This past week we learned of the death of Jean Stapleton, another iconic figure in the annals of boomer-age TV. Jean was born in New York City in 1923, and began her acting career on the stage in the early 1940s. She appeared in dozens of plays and many famous productions, including the musicals Damn Yankees and Funny Girl, before guest starring in a variety of dramatic and comedic television roles in the early 1960s, including boomer favorites such as Dr. Kildare, My Three Sons, Car 54 Where Are You?, Dennis the Menace and Naked City.
Yet it was her role as the truly better half to Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Conner) in the TV series All in the Family (1971-’79) that seared her memory forever in the minds of boomers. The two actors had previously worked together in 1962 on an episode of The Defenders, when she appeared in a guest role. Norman Lear cast her in his 1971 film, Cold Turkey, and when he was reminded of her appearance in Damn Yankees, knew he had found his Edith Bunker.
Edith Bunker, as portrayed by Jean Stapleton, was dim-witted and submissive to her aggressive, bigoted husband. Yet, like comedic relief in plays of old, she often was the voice of reason, kindness, compassion and open-mindedness. This foil to Archie’s brashness figured large in the show’s ability to take on some of the biggest social issues of the early ’70s, including racism, abortion, homosexuality, menopause, breast cancer, women’s rights and more.
Archie often referred to Edith as a “dingbat” as she shuffled about their Queens, New York house, adjusting doilies or fixing dinner. When Edith voiced an opinion contrary to Archie’s ultra-conservative, bombastic living room speeches, he would often tell her, “Stifle yourself.” Edith took it all in stride. Jean Stapleton once said that Edith was the “soul of justice,” remarking on her innate kindness and fairness. Speaking of how the show addressed bigotry in an interview with the Archive of American Television, she said, “…you know when you make fun of something, it reduces it to nothing.”
Like most households with growing boomers, All in the Family was regularly tuned into Mister Boomer’s family TV. Also like in many boomer households, the issues raised in the show helped many boomers to better understand the changing social environment that they would soon inherit as adults. Yet it was Edith Bunker’s humor and good nature that endeared her to Mister B.
The family so enjoyed the show that Mister Boomer purchased the All in the Family vinyl record when it was released in 1971. The album featured Edith and Archie singing the opening song to the TV show, “Those Were the Days.” It always got a chuckle out of Mister B’s mom when he cued it up on the record player.
As a general rule, issues openly talked about on the show were never discussed in Mister B’s home. Mister B started college the same year as the show’s debut, and it helped him to transition from being surrounded by a small set of mostly like-minded suburbanites to the vast mix of college life, and with it, a variety of opinions and world views.
Jean Stapleton went on after the show ended to appear in many more roles in movies and on TV, but for many boomers, including Mister B, we say “Edith, those were the days!”
What memories of Jean Stapleton do you have, boomers?