Sunday, June 02, 2013

RIP Jean Stapleton

There would be no ALL IN THE FAMILY without Jean Stapleton. Edith Bunker passed away yesterday at age 90. Archie Bunker – played so masterfully by Caroll O’Connor – was the most bigoted, crude character television comedy had ever seen (up until that time). Forget how funny he was. The audience needs some cue to know it’s okay to laugh. Otherwise, they just hate him and that’s that. O’Connor couldn’t provide that. How could he when he was calling everybody spics and heebs and worse? Yes, there was the other side of Archie. He was a man panicked because the only world he knew was changing and he had no idea what his place in it would be. But audiences could just as easily say, “So what? We all have our issues. We don’t go around blaming everyone else for our problems. You’re just an asshole.”

So why did we accept Archie Bunker?

Because Edith loved him. Because the person with the kindest heart on the planet knew he wasn’t really hateful, he was just railing. We loved her and if she loved him then he couldn’t be so bad after all.

Archie called her a dingbat but as I’ve said many times in this blog, it takes great smarts to play dumb. Look at Gracie Allen and Judy Holliday. Both made careers playing dumb and both had IQ’s off the charts. Jean Stapleton was as sharp as they came. Her comic timing and delivery was impeccable. And she was such an accomplished actress that she could still sell the emotion and make it real. She could make you laugh and pull at your heartstrings – all at the same time. That’s a remarkable accomplishment. The greatest writer in the world can’t make that happen unless the actor can. Jean Stapleton was a treasure.   We laughed at Archie and tolerated Archie but we adored Edith.

And Edith Bunker was but one of her many roles in an illustrious career that began when she was only 18. So many memorable performances. Her portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt was bravura, and could there be two more divergent characters than Eleanor Roosevelt and Edith Bunker?

I never had the pleasure of meeting her. I have no personal recollections. She was always highly regarded, and (from what I understand) a dream to work with. She won three Emmys and numerous other awards. She was recognized in her time. But I don’t think she’ll be fully appreciated for what she did. She alone was the key to the success of ALL IN THE FAMILY.

RIP Jean Stapleton. You will never be stifled in our hearts.

32 comments:

Tom Quigley said...

Great tribute, Ken. You were dead on with the very reason why ALL IN THE FAMILY actually did succeed initially and didn't get pulled off the air after two or three episodes, or even made to the air in the first place. Shared this on my Facebook page, if you don't mind.

Mary Stella said...

Lovely tribute. As Edith Bunker, Jean Stapleton not only made me laugh, but I cheered whenever she came through with one of her wise comments or demonstrated her warm acceptance and love of others regardless of differences.

Her character also showed us so much during heavy emotional and physical challenges like menopause, breast cancer and nearly being raped.

normadesmond said...

those were the days indeed.

Carol said...

I love your tributes. They are always so moving.

I said it before, but I'd buy the heck out of the book if you compiled all of them.

Rowan said...

Wonderful tribute for a wonderful actress. You are exactly right about how she portrayed Edith, and without her Archie would have been too rough to take sometimes, even with Mr. O'Connor prowess in his part.

One small thing: It's the masculine spelling of Carroll not Carol for Mr. O'Connor.

Diogo said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljl9oexWyX0. this episode illustrates just how smart Edith was. se basically deconstructs the whole series in the last 2 minutes of this clip, by explaining why Mike and Archie yell at each other. Just beautiful writing, and amazing performances.

Michael said...

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the great historian, wrote in his journals about meeting Carroll O'Connor at a party. O'Connor had just returned from a Joyce festival in Dublin and later met George Kennan at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and Kennan thought O'Connor was a faculty member. So, he, too, played dumb.

None of which is to minimize Jean Stapleton, one of the great actresses of our time. She was incredible. And Ken's comments reminded me of a line about a show starring his, uh, favorite comedienne: that Roseanne was a totally implausible show without John Goodman because his character loved someone so unlovable.

RIP Jean Stapleton. An acting genius.

Jake Mabe said...

Jean Stapleton was given the most difficult role to play on "All in the Family," and did so with aplomb -- and then some.

It was a landmark series, it changed television (for awhile) and Jean Stapleton was a BIG reason of why it worked, maybe THE reason, as you suggest.

We'll never see TV like this again. Those, indeed, were the days.

Rest in peace, Ms. Stapleton.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Nice tribute.

What's interesting is that - as you likely know, Ken - ALL IN THE FAMILY was based on a British series, TIL DEATH US DO PART (which had sequels with slightly varied titles in which the character also appeared). Two things are interesting about this: first, that Alf Garnett (the original of Archie Bunker, played by the wonderful English actor Warren Mitchell) is *still* an iconic character in British culture; he was the guy in the pub who holds forth on everything under the sun and is (in his own estimation) always right. Like Archie, he was a bigot. Second was that his wife, Elsie, played by Dandy Nichols) was able to puncture his windbaggery with a single syllable - she had more in common with Alice on THE HONEYMOONERS, I think, than with Edith. Many other elements - the daughter, the socialist (more clearly so in Britain, of course) son-in-law named Mike, were more faithfully rendered.

I would have to agree that Jean Stapleton was why this show was successful in the US - American audiences even now (with hateful characters abounding on cable) need at least some nice folks to make the hateful characters OK to enjoy where British television (as caricatured as some characters are) audiences seem more willing to watch archetypes that in real life would send them running away screaming (like every character in COUPLING). In part, I think this is because of the very short series. You can enjoy someone for six weeks that you just wouldn't invite into your living room for months on end.

wg

Roy Phillips said...

I couldn't agree any more, Ken. Jean' s Edith was the orange juice to Carroll's vodka-filled Archie. What a talented actress that has left us. :(

John Fox said...

Couldn't agree more and yes Ken, you're absolutely correct in your assumptions about Ms. Stapleton in person. She was a very lovely gracious individual. The very definition of a lady.

Mike Barer said...

Although I already ready about this yesterday, Ms.Stapleton's death really didn't hit me until I read this post. I got choked up for the first time reading this. Well done!

Bryce said...

She died May 31, not June 1. There was some confusion to begin with, but I think it has settled on May 31st. She will be missed.

Cap'n Bob said...

As usual, I demur. Although she was good in other roles, her screeching Edith made my teeth itch. For that matter, I didn't like the show and quit watching after a few tries. To me, every character was a broad caricature.

Jeffrey Mark said...

I love how the character of Edith changed and evolved over the course of the series. By the time the show ended she was almost an entirely different character - and that says something brilliant of Jean Stapleton. Edith became a lot wiser when she started working at the Sunshine Home, getting out of the house and being a lot more independent from Archie. She really got away from being the dingbat that Archie called her. I think the best episode she was in was the one where she is close to being raped in her own home. What a brave performance from Jean Stapleton. She was perfection and will be missed.

Dixon Steele said...

Loved Stapleton and AITF, but for you to state that she ALONE was the key to the show's success...Really?

How ironic that you, as a writer, would go there.

RobEB said...

I had the pleasure of seeing her in a stage production of THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD. Great performance, great lady.

Chip Keyes said...

You took the words right out of my mouth. But then, of course, you made them eloquent. Nicely said, Ken.

Breadbaker said...

She had one of the greatest lines in "You've Got Mail" when she revealed how she couldn't marry her lover because "he was running Spain."

Mark Murphy said...

Ken:

A wonderfully perceptive piece. Thanks.

As a former Syracusan, you might be interested to know (if you don't already) that Jean Stapleton appeared in a Syracuse Stage production of "The Show-Off" about 30 years. I think Orson Bean played the title role.

The production was directed by her husband, William Putch.

During the run of the play, Putch died after suffering a heart attack.

A few hours later, she went on stage as usual, and continued in the play for the rest of the fun, taking only one day off for her husband's services.

Dawn said...

I was probably about 12 or 13 when All in the Family was first on- it was appointment TV in our house. I will remember Jean Stapleton as the actor who taught me the difference between an actor and a 'movie star'. I clearly remember being stunned when I saw her on an awards show, so classy and articulate, about as far away from Edith as it is possible to be. I began to understand what acting really was. How many on TV today compare?

Wheathead said...

Edith was to Archie as Archie was to Edith as both were to the whole.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who can get comedy out of a rape is a great actress, or a disturbed mind.

Mac said...

"So why did we accept Archie Bunker? Because Edith loved him."

Interesting. I always thought Marge was crucial to Homer's lovability (or acceptability). However badly he behaved, because Marge loved him, you thought he can't be all bad,

Storm said...

My beloved grandmother was Edith to my grandfather's Archie; they both were loving women who put up with a lot from the grouchy, opinionated man they loved, but only so much, and were always able to make you see the bright side. Losing Jean Stapleton makes me realize how much I miss my Grandma. Weird.

I was really little when AITF started, but I remember my biofather being inordinately proud of his "Archie Bunker For President" T-shirt, which my mother refused to let him wear if we were all going out somewhere together. He loved getting in fights with people over it. Yeah, he was a real charmer, my dad.

Cheers, thanks a lot,

Storm

Anonymous said...

The episode I remember most is "Edith's Problem".

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OpBQEcKT-4

As Edith is going through menopause, Archie tries to be supportive. My family would watch AITF together. My dad laughed very rarely, but this episode had him in tears. He kept pointing to the tv and saying, "That's you, Alice!", as my mom was going through the change at the time.

During such a tumultuous time, it was the one show that could bring families together. It sparked discussions with my parents that I never thought possible. Truly a groundbreaking show.

Lovely tribute, Ken. Thank you.

Pam aka sisterzip

Mike Doran said...

Last night, MeTV ran an episode of Naked City from about 1962.
The episode was about the jury hearing the case of a wealthy cad (Robert Culp) and his girlfriend (Joanne Linville) accused of murdering the cad's wife.
One juror, an immigrant news vendor (Akim Tamiroff) is holding out for acquittal, which is driving the hard-nosed foreman (Gerald O'Loughlin) up the wall.
One other juror, a soft-spoken housewife, appoints herself moderator and gets the bickering jurors to talk to each other instead of at each other, wich leads to breaking the deadlock - and to the rest of the story (which I won't spoil here).
As you've probably figured out, Jean Stapleton was the moderating juror. This was almost ten years before Edith Bunker, and I'll admit that it took me a few beats to recognize her. That said, Stapleton definitely held her own with Tamiroff and O'Loughlin, which is what matters here.
MeTV's running of this particular Naked City was pure coincidence; they've been running the episodes in original broadcast order. Still, you have to admit that timing is indeed everything ...

RCP said...

Nice tribute. What a memorable character - one of the few who was totally lovable.

PolyWogg said...

I see AitF made the WGA list of best-written series. Cheers and MASH as well. Sorry, no Almost Perfect love.

P.
http://www.wga.org/content/default.aspx?id=4925

Mark said...

I remember an episode where the Bunkers were attending the funeral of Edith's cousin, who was a lesbian. Her partner, a schoolteacher wants a tea set that has been in Edith's family, and Archie threatens to take her to court and expose her lifestyle. But Edith talks him out of it, stating that the woman was her cousin's next of kin and ending with: "Archie, I can't believe that you could do something that mean." Archie realizes he was wrong and relents.

Notice that Archie Bunker after Edith dies in a much softer character. The Archie of the early seasons wouldn't be tolerable without Edith.

Both Stapleton and O'Connor were brilliant. Can you imagine a pair like them heading the cast of a sitcom today?

scottmc said...

Your observation regarding how it was through Edith that the audience accepted Archie was spot on. It also reminded me about the story on the pilot of Mary Tyler Moore when the first audience didn't like Rhoda. For the second audience they just added the bit where Bess says she likes Rhoda-and that was all that was needed. On a different track-I attended an awards ceremony tonight where Tom Hanks and Alan Alda each received awards. Tom Hanks received a Theatre World Award for his performance in 'Lucky Guy'. In his acceptance speech he noted the changes in the Broadway area from when he first came to New York in the 1970's. He said what is now a club was once a bar that he couldn't afford to buy drinks at, and the Chemical Bank where he tried cashing his Ohio unemployment checks is now a Bubba Gump's restaurant. Alan Alda ,who received his Theatre World Award fifty years ago,received the organizations first Life Achievement Award.

Eric Mesa said...

I just saw an episode last night. Didn't know she had died. That's sad. I discovered it on Nick at Night when I was a kid and it aged perfectly - the episodes are still awesome today.