All In The Family

Edith Bunker died in 1980, but Jean Stapleton soldiered on until just more than a week ago, when she died at home in her own bed, surrounded by her children, at the age of 90.

I was one of the many people – of all ages – who eagerly looked forward each week for the showing of ”All in the Family,” back in the age when nearly every program could not be seen at least twice more on other channels, if the first showing was inconvenient, and there was no such thing as a VCR, let alone a DVR. It was an age of ”Father Knows Best,” and ”Leave It to Beaver,” when television showed us nothing but perfect families whose activities involved conflict only when Bud spied on Betty when she chastely kissed her prom date, but when such conflicts were easily resolved following a reasonable chat with Dad, who smoked his pipe throughout, then confessed to Margaret that he truly sympathized with both parties.

”All in the Family” centered around the far from perfect Bunker Family, who lived in a row house in Queens. Actor Carroll O’Conner got most of the attention, for his portrayal of Archie Bunker, the father of the family. Archie was a know-it-all worker on the loading dock of a large corporation. In many ways, he resembled Jackie Gleason and his character Ralph Kramdon, the New York City bus driver who was perpetually getting into scrapes because of his own selfish ambitions and petty dishonesty, and whose tiny, hard-nagging wife was always being threatened with violence, although he would melt into a puddle of butter if she seemed truly angry or upset with him. But Archie said and did things Ralph would never have dared to say or do.

The true soul of the show, and the element which made it the top-rated show on television for five straight years, of its nine-year run, was Stapleton, portraying Edith Bunker, Archie’s long suffering wife.

Archie would fire off a long string of negatives about ”Your Coloreds and your Yids and your Cat-licks,” and then sweet tempered, soft hearted Edith would make a quiet statement, usually in terrible grammar, which demonstrated just how wrong he was, so clearly, even he had to realize it. At least twice, per 30-minute program, Archie would tell Edith to ”Stifle yourself, would ya,” and nearly always she would do so.

The couple had a daughter named Gloria, who stood up to her father, while her mother nearly always cowed and obeyed. Gloria was played by Sally Struthers, who was then slender and perky, and had one of those voices which breaks every few words. Gloria was married to Mike Stivik, known by Archie as ”Meathead,” and ”the Pollock,” and the younger couple lived with Gloria’s parents, because Mike was still studying. Mike was played by Rob Reiner, and was a tree hugger and a protest sign waver who never agreed with Archie about much of anything.

The few times Edith ever stood up to her verbose, ranting husband usually involved some event in which he was unkind to Gloria and Mike. Edith loved Archie, even when he was at his most greedy, deceitful, and cruel, and when he plopped into his easy chair and demanded, ”Get me a glass of milk, will ya?” she showed in every way that she was happy to be able to do it for him. Gloria would tell him to get it for himself, but Edith really saw getting it to be her place in life.

Archie and Edith were part of my parents’ generation. My father had the same tendency to plop and demand, and my mother ran to do his will, and nearly always wanted to do so. With her high pitched, screeching voice and her fluttery behavior, when the show is repeated on television today, young people who really never knew that generation see Edith as a doormat, as an unrealistic, clown-like figure. But those of us who knew and loved people of that generation knew her as Everywoman. Her sisters in real life were the inspiration why many of the men who fought World War II often had ”Mother” tattooed on their arms, and no one ridiculed them or found Freudian meanings in the practice.

Television critic Robert Lloyd, writing in the Los Angeles Times, described Edith as a cross among Gracie Allen, Olive Oyl, and a macaw. Her voice could make us feel as though someone was running his fingernails across a blackboard, her stories go off on so many tangents, it’s difficult to remember who she was originally describing, and she often struck upon an unusual term, and nothing could make her abandon it. In one episode of the program, Archie made a rare foray into a supermarket, and was struck by a can of peaches, falling from a shelf. Edith just couldn’t bring herself to say ”a can of peaches.” Instead, each time the offending can entered the conversation, she described them as ”cling peaches in heavy syrup,” sometimes twice or three times in the same sentence.

When we interviewed Norman Lear, the genius who created “All in the Family,” when he spoke at Chautauqua, last summer, he said he never thought of Archie as a truly bad person, nor of Edith as a poor example for women. He told me the Bunkers grew up as non-readers, in a world which had no television, few magazines, and very little opportunity to travel, even fairly short distances. ”For 40 years,” he told me, ”Archie and Edith rarely, if ever, saw anyone who didn’t speak and behave exactly as they did. They thought they understood the world. Then suddenly World War II came along and people often had to travel to very distant places and people were moving onto their very block, who were different races and different religions, and it made them afraid. They weren’t afraid that the new people would harm them, so much, as that maybe their lives were wasted, misspent, lived in pursuit of something they couldn’t or shouldn’t have.”

Jean Stapleton had a long and successful career, before she ever heard Edith’s name. She was born Jean Murray, and took her mother’s maiden name for the stage and films. The computer informs me that there was no family relationship between her and Oscar-winning actress Maureen Stapleton, with whom she was often confused by the public.

She first appeared on the professional stage at age 18. Her biggest successes from the first 30 years of her career were major character roles in ”Bells are Ringing,” ”Damn Yankees” and ”Funny Girl.” She was in both the Broadway casts and the films of those shows. It was in ”Damn Yankees,” that she first used the screechy voice we now think of Edith’s.

She played Meg Boyd, a middle aged housewife whose husband is a mad devotee of the Washington Senators baseball team. Like Edith, Meg was no beauty, but she was a warm, loving person. Eventually, her husband sells his soul to the devil, in return for being magically translated into the body of a young, wildly talented athlete who leads the team to win the American League Pennant.

The husband – now played by Tab Hunter, in the film – comes to her door and asks to rent a room, and lonely and in need of cash, she agrees, not knowing that her husband, who she believes has abandoned her, but who she still loves deeply, is living under her own roof. It’s a performance which brings tears to most eyes, even 50 years after the film was made.

Stapleton’s ability to simultaneously portray to her audience decency, courage, and naivete, in ”Damn Yankees,” inspired Lear, he would later report, to create the role of Edith as she eventually appeared, and to pursue the actor until she agreed to play the role, including the screeching voice which sounded completely unlike her own, rather dark mezzo soprano voice.

By 1980, the actor had been playing the role for nine years. When she did stage plays, during breaks in filming the show, people came to the shows, wanting to see Edith. Reviewers sometimes referred to her as Edith in print, rather than as Jean. When her last contract expired, she refused to renew it, even though Lear pleaded with her to do so and offered her major salary increases.

To deal with her loss, the name of the show was changed to ”Archie Bunker’s Place.” Scripts had Archie lose his job on the loading dock, and mortgage the family’s home in order to purchase Kelsey’s Bar, the neighborhood tavern where he had often fled for refuge when wife and children got him down. In one of her last performances as Edith, the character learns that her husband had forged her signature on the loan application, in order to get the mortgage, and her feeling of betrayal is beautifully manifested, and touching.

Shortly after this, she disappeared from the program, and the scripts inform us that Edith has died of a stroke.

Jean Stapleton, on the other hand, continued performing. On Broadway and at regional venues, she played scripts by such demanding playwrights as Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and William Inge. She appeared in several films, directed by Norah Ephron, including ”You Got Mail,” starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and ”Michael,” which starred John Travolta as an angel.

She did a touring, one-woman production, portraying Julia Child, called ”Bon Appetite,” and often appeared on television series, including ”Murphy Brown,” ”Everybody Loves Raymond,” and Shelley Duvall’s ”Fairy Tale Theater.” But to the end, whether elegantly gowned or dressed as a fairy tale character, people looked at her and saw Edith.

So, both Edith Bunker and Jean Stapleton are now gone from our cultural world, yet both remain among the best and the most precious elements of the artistic community.