Character actress Jean Stapleton, who died May 31 at age 90, worked for half a century in theater, television, and movies, but by far her most memorable role was as Edith Bunker, who helped introduce change to the American living room by inviting America into her own on All in the Family.
A Queens housewife, married to bigoted, belligerent loading-dock worker Archie (Carroll O’Connor), Edith was the sweetener in the acidic cocktail of social change that Norman Lear’s sitcom served up every week. If much of the show’s energy came from the conflict between Archie and the rest of the world — his son-in-law, and his liberal and minority neighbors, the reminders of change on the street and his beloved TV — Edith was the peacemaker, the keening voice of good-hearted reason.
(MORE: Jean Stapleton Dies at 90)
Which is not to say Stapleton wasn’t hilariously funny herself. Richly well-spoken in real life, Stapleton animated Edith with a musical screech that established her as a one-of-a-kind character from the opening strains of the theme song, “Those Were the Days.” (“And you knew who you WAAAAAAHHHH then!”) That voice did so much work: it established Edith’s working-class roots, it gave pathos to her attempts to smooth over conflicts and show others the sunny side of dark times, it wheedled, it entreated. It was optimistic and cheerful, but at times with an edge of desperation, fear, even anger. There was just enough helium in it to see why Archie called her a “dingbat,” and just enough control to remind us, often, that she was a dingbat like a fox.
We originally met Edith as the submissive wife to Archie’s old-school hubby (“Stifle!”), cooing to him and readying his favorite chair. But Stapleton revealed a canniness and wisdom in Edith; she was the one, when Archie sparred with daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) or Meathead (Rob Reiner), who reminded each of them that there was a person behind the ideology they were fighting. And she didn’t always stifle so easily, as in the episode (see video above) in which Edith, forced to ask her husband for a loan, defended the value of her unpaid housework and her rights: “You clear up the table! And I ain’t paying you for it neither!”
Stapleton’s performance showed the strength it took, at a time when families were being torn apart, for Edith both to stand up for herself and keep the peace. What at first may have seemed like submissiveness in Edith was actually something much tougher: unconditional love. At a time when Americans needed it, Jean Stapleton made Edith a mother to us all, a reminder that in the midst of every living room war were decent people trying to do right.
Edith Baines Bunker, it turned out, was no doormat. She was a welcome mat. RIP.