Jean Stapleton died today. For those of us who grew up watching “All In The Family," she will forever be Edith Bunker. “All In The Family” was essential viewing for my family. Many of the jokes went over my head until I got older and a little wiser, but even from the start, I understood that Edith was the heart of the show and it was a mistake to underestimate her...though her husband, Archie, did again and again and again.
You couldn’t have a show on like “All In The Family” now because it was too politically incorrect. We’ve traded the ability to make those kind of jokes for an “anything goes” gross-out fest and I’m not sure we’re better for it. Archie was racist, homophobic and sexist, but show creator Norman Lear and Carroll O’Connor, who so brilliantly played Archie, knew that his hate came from fear and he usually got his comeuppance so that he ended up looking like the idiot instead of the person he disparaged. He’d grown up during a time when white men ruled the workplace and the homefront and when all that started to change in the ‘‘60s and ‘70s, he felt threatened as the ground shifted beneath his feet. Edith understood that the times were changing and welcomed them, even if she still acted like a traditional ‘50s housewife most of the time.
Stapleton played Edith naively enough that, like Archie, we were often caught unaware that she was really pretty smart. Plus, she had an essential kindness that made her treat all people equally simply because that was her way.
Lear said in a statement printed in the Los Angeles Times today, : "No one gave more profound 'How to be a Human Being' lessons than Jean Stapleton. Goodbye Edith, darling."
In his autobiography, O’Connor, who died in 2001 , wrote "The benign, compassionate presence she developed made my egregious churl bearable.” I remember some episodes where Edith’s loneliness from being married to someone so difficult came through, but she mainly accepted Archie on his own terms, as she did everyone.
Though my mother was highly educated and my father was the furthest thing from a racist, they still came up in the same era as Edith and Archie. Mom worked, but she was still expected to have dinner on the table when dad came home, just like Edith. They even had side-by-side lounge chairs, like Edith and Archie. He's gotten much better as he's gotten older, but my father was no fan of discussing squishy emotions, just like Archie. But he would have never, ever, ever called my mother a "dingbat" or told her to "stifle herself." No, that would not have gone over well... to put it mildly.
I tried to see if there were charities that Stapleton supported, but I couldn’t find any in her obituary. However, I learned that she started her career in local theater and then on Broadway, so I’m donating to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS because that seems like a cause that both Stapleton and Edith would have gotten behind.
Click here to get “Causes and Effects” delivered every day to your email inbox (the subscription link now works) or enter your email in the top right corner.