Jean Stapleton died today – she was a fantastic comedienne who, with Norman Lear, created one of the greatest characters in TV history: Edith Bunker on All in the Family. While the late Carroll O’Connor was iconic as the endearing bigot Archie Bunker, Stapleton’s brilliant performance as Edith (which won the actress 3 Emmys) gave the show its heart – without Edith, All in the Family wouldn’t have been as potent a program – the social commentary needed the compassion of Edith.
It would be a mistake to confuse the fluttery, dithering Edith with Stapleton – a marvelous character actress who was able to inhabit a role, and get underneath the skin of the character she was portraying. And even though Edith was her defining role, Stapleton did strong work in television, stage, and theater – making her mark in all the mediums.
For those interested in seeing Stapleton’s range as an actress, check out her stellar performance as Eleanor Roosevelt in Eleanor, First Lady of the World. The TV movie is excellent, and the subject is deserving – and Stapleton’s brilliant, showing a great ability in playing a woman diametrically opposed to the flighty Edith Bunker. Stapleton followed up this performance with an equally-lauded turn as Roosevelt in a traveling one-woman show.
For something fluffier, Stapleton played Ariadne Oliver in Dead Man’s Folly – a filming of the Agatha Christie novel. Ariadne Oliver was supposedly based on Christie. Peter Ustinov plays the legendary Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. It’s interesting because Stapleton was originally invited to play Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote – the role eventually went to Angela Lansbury; so it’s great to see her play an amateur sleuth (who writes mysteries) – it’s a fun performance, and the actress gets to chew scenery and use her great comedic ability.
And even though All in the Family was Stapleton’s crowning glory on TV, she did manage some great television performances – usually as a guest star. She was a reliable scene-stealer in her later years, playing a variety of older mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. Some notable appearances are Grace Under Fire, Caroline in the City, Murphy Brown, and Everybody Loves Raymond. A curio that is worth catching on YouTube is Stapleton’s 1990 sitcom with Whoopi Goldberg, Bagdad Cafe – it was a failed sitcom that imploded because both Stapleton and Goldberg jumped ship, but this show – based on the cult indie hit – is highly underrated and folks should check it out for the great chemistry between the two comic greats.
Jean Stapleton was a great actress, highly respected and much-loved. During her career she amassed 10 Emmy nominations, and the admiration of her peers. Some of the tributes paid to the fantastic comedienne are:
Brodway vet Harvey Fierstein, “Jean Stapleton has left the building. A wonderful actress. Indelible. Not to be forgotten.”
TV actor and Star Trek legend, William Shatner, “Saddened to hear about Jean Stapleton. She was a gifted actress and comedienne. MBB.”
Glee star Jane Lynch dedicated her performance of Miss Hannigan in a revival of Annie to Stapleton Tweeting, “Tonight I dedicate @ANNIEonBroadway to the great Jean Stapleton and her gorgeous memory.”
Fellow TV icon Dick Van Dyke, “R.I.P. Jean Stapleton, such a sweet lady!!”
Actor Michael Chiklis, “‘All in the Family’ star Jean Stapleton dies at 90. One of my favorites has passed away. Jean was brilliant. RIP.”
Fellow TV comedienne, Debra Messing, “JEAN STAPLETON – an extraordinary actress and part of 1 of the best TV shows in history. Thank you and rest in peace. Xo.”
Family Guy scribe Seth MacFarlane, “RIP Jean Stapleton — one of the greatest actresses of all time. Thank you for everything, Edith.”
Comedienne and singer Bette Midler, “Jean Stapleton, beloved as Edith in ALL IN THE FAMILY dies at 90. She was unforgettable in that role…rest in peace…”
Actress and activist Mia Farrow, “Jean Stapleton rest in peace. She was fabulous!”
Comedienne and TV legend Roseanne Barr, “RIP Jean Stapleton, a great actor whose range was unbelievable, deep and majestic.”
Star Trek star Brent Spiner, “Farewell to Jean Stapleton. A darling woman and a wonderful actress.”
Film critic Richard Roeper, “RIP to the lovely Jean Stapleton, forever Edith Bunker.”
Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin, “Jean Stapleton who played Edith Bunker was no dingbat. When I finally saw All in the Family with captions I realized she was brilliant! RIP”
Comedienne and former Saturday Night Live star Rachel Dratch, “Jean Stapleton=Comedy Genius”
Comic Richard Lewis, “Ms. Stapleton was a spectacular actress but her role with Mr. Lear behind the scenes was as funny and authentic as any in TV history. RIP.”
But it’s her TV son-in-law, Rob Reiner, who said it best. Of his All in the Family costar, Reiner said, “Jean was a brilliant comedienne with exquisite timing. Working with her was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”