Rebel in a Housedress

Jean Stapleton's creation- Edith Bunker

Jean Stapleton’s creation- Edith Bunker

Jean Stapleton, the actress who played Edith Bunker on All in the Family, has died at the age of 90.

Edith was kind of the anti-Lucy. Where Lucy was a drama queen who always ended up back in her place, Edith was a humble woman who somehow managed to overturn Archie’s bombast with her simple decency.

Jean Stapleton was a subtle and gifted actress who made it look easy. Her portrayal of Edith was a feminist subversion of roles in traditional marriage. She was so convincing that people confused the art with the artist. In an interview for the Christian Science Monitor in 1981 she discusses this.

The death of Edith was discussed at length by the cast of ‘All in the Family.’ It 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.

”The last person to agree to that was Norman Lear (the executive producer and creator of the character). 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.’

”So we agreed that attention had to be paid to Edith, and the Edith Bunker Memorial Fund was established, administered by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, for the support of women’s issues and the passage of the ERA.

”I am very proud of the way the whole problem turned out. But personally I realized it was a darn good thing for it to be that way because, somehow, the public cannot separate me from the character of Edith. If she is gone, it helps me personally in their minds because they know I am somebody else now.”

I can’t find a citation for this, but years ago I read that Jean Stapleton was a Christian Scientist. Plastic surgery was against her religion. So instead of a nip and tuck to try for the younger roles, she chose work where she could keep it real. May be why she never made the front page of the Enquirer. Jean Stapleton had an active career right into her old age, playing many other interesting women, including Eleanor Roosevelt.

She will be remembered for the work she loved. A life well-lived.

The Los Angeles Times has a warm tribute to her life and work.

Thanks to Just Jared for this pix of Jean Stapleton peeking out from her character, Edith.

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