The first thing I thought about when I heard that Jean Stapleton had died was that she made acting look so easy. Her character Edith Bunker on the sitcom All in the Family is one of the most memorable in television history. She came across as what some people called dim-witted or simple, but Stapleton imbued Edith with an undeniable wisdom, one that subsumed her husband Archie’s (the unforgettable Carroll O’Connor) bigotry, her daughter Gloria’s (Sally Struthers) petulance, and her son-in-law Mike’s (Rob Reiner) arrogance. The most memorable thing then about Edith Bunker is that she made being simple smart, and that earned her three Emmys and made her a beloved character still cherished by many people today.
I recall watching All in the Family with my family and the show’s characters became like family. The most impressive thing for me was that this was a family from Queens, New York, which is where I lived. More importantly, I knew people just like Edith and Archie and the rest because they mirrored the people next door, across the street, and down the block. Most of the men were working class guys like Archie, drank beer sitting in front of the TV set, and spoke with the same accent. Some of them were as ignorant and bigoted as he was, and when I saw this on the show I felt that it honestly portrayed what was happening in the world I knew.
Many local women were also like Edith. They didn’t work, worshipped their husbands, shopped in the local market, and spoke like her as well. It was Stapleton’s genius to have Edith gradually show some moxie with Archie, and as the series evolved she stood her ground more forcefully and spoke out on subjects that mattered to her – taking a job, helping senior citizens, standing up for Mike and Gloria, and loving her black neighbor Louise Jefferson. While she still loved and deferred to Archie most of the time, her times of defiance marked her as a real person who cared as much as the viewer did.
O’Connor came from Queens, and I remember meeting him once in a restaurant in Forest Hills. He was very cordial, spoke nothing like Archie, and was a gentleman. The thing I took away from that was he must have soaked up everything from growing up in the same streets I did, and he used every fragment of those experiences to make Archie as real as possible. Despite all his bluster, O’Connor made sure to let us know that Archie did have a heart and loved Edith, Gloria, and even grudgingly Mike. He also became a better person as the series moved forward because of his wife. Edith definitely brought out the best in her husband, and we loved Archie mostly because we knew he loved Edith.
Over the many years since the show went off the air, it has been possible to catch it on cable. Only the other night I saw an episode when Sammy Davis Jr. guest starred as himself. I have to say honestly that I laughed out loud throughout the viewing, and I cannot say that about much I watch these days (I think I laughed only once or twice during all of The Hangover 3). Even with all Archie’s bigotry and posturing during Sammy’s visit, it is Edith who shows the wisdom to treat the man as a guest in her home. I believe that is why Edith was so loved because she was just like the mothers we had (or wish we had).
Now Jean Stapleton joins O’Connor in the great beyond, and I am sure they won’t be able to resist sitting down at the piano and singing “Those Were the Days” at least one time. Rest in peace, Jean Stapleton.
Photo credits: edith and archie-usmagazine.com; the bunkers-nydailynews.com