Jean Stapleton, who won three Emmys and charmed audiences as the “dingbat” Edith Bunker on the groundbreaking TV show “All in the Family,” died Friday in New York of natural causes. She was 90.
Nearly 50 at the time, Stapleton had already worked onstage and in film and television for many years when she was cast by Norman Lear as the wife of Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor.
Lear said, “This will be short and sweet. Never as sweet as I’d wish it to be if I took a month to write it. I only just learned that Jean Stapleton, our beloved Edith — or Edith, our beloved Jean Stapleton– has passed. Back in 1971, possibly the first time I was asked by a journalist ‘What is Jean Stapleton like, my reflexive response was: ‘She’s always where she is.’ I was surprised by my answer, never had the thought before and never knew it resided within me. Can I reach deeply enough inside me now to express how much that, the idea and Jean Stapleton herself has meant to me?”
I was at my computer when her glorious children, John and Pam, phoned me, and I told them I was working on my memoir, and reflecting on the time I was father to my personal family on Mooncrest Drive while also fathering Archie and Edith and three other families on CBS. And I added — so, at 90, here still is Jean Stapleton, ‘always where she is,’ helping me to see my own frailties and humanity yet again. No one gave more profound ‘How to be a Human Being’ lessons than Jean Stapleton. Goodbye Edith, darling.”
Rob Reiner, who played her son-in-law on the long-running CBS show, said in a statement, “She was a brilliant comedienne with exquisite timing. Working with her was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”
The show ran from 1971 to 1979, and Stapleton became known as the querulous, long-suffering counterpart to gruff Archie. Her character experienced things that virtually no TV show had portrayed before, including going through menopause, nearly being raped and finding a lump in her breast during a time when breast cancer was not discussed.
After “All in the Family” ended, she segued to spinoff “Archie Bunker’s Place,” but didn’t want to continue after the first season, so O’Connor’s character was left to mourn her when she died on the show.
She went on to roles on TV series including “Scarecrow and Mrs. King,” “Faerie Tale Theater,” “Bagdad Cafe,” “Touched By an Angel” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.” She was also Emmy-nommed for performances as Eleanor Roosevelt in “Eleanor, First Lady of the World” and a guest appearance on “Grace Under Fire.”
Born in New York City, her first major role was in the national touring company of “Harvey” in 1949. After performing in summer stock and off-Broadway, she starred in the 1953 Broadway play “In the Summer House.”
She went on to star in “Damn Yankees” onstage and in the 1958 film. She appeared onstage and in the film version of “The Bells are Ringing,” and originated the role of Mrs. Strakosh in “Funny Girl.” Her television appearances during the 1960s included “Route 66,” “My Three Sons,” “The Patty Duke Show” and “Dennis the Menace.”
She is survived by her daughter, TV producer Pamela Putch and son, film and TV director John Putch. Her husband, William Putch, died in 1983.