NEW YORK (AP) – 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 May 31 of natural causes at her New York City home surrounded by friends and family, her son, John Putch, said.
Little known to the public before All In the Family, she 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).
The sitcom was groundbreaking not only for entertaining controversial issues ranging from racism to homosexuality, the Vietnam War to women’s liberation; after the late Sherman Hemsley’s debut as George Jefferson, the show spawned Hemsley’s equally influential socially-conscious spinoff, The Jeffersons, with the late Isabel Sanford co-starring as his wife during its 11-year run.
All In the Family ranked as the No. 1-rated program for an unprecedented five years in a row, and Stapleton received eight Emmy nominations and won three times during her eight-year tenure.
Edith, of the dithery manner, cheerfully high-pitched voice and family loyalty, charmed viewers but was viewed by Stapleton as “submissive” and, she hoped, removed from reality. 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.”
But Edith was honest and compassionate, and “in most situations she says the truth and pricks Archie’s inflated ego,” she added.
She confounded Archie with her malapropos – You know what they say, misery is the best company” – and open-hearted acceptance of others, including her beleaguered son-in-law and African-Americans and other minorities that Archie disdained.
She and her husband of 26 years, William Putch, had two children, John and Pamela, who followed their parents into the entertainment industry.
For years, she rarely watched All In the Family, but had softened by 2000, when she told the Archive of American Television that enough time had passed. “I can watch totally objectively,” she said. “I love it. And I laugh. I think, ‘Oh,’ and I think, ‘Gee, that’s good.’"