For a few years, “All in the Family” was the most brilliant show on television. Anyone who thought it was about racial/ethnic insults and tasteless toilet flushing was watching superficially. It was pure political satire of The America of The Day, taking shots at the left and right (and displeasing radicals on both sides of the debate who only wanted the other side skewered). Its characters were far from one-dimensional and became more and more fleshed out with time, making television history in the process.
The writing was a key, of course, but so was the acting. It’s impossible to think anyone except Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton could have been any better as Archie and Edith Bunker. The characters and tone of the show evolved over time. Not all the decisions pleased me as a viewer, but one of the good ones was making Edith a far more meatier character than the somewhat cuckolded housewife she was in the beginning. And Stapleton was an actress more than up to the challenge of expanding her character’s traits.
As is usual with monster television hits, one’s previous roles—especially ones that don’t involve stardom—are suppressed in the collective memory of the audience and a person becomes known for only one character. So was the fate of Jean Stapleton. She told one Hollywood wire service reporter soon after “All in the Family” became a hit she got a kick out of being stopped on the street by fans. But then the novelty wears off and the actor feels trapped in, and by, their role. Stapleton finally bade farewell to Edith and left the show, but she never did in the minds of fans. That’s why Jean Stapleton’s death is being mourned today. She used her incredible talent to bring to life someone who is beloved even 40-plus years later and broke ground in television in the process. It’s quite a legacy for any actor; one accomplished by few.
Here are two feature stories by New York Tribune Syndicate writer Marilyn Beck, interviewing Stapleton about her famous character. The first is dated September 6, 1974 and the second is from September 17, 1979, close to five years later. It’s a little disheartening reading the second column, where Stapleton makes it appear she was merely going through the motions, even as whole stories were focusing on her character. But if you read between the lines of the first column, you’ll see Stapleton’s continued presence on “All in the Family” was not because she loved the role, though she likely did. It was contractual.
Jean Stapleton: Her Own Women
By MARILYN BECK
“Me leave All In The Family?” That’s funny,” laughed Jean Stapleton. It was the tone of voice Edith Bunker might employ responding to a statement by her husband—which even she found too outlandish to buy.
The situation wasn’t all that funny, considering Carroll O’Connor’s suit against his All in the Family bosses. Considering the admission of supporting player Michael Evans that he would like to leave the show. Considering that it took a $10 million lawsuit slapped by Tandem against Redd Foxx to get that wayward actor back to his Sanford and Son post.
“Why so funny?” Disastisfaction with series seemed to be a common denominator among her fellow Tandem Production performers.
“I consider a contract as meaning something,” Jean said. Her facial expressions were still much like Edith, the long-suffering All in the Family wife. But her words contained none of the Edith Bunker whine. Jean Stapleton was obviously was woman with savvy things on her mind, and the ability to express them well.
“There are many things I’d like to do in the future,” she said. “Eventually I’d like to leave the series, and concentrate on theatre again, to move seriously into musical comedy. But, well, I still have three more years to go on my Tandem Productions contract. I can’t consider anything else until that has run its course.”
Her difference from her colleagues in such attitudes is obvious the moment one meets Jean Stapleton. Particularly if that meeting takes place in the CBS dressing room which bears her name. About the size of an oversized closet—it doesn’t contain any closet space, much less a window. To other Tandem Production stars it would represent an excuse to stage a walkout from work. To Jean the quarters provides “Really all I need—a walkout from work. To Jean the quarters provides “Really all I need—a nice, cozy little spot to rest.”
She is by no means a woman who doesn’t make demands. However, the demands she makes appear to be upon herself.
“I was raised that way,” she said. “I was taught by example that one must grow and learn to do for oneself. My mother was a concert and opera singer, and thus there was never the message implanted with me that a woman’s role is simply to find a man and marry.”
She was born in New York City, a product of a family whose fortunes were never recouped after the depression of the ‘30s. She went to work right out of high school and supported herself with clerical employment while she secured on-the-job dramatic training in off-Broadway theatre and the American Theatre Wing.
She dug her heels so totally into the demands of career that it wasn’t until her early 3-‘s when, as she puts it, “I looked around and began to be aware of the void in my personal life. And then along came marriage.”
Marriage came to producer William H. Putch in 1957, after much soul-searching on Jean’s part.
“I thought about it carefully,” she said. “Many young adults today don’t regard marriage as a necessary step. Well, I don’t either. But companionship is something we all long for, and marriage seemed to be the right solution for Bill and myself.”
Jean’s career had, by that time, reached a point where, “My drive had lessened a bit and I could willingly give up some of my time and independence.”
She would remain at heart an independent, liberated woman, because she was blessed by marriage to a liberated man. “That’s the key to women’s lib,” she laughed.
Motherhood, she told me candidly during a taping break of All In The Family, was something she didn’t plan and didn’t want. “I’m glad I have my son and daughter. Pam is 15 now, John is 13, and they’re beautiful and wonderful—and have certainly expanded me a lot as a woman. But at the time I married, I simply had never been acquainted with that many children and could never picture myself in the role of a mother.”
She has, over the years, been able to divide her times effectively into many roles.
In the early period of their marriage, the Putch’s remained New York City residents, where Jean did early-day live television and appeared in numerous Broadway productions. Then, 13 years ago, they moved to the foothills of the Alleghenies near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where Bill became owner-producer-director of The Totem Pole Playhouse, and Jean became the resident leady lady.
When All in the Family stardom beckoned, it meant a change in lifestyles for the family; half of the year spent in Los Angeles, the remainder of the time devoted to involvement in the Totem Pole Playhouse, where Jean still manages to perform in several productions a season.
“I wouldn’t have taken the part in the series if Bill hadn’t wanted me to,” she made it clear. “No, it wouldn’t have been a sacrifice. A sacrifice is only something one only does against her will.”
She brushed aside talk of the terrible time six years ago when her husband learned he had cancer of the lymph system and said simply, “Bill’s fine now, really. Medication and treatment cured him.”
It was apparent she would prefer talking about more upbeat subjects—like her future, like her plans to play Eleanor Roosevelt for the screen.
The project will be filmed during an All in the Family hiatus, and for months Jean has been reading research books that can provide added insight into the life of the late First Lady, whose qualities she so admires.
“Her metamorphosis from a shy, introverted woman, self-conscious about her plainness into a brilliant public speaker and humanitarian fascinates me,” said the outgoing articulate Jean Stapleton.
We chatted for a moment about reports that knowledge of F.D.R.’s extramarital affair had served as a catalyst to make Eleanor Roosevelt decide she must become her own person, and Jean commented. “What a marvelous focal point that would be for the film. How women of today would relate to that, now with all the growing realization that women need more than to be in the shadows of a man.”
Jean Stapleton Leaves Edith Bunker Behind
By MARILYN BECK
If you happen to pass Jean Stapleton on the street, don’t hail her as “Edith.” Not unless you want her to stop and remind you she’s divorced herself from Archie Bunker—and that she has never been anyone but an actress playing a role.
“I’ve made it my mission to educate people about the difference between me and my character ever since All in the Family began into 1971,” she explains with a smile.
“When someone stops me in a store, for instance, and addresses me as ‘Edith,’ I’ll very politely correct them—and try to explain that it is an actress’ function to play many roles, and that Edith Bunker was just one of many roles I intend to play.”
A desire to move on to new roles what what led to Jean’s resignation from All in the Family this season—and the retitling of the show to Archie’s Place.
Outlining the reasons for her action, she says, “The way I’m constituted, I just can’t invest me life on one portrayal. I need more variety. The last few seasons, I began to feel like a pit musician in a long-running Broadway show, who works on a crossword puzzle between cues, then picks up his instrument and plays the same notes he played the night before. It becomes less than a stimulating experience.”
Jean did consent to return to Archie’s side this summer long enough to tape an All in the Family Thanksgiving reunion special (which will also feature now long-departed Family members Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers), plus three segments of Archie’s Place which will explain her future absence by having her going to work—in a mental institution.
And after that? Well, Jean will be busy establishing an Edith-less image. And she’s already taken some impressive strides in that direction.
She’ll be seen this fall as “Aunt Mary”—based on the true story of a Baltimore woman who ignored several physical handicaps to become a sandlot baseball coach—which will be aired on CBS as a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation.
She’s heavy into rehearsals for Daisy Mayme, a stage comedy about an extroverted, independent woman, which her husband, Bill Putch, will direct and which both will tour with from October through February.
And she’s scheduled to star as Eleanor Roosevelt in a two-part TV presentation being produced by Norman Lear.
Sandwiched between all this will be ongoing activities for the ERA, a movement which Jean has been a leader in recent years—and which has helped her make subtle, yet positive changes in the personality of Edith Bunker.
“For two or three years, I was pressing to have things on the show that would dramatize the issue of equal rights,” she reveals. “And then in 1976, I served on the National Committee for the Observance of International Women’s Year—and I was able to provide our writers with research material that enabled them to write scripts along that level.”
One segment she’s particularly proud of dealt with credit discrimination toward Edith when that long-suffering heroine attempted to cash a cheque.
“We got a lot of mail response to that one,” she reports with a smile that grows broader when she adds, “a mostly positive response, I’m happy to say.”
It also seems ironic, after all these seasons in which Jean Stapleton has docily say back while Carroll O’Connor has made his periodic threats to leave, that it should be she who has found the courage to free herself from series security. Leaving Carroll in a house in which the other Family members have already left.
Thinking back to those earlier times—and to one particular time when Carroll was engaging in a lengthy walkout from the show, and CBS and Tandem Productions were considering revamping the series so it would revolve around a widowed Edith—she smiles softly and says, “It just proves nothing in life is ever fixed, ever definite.”
The only definite with Jean Stapleton now, is that she feels no regret or insecurity about having left Archie—and Edith.
“All in the Family” is the kind of programme that probably should be on the air today but would probably never get made as noisy claques are noisier than they were in 1971. (Can you picture a comedy built around a Tea Partying, NRA-supporting, “entitlement”-hating bigot? I can.) And producers would have to find the actors that could pull off the roles. Would any of them have been better as an awakened “dingbat” than Jean Stapleton? Probably not.
Here’s one of my favourite Edith moments. Like all of Edith’s stories or explanations, they’re perfectly logical. But there’s something odd as they unfold.