award, Academy Award, Golden Globe, and Primetime Emmy Award ceremonies, both as presenter and award nominee.
Stapleton’s last TV role was the 82-year-old wealthy socialite Irene Silverman in the documentary Like Mother, Like Son: The Strange Story of Sante and Kenny Kimes (2001). Fellow TV legend Mary Tyler Moore played the sociopath Sante Kimes, who in 1998 had, with her son, murdered Silverman. Although she cut back on performing thereafter, Stapleton kept up her social and political affiliations, particularly as Chair of the Women’s Research & Education Institute.
Stapleton’s career had carried her to a multiplicity of regional theatres: the Hartford Stage, the Alley Theatre, the Guthrie, Arena Stage, South Coast Rep, the Kennedy Center, the Washington, DC, Shakespeare Theatre, San Francisco’s American Conservatory, and many more, in plays ranging from Blithe Spirit to Morning’s at Seven, from The Matchmaker to Romeo and Juliet, from The Cherry Orchard to The Muppet Show. She sang at the Baltimore Opera Company (Candide, 1984) and at the New York City Opera (Cinderella, 1990s). She was awarded an honorary degree from Wilson College, and a scholarship is named for her. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences inducted her into its Hall of Fame in 2002.
She died at 90 in New York of natural causes, leaving two children, actor, writer, and TV director John Putch, and actress and TV producer Pamela Putch. She was buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. On June 5, 2013, at 8 PM the marquee lights on Broadway dimmed for one minute in Jean Stapleton’s honor.
– Lucy E. Cross