Jean Stapleton, Edith on "All in the Family," Dies at 90

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02 Jun 2013

Jean Stapleton
Jean Stapleton

Jean Stapleton, a seasoned stage and film actress who found lasting fame as the dimwitted and big-hearted wife of Archie Bunker on the 1970s social sitcom "All in the Family," died May 31 at her home in New York City. She was 90.

Ms. Stapleton was a two-decade veteran of live television and the Broadway stage when producer Norman Lear, who had seen her perform in Damn Yankees, cast her as Edith Bunker, a middle-aged Queens housewife whose life and thoughts don't range far from the Queens home she shares with her domineering husband, Archie, a bigoted, narrow-minded dock worker. As was the case with her co-star, the journeyman actor Carroll O'Connor, the role proved a career changer. After a brief period of viewer indifference, the innovative show, which routinely addressed social issues, and asked the audience to embrace a fundamentally dislikable protagonist, caught fire with audiences. It finished first in the ratings for five consecutive seasons.

A large part of the show's success was Ms. Stapleton's portrayal of Edith. Uneducated and almost completely cowed by her husband—when he wasn't telling her to "stifle herself" or calling her a "dingbat," Archie was continually sending her into the kitchen to a fetch a beer—she was also instinctually generous of heart, kind, forgiving and thoughtful. On rare occasions, as the series progressed (along with the times), she stood up to Archie. Ms. Stapleton won Emmy Awards in 1971, '72 and '78.

Ms. Stapleton had an estimable run on Broadway prior to finding small-screen fame. She made her debut in Jane Bowles' play In the Summer House in 1953. She had supporting roles in the original productions of Damn Yankees, Bells Are Ringing and Juno. She appeared opposite Zero Mostel in Rhinoceros and alongside Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.

Following her run in "All in Family," which ended in 1979, she returned to the stage in full force, finding choice work Off-Broadway. She won an Obie Award for her work in the Pinter double bill of Mountain Language and Happy Days, played Julia Child in Bon Appetit, showed her skill with Moliere in The Learned Ladies at CSC, acted in Horton Foote's The Roads to Home and Night Seasons and appeared in John Osborne's The Entertainer.



Regionally, she acted at Hartford Stage, Alley Theatre, Guthrie, Arena Stage, Kennedy Center, Shakespeare Theatre and South Coast Rep.

She was born Jeanne Murray in New York City on Jan. 19, 1923, and attended Hunter College. Following high school, she took acting classes at night at the American Actors' Company. She cut her teeth on the stage touring with Frank Fay in Harvey and as understudy to Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba. Her husband of 30 years, William Putch, died in 1983. She is survived by their two children, Pamela and John, and grandchildren.