VIENNA, VA., June 3, 2013— With the passing of Jean Stapleton, a part of our social history died. An accomplished actress of stage and film, Stapleton will be best remembered for playing Edith Bunker, soul mate and straight man for Carroll O’Connor who played her strange but lovable husband, Archie Bunker.
All In The Family was a weekly television viewing staple from January of 1976 to April of 1979, Edith was the everywoman to Archie’s everyman.
The final years of the 70’s were a different, and difficult time for America. Vietnam was technically over but still very much in everyone’s heart as the country straightened its shoulders recovering from anti-war protests, the feminist movement and the drug culture. The term “Political correctness” had happily not been born yet.
It was a time when we could laugh AT each other as well as WITH each other, and no one ran out and filed a lawsuit. or even alerted the nightly news anchor.
Archie Bunker was a veteran of WW2, a working class guy living in the Astoria section of Queens, New York that was bigoted to the core, and determined to keep the rest of the world in line. Edith was his sweet and often clueless wife, back when wives and ladies wore those cute aprons that tied in the back.
But through the clueless Edith, we learned to bettle breast cancer, rape and the inhumanity of man to man and woman.
Archie called her “dingbat,” but if he was her theoretical mental superior, she eclipsed him in every way that mattered. She was the peacemaker even if she didn’t understand the cause for the battle. She had a way of saying, “Now, Archie…..” that went right to the core.
Daughter, Gloria was played by Sally Struthers, and she was more like her mother than her dad, who was an embarrassment to the progressive college student. Gloria’s husband, Mike Stivic, played by Rob Reiner, was the total opposite of Archie – a true liberal, a hippie by day with his long hair and attitude. A burr under his saddle that Archie called “Meathead.”
Like kids do, Gloria and Michael moved in, bringing with them the social issues of the day, including integration, a difficult situation throughout America that was given a comedic lift with an interracial kiss, as Sammy Davis Jr. planted one on Archie.
While Archie brooked little opposition to his bigoted outlook, referring to Rob Reiner as “Polack” for his Polish ancestry, there was no ethnic or geographic group that escaped his brand of humor. Italians were wops, Asians in general were chinks Jewish folks were Hebes, and the Communities would probably delete any further names used as examples!
And yet we all got along, perhaps because no one had drummed it into our collective heads that we should not. At that time, such things were said in a kind of “we’re all buddies” environment, and “All In the Family” made it true.
We laughed until our sides hurt and no one got mad or upset.
Hearing of her passing, Rob Reiner’s commented that she was a “brilliant comedienne with exquisite timing,” adding “working with her was one of the greatest times of my life.”
Jean Stapleton in person was different from her character portrayal of Edith Bunker, saying “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,” she said.
Television of that 1970s era was reluctant to touch any “controversial” subject, but “All in the Family” broke new ground as homosexuality, breast cancer, race situations, and the things normal Americans talked about came right out in the show, and again, no one got mad or filed a law suit.
Norman Lear, who created, wrote and produced “All in the Family” said that Edith, as played by Jean Stapleton, helped him to see his own “frailties and humanity.” In a statement, he continued: “No one gave more profound ‘How to be a Human Being’ lessons than Jean Stapleton. Goodbye Edith, darling.”
Jean Stapleton was 90 years old, and died after having suffered from a stroke while she slept; she was surrounded by her family and friends, and will never be forgotten. She and the series helped us all to be better people as time went by and our world changed measurably, but somehow along the way, we forgot how to laugh.
We will miss you, Edith.
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