Jean Stapleton, the versatile actress who will forever be remembered for her long-running role as the dim-witted but deep-hearted Edith Bunker on the groundbreaking 1970s sitcom All in the Family, died Friday at her home in New York City, her family confirms.
Stapleton, who was 90, succumbed to natural causes.
Having already established a career during the 1950s and early ’60s for playing nosy neighbor roles in such Broadway smashes as Damn Yankees, Funny Girl and Bells Are Ringing, in which she played the owner of the titular answering service, Stapleton entered the TV pantheon with her high-pitched comic voice (which was a gross exaggeration of her own), perfect timing (especially when Edith would be slow to catch on to something) and unrelenting love for her husband Archie Bunker (even while overlooking his bigotry, which she never shared).
“The civil rights issue went right through our series … That was marvelous stuff,” Stapleton, touching upon All in the Family‘s timeliness, said a few years ago in an interview with the Archive of American Television. “There’s nothing like humor to burst what seems to be an enormous problem. Humor reduces it to nothing and wipes it out. That’s what humor does. That was a great part of that show in terms of every issue.”
With her highly quotable malapropisms – Edith thought VD stood for Veterans’ Day – and dogged devotion to the impossible Archie, Edith Bunker was not only hilariously funny, but compassionate and deeply affecting – facing such (for primetime TV) breakthrough issues of her day as breast cancer, menopause and sexual assault.
Winning three Emmys for the role, Stapleton played Edith to Carroll O’Conner‘s Archie from 1971-79, then asked to be written out of the show as the series continued under slightly different formats.
Instinctive as Edith may have been, she was nothing like the well-educated, well-spoken Stapleton, who was born Jeanne Murray in New York City, the daughter of outdoor advertising salesman Joseph E. Murray and concert singer Marie Stapleton Murray.
While attending Hunter College she made her acting debut in summer stock at age 18 before graduating to Off Broadway and Broadway (she repeated her stage roles in the movie adaptations of Damn Yankees and Bells Are Ringing) and eventually parts on early TV dramas and comedy shows.
It was also during the stage run of Bells Are Ringing, in 1957, that Stapleton met and married William Putch, a concert promoter who also ran the 453-seat Totem Pole Playhouse summer stock theater in Pennsylvania – where, for the next quarter century, even at the height of her TV stardom, Stapleton would appear.
As Stapleton was shooting a character role for producer Norman Lear’s 1971 movie comedy Cold Turkey, about a Midwestern town whose entire population tries to give up smoking, Lear was attempting to sell his adaptation of the British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part to one of the American TV networks. The domestic version was to be set in New York City’s blue-collar borough of Queens and called All in the Family.
Finally, CBS put it on the air, and the one-time character actress became a leading lady – and a household name. The show’s ratings shot to No. 1, though the series itself was seldom without controversy over the issues it tackled and the in-your-face manner in which they were presented. Stapleton not only embraced the controversy, but lent herself to the social issues, becoming, for instance, a vocal proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Once she left All in the Family she continued to make TV appearances, such as when in 1996, as if to counteract her trod-upon Edith persona, she played the imperious sister of Doris Roberts’s character on Everybody Loves Raymond.
She also appeared in the movies Michael and You’ve Got Mail, and returned to her stage roots, touring in a critically acclaimed one-woman show about Eleanor Roosevelt – a real-life role she had also played in the 1982 CBS movie Eleanor: First Lady of the World.
Bill Putsch, with whom Stapleton had two children, Pam and John, died in 1983. While Stapleton told PEOPLE at the time that she was unable to talk about her grief, she did say, “I am going about my life one day at a time.”
And she did just that, continuing to act until her retirement and remaining, to this very day, one of everybody’s favorite TV relatives.