Jean Stapleton: Hall of Fame Tribute
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary lists the word "dingbat" as dating back to 1904, its origin unknown. Perhaps so, but for millions of television viewers, the term was introduced on January 12, 1971. That night that the word was first uttered by Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker as he addressed Jean Stapleton as Archie's wife Edith in the premiere episode of the now-classic CBS series All in the Family.
With the show's success — it was the number-one rated series from 1971-1976 — "dingbat" entered the national lexicon and Stapleton became a national icon. She won three Emmy Awards for the role as well as three Golden Globes. In 1980, when the actress decided to move on to new performing challenges, Edith died of a stroke off-camera and the nation as well as Archie mourned. Series creator Norman Lear established the "Edith Bunker Memorial Fund," with proceeds going to the National Organization for Women Foundation. Later, the living room chairs Stapleton and O'Connor used on the show were donated to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.
But while the same dictionary defines a dingbat as a "nitwit," i.e., a scatterbrained or stupid person, Stapleton's Edith was not just the dense, long-suffering wife of a blue-collar bigot. She was also a woman of warmth, humanity and ultimately, dignity — as is Stapleton herself.
"Hal-low!" Stapleton cheerily answers the phone in her New York apartment, then graciously acknowledges her caller's recollections of interviewing her a dozen years earlier when she starred as Aunt Eller in a Los Angeles Opera production of Oklahoma!.
Yes, the woman who screeched her way through All in the Family's theme song, "Those Were the Days," is a veteran of both musical theater and opera. In fact, she developed Edith Bunker's trademark nasal voice in the course of originating the role of Sister in the 1955 Broadway production of Damn Yankees; the show's legendary director-playwright George Abbott had heard her sing and said, "We must find a part for her in our next musical."
Having first appeared on Broadway in the 1953 non-musical In the Summer House, Stapleton followed Damn Yankees with roles in the original Broadway productions of Bells Are Ringing and Funny Girl, appearing as well in the film versions of Yankees and Bells. Her operatic debut came post-All in the Family in 1984, in Leonard Bernstein's Candide.
Says Stapleton now about making Sister's voice Edith's own, “I thought it was useful for comedy effect. And I wasn't stealing from anybody! Edith was very, very high-pitched at the beginning — that was something I held on to. She toned down as the character toned down over all those years. It wasn't a big change — she remained high-pitched — but the character developed with more maturity.”
All through high school, music was the primary interest of the piano-playing Stapleton, who was born Jeanne Murray in New York. Upon graduation, however, she became enamored of acting and began studying at night while supporting herself as a secretary. She worked with the American Theatre Wing and took small parts in Actors Equity Library productions, playing middle-aged character roles even as a teenager.
She made her television series debut in 1954 in CBS' Woman with a Past and later appeared in episodes of Dr. Kildare, Naked City, The Eleventh Hour, Car 54, Where Are You? and The Patty Duke Show. In 1957, she married producer-director Bill Putch, and gave birth to daughter Pamela, now an NBC vice president, in 1959, and son John, now a director, in 1961.
Stapleton's co-star in a 1962 episode of The Defenders was none other than Carroll O'Connor. Six years later, the two re-teamed for the first pilot version of All in the Family, directed by Norman Lear, which was rejected by ABC. In 1970, a second pilot was picked up by CBS for a midseason premiere. While at first the ratings were low, the show found its audience during reruns, and — to put it mildly — took off.
All in the Family, Stapleton says, was "the great idea born by Norman Lear and his courage at the time. I was very blessed I was cast in it." Doing the show was “the exciting process of the art of acting. The script gives you a great deal of that, your imagination and creativity add to it, and it grows. I could see the growth, the subtle changes, in what we were doing. Norman established the freedom to be creative, which was very exciting. It helped the writers, and we also had an input.”
Not all the show's subject matter was comedic: in one episode, Edith discovered a lump in her breast, and in another, her attempted rape struck a particularly intense chord with the public. "I was deeply immersed with the performing," Stapleton says of those scenarios.
“My great pleasure was experiencing the reaction of our studio audience, especially with such vivid stories. I think it's wonderful to play and deal with stories that affect people. They were treated so well in human terms — that's what I appreciated about doing it. It was a joy to play something that reflects the human condition.”
But when the joy wore thin, Stapleton left the series, which was then called Archie Bunker's Place. "Rob [Reiner] and Sally [Struthers] had left the year before," she explains. "I decided there was no more to do with it, and that I might be buried in the part — that would be death itself."
Instead, she appeared on stage and starred in a number of television films, among them Angel Dusted with son John, Eleanor, First Lady of the World, and Agatha Christie's Dead Man's Folly. In 1983, she turned down the role of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote because, she says, “I didn't find anything that sparked my interest in what I had read in the first script, and I realized what a commitment it was. That darling lady [Angela Lansbury] was waiting in the wings. It turned out all right. When she sees me, she always says, ‘Thank you.’”
Sadly, 1983 proved a different sort of landmark year as well — Stapleton's husband died suddenly of a heart attack. He had been directing her in a touring production of The Show Off; and hours after his death, Stapleton went on as scheduled because, she says, "That's what he would have wanted."
Since then Stapleton has been onstage frequently, most notably in her one-woman show Eleanor: Her Secret Journey about Eleanor Roosevelt. She also had an Obie Award-winning turn in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party and a starring role in Horton Foote's The Carpetbagger's Children, which played an extended run at Lincoln Center this year. On the big screen, she has been seen in You've Got Mail and Michael; on television, she co-starred with Whoopi Goldberg in the CBS sitcom Bagdad Cafe, starred in the Showtime children's series Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and most recently, appeared in the CBS telefilm Like Mother, Like Son: The Strange Story of Sante and Kenny Kimes.
Of her induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, Stapleton says, "It's amazing. It's a great honor. But fame has never been a goal, and shouldn't be. So I would rather call this the Hall of Love. That's what it is."
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Jean Stapleton's induction in 2002.
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