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4:00 pm
Sun June 2, 2013

Remembering Jean Stapleton

Originally published on Sun June 2, 2013 7:18 pm

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WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Wade Goodwyn.

Jean Stapleton will always be known as Edith Bunker, the subservient housewife with the high-pitched voice on the TV show "All in the Family." The character was a saint compared to the bigoted, close-minded Archie Bunker played by Carroll O'Connor. People who knew her said Stapleton put a lot of herself into the character of Edith. Jean Stapleton passed away on Friday. Kyle Norris has this remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")

CARROLL O'CONNOR: (as Archie Bunker) (Singing) Boy, the way Glen Miller played.

JEAN STAPLETON: (as Edith Bunker) (Singing) Songs that made the hit parade.

O'CONNOR: (as Archie Bunker) (Singing) Guys like us we had it made.

CARROLL O'CONNOR AND JEAN STAPLETON: (as Archie Bunker and Edith Bunker) (Singing) Those were the days.

KYLE NORRIS, BYLINE: The character Jean Stapleton played, Edith Bunker, has been an icon in America's living rooms since the show started in 1971. Stapleton told the Archive of American Television she was blown away by the very first script.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

STAPLETON: Comedy based in character and situation and so forth. And I thought to myself: Wow, this on TV. How wonderful.

NORRIS: Stapleton decided Edith would always be running and rushing around because the show took place in New York where everyone's in a hurry. And at first, she did not give her character that nasal, high-pitched voice. But soon into the series, she applied the voice for comic reasons.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")

STAPLETON: (as Edith Bunker) (Unintelligible) Oh, Archie. I didn't hear you. I was singing.

NORRIS: Her working-class housewife character had a depth and kindness that evolved throughout the show's nine seasons. Stapleton called Edith Bunker compassionate with an original way of looking at the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

STAPLETON: Not very bright, not well educated and a perception about people that was instinctive. Sometimes it was very sharp understanding. She went right to the root of something.

NORRIS: In this scene, Archie, played by Carroll O'Connor, and his son-in-law Meathead, played by Rob Reiner, have been arguing. Meathead escapes to the kitchen and Edith goes after him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")

STAPLETON: (as Edith Bunker) Archie yells at you because he's jealous of you.

ROB REINER: (as Meathead) Oh, Ma, I don't want to listen to this.

STAPLETON: (as Edith Bunker) Oh, now, wait a minute. You will listen to me. Archie is jealous of you.

NORRIS: She leans in close to Meathead and says: You're going to college, but Archie had quit school to support his family.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")

STAPLETON: (as Edith Bunker) He ain't never gonna be nothing more than he is right now. But you, you got a chance to be anything you wanna be. That's why Archie's jealous of you. He sees in you all the things that he could never be.

NORRIS: The show, and specifically the character Edith, dealt with some uncomfortable themes, like what happens when a black family moves into a white neighborhood. Other issues included all kinds of stereotypes, women's rights and euthanasia. The fictional family of the Bunkers was real in a way America hadn't seen on TV before. Chuck Coletta teaches pop culture at Bowling Green State University. He says Edith represented a lot of women of the 1970s.

CHUCK COLETTA: She had this husband who was difficult, and she was sort of being confronted by her daughter in terms of women's rights and feminism and, you know, dealing with African-Americans. And I think she sort of captured the tone that you have to be accepting, where Archie was rejecting of all that.

NORRIS: He also says Edith progressed with the times, which was unusual because most sitcom characters didn't evolve from episode to episode - think Gilligan on "Gilligan's Island." And Coletta says America could relate to Edith because she seemed like an actual person in your neighborhood or someone you were related to. Jean Stapleton admitted she was never the leading lady type. Instead, she was a character actress with a long career of, as she said, playing secretaries and bag ladies.

She acted throughout her life on stage, in films and on TV. Stapleton was a born and raised New Yorker, and she loved the theater. She got into acting after high school and worked on Broadway in the original musical "Damn Yankees."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "DAMN YANKEES")

STAPLETON: (as Character) (Singing) You've gotta have heart. All you really need is heart.

NORRIS: And later starred in the film adaptation. She also played first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on television and later in a one-woman theatrical show that toured the country. Stapleton was married to William Putch, and for 30 years, they ran a summer stock theater program in Pennsylvania.

NORMAN LEAR: Jean Stapleton is one of the greatest human beings I've ever known.

NORRIS: That's Norman Lear, the creator and producer of "All in the Family." He says there was a co-mingling of the character Edith Bunker with the woman Jean Stapleton.

LEAR: When Edith had some deep problem, we had to answer - how would she react to this transsexual, to that murder, we always thought she would react the way we thought Jesus might, that she was that pure. And Jean Stapleton was that pure.

NORRIS: Stapleton was a Christian scientist and, according to Lear, a woman of great faith. She was also involved with social activist and feminist causes. For more than 30 years, Stapleton was on the board of a think tank that focused on issues affecting women. Stapleton would say that when she was in public, people would often approach her and ask her to say something in that high-pitched voice, which was nothing like her normal speaking voice.

Stapleton would politely refuse, saying: Edith was just a character she once played. But that's how she'll be remembered: as a good-hearted housewife, navigating the country's changing times of the 1970s. For NPR News, I'm Kyle Norris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.