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Having caterwauled her way into American livings rooms with her weekly rendition of "Those Were the Days" and her TV chair winding up residing in the Smithsonian along with her bigoted TV husband's, Jean Stapleton defied all Hollywood convention and played no small part in changing America's very culture with her integral role on the groundbreaking Norman Lear sitcom, "All in the Family" (CBS, 1971-79). A lifelong character actress who achieved household-name status weathering the baleful verbal assaults of her linear-thinking TV husband Archie Bunker, Stapleton played the shrill-voiced Edith with such comic yet empathetic aplomb that she became an almost ironic light in the women's rights movement. She would build upon her social-minded legacy after the show ended by way of a 20-year, off-and-on succession of jobs playing the social activist and diplomat Eleanor Roosevelt on stage and screen. Far from a typical leading-lady type, she nevertheless earned unqualified primacy as a television actress, garnering three Emmy Awards during her "All in the Family" run and endearing Edith in American households as a symbol of simple common decency steadfast amid troubled times and ignorant bluster. She...
Having caterwauled her way into American livings rooms with her weekly rendition of "Those Were the Days" and her TV chair winding up residing in the Smithsonian along with her bigoted TV husband's, Jean Stapleton defied all Hollywood convention and played no small part in changing America's very culture with her integral role on the groundbreaking Norman Lear sitcom, "All in the Family" (CBS, 1971-79). A lifelong character actress who achieved household-name status weathering the baleful verbal assaults of her linear-thinking TV husband Archie Bunker, Stapleton played the shrill-voiced Edith with such comic yet empathetic aplomb that she became an almost ironic light in the women's rights movement. She would build upon her social-minded legacy after the show ended by way of a 20-year, off-and-on succession of jobs playing the social activist and diplomat Eleanor Roosevelt on stage and screen. Far from a typical leading-lady type, she nevertheless earned unqualified primacy as a television actress, garnering three Emmy Awards during her "All in the Family" run and endearing Edith in American households as a symbol of simple common decency steadfast amid troubled times and ignorant bluster. She effectively retired from screen acting in 2001 and died in May 2013 at the age of 90.
She was born Jeanne Murray in New York City on Jan. 19, 1923, the daughter of Joseph Murray, outdoor advertising salesman, and Marie Murray-nee-Stapleton, a concert and opera singer. She loved movies as a child, going to double-features at the local theater every Saturday morning, but she held no aspirations toward acting; instead mulling a career as a music critic. It was not until she graduated New York's Wadleigh High School that she caught the bug, attending classes at Hunter College and doing work-study apprenticeships with such theatrical groups as the American Actors Company and the American Theater Wing, meanwhile learning typing and shorthand to support herself with secretarial jobs. Adopting her mother's maiden name, she made her stage debut in an Actors Equity Theater program that put on shows in public libraries around New York, and went on to do summer stock theater before earning her 1953 Broadway debut in Jane Bowles' "In the Summer House."
That performance opened the floodgates for stage roles, and she also landed a recurring role on the daytime drama "Woman with a Past" (CBS, 1954). But theater kept her busy, as with the role of a baseball groupie in the musical "Damn Yankees," which ran for more than a year and scored her the same role for the film adaptation in 1958. In 1957, during the production of another hit musical, "Bells Are Ringing," she married Bill Putch, an itinerant concert promoter who also ran the Pennsylvania summer stock theater, the Totem Pole Playhouse, in whose productions she would make frequent appearances. In the 1960s, her TV work picked up with a raft of guest roles on hit shows such as "Dr. Kildare" (NBC, 1961-66), "My Three Sons" (ABC, 1960-1972), "Naked City" (ABC, 1958-1963) and "Route 66" (CBS, 1960-64). In one performance on the courtroom drama "The Defenders" (CBS, 1961-65), she played a woman who fingers a man for murder, with the latter being played by another relatively unknown character actor, Carroll O'Connor. At the end of the decade, the two would reunite under the auspices of a Norman Lear sitcom that would forever change the medium of television.
In 1968, with the country roiled by internal divisions over civil rights and the war in Vietnam, producer Lear had bought the rights to make a Queens, New York-set version of the British series "Till Death Us Do Part" (BBC1, 1965-1975); its protagonists a loutish, lower-middle-class loudmouth and his dutiful yet conscientious wife. Lear cast Stapleton as the latter, the scampering, eager-to-please Edith Bunker - for which she used a high, throaty, warbling voice that sounded nothing like her own - to O'Connor's Archie, but the show's revolutionary lynchpin - Archie's reactionary rants against minorities, liberals, women's liberation and anything resembling multicultural tolerance, broke radically with the networks' longtime formula of handsome protagonists and vanilla, inoffensive comedy. After initially bankrolling the project, ABC had passed on the pilots they produced and the show remained in limbo. Lear meanwhile cast Stapleton in his feverish comedy about a Midwestern town collectively quitting smoking, "Cold Turkey" (1971). That year, CBS took a chance on the sitcom and Stapleton moved to Hollywood for the production. The show premiered in January 1971 as "All in the Family."
Stapleton's Edith Bunker quickly became the show's heart, an archetype for the put-upon, pigeonholed housewife who tries oft-vainly, sometimes successfully, to moderate verbal conflicts between Archie and their liberal daughter (Sally Struthers) and activist son-in-law "Meathead" (Rob Reiner), the African-American neighbors and a parade of other challenges to the America's longtime lily-white status quo. She won the Emmy for best comedy actress in the series' first two years and again in 1978, while "All in the Family" became the No. 1-rated show from 1971 through 1976. Stapleton played the middle-American homemaker so distinctly that she turned down a parade of offers to shill for household products companies, essentially as Edith, for fear of finding her career "buried" in the character. She did leverage her celebrity in a different way; apolitical prior to that, Stapleton in L.A. fell into a nest of very strong political, feminist activists. She became a prominent advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment and was made a commissioner for the 1977 National Women's Conference in Houston, TX. The next year, President Jimmy Carter named her one of 40 prominent members of the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year, alongside the likes of Maya Angelou, Betty Ford, Coretta Scott King and Gloria Steinem.
In 1979, the show transitioned into "Archie Bunker's Place" (CBS, 1979-1984), following Archie as he purchased a bar. Stapleton remained aboard for one more season. When she decided to leave, Lear struggled with how to write her out, eventually settling on the scenario of Edith dying, so real had she become to him as a character. With her CBS contract calling for a movie project, she took the title role in "Eleanor: First Lady of the World" (CBS, 1982), following the beloved First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's life after the death of President Franklin Roosevelt as she spread her wings as a U.S. ambassador and tireless human rights advocate. Stapleton had first worked with the screenwriter Rhoda Lerman years earlier in efforts to preserve Mrs. Roosevelt's Upstate New York home, Val-Kill, and the TV movie, which earned Stapleton another Emmy nomination, would begin nearly two decades of playing the character in collaboration with Lerman. Stapleton's husband died in 1983, but she continued to work a schedule of guest shots on shows that ran a wide gamut from "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986) to "Ray Bradbury Theater" (Showtime, 1985-1992) and made-for-TV movies.
Stapleton returned to series television on "Bagdad Café" (CBS, 1990-91), playing a woman whose husband abruptly leaves her at a desert motel run by a kindhearted owner (Whoopi Goldberg), but the show only lasted two seasons. She followed that up with two seasons in the title role of "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle" (1993-95), a Showtime kiddie show based on the popular children's books. Through the 1990s, she settled into a steady diet of guest-star roles on sitcoms and family shows, with the occasional supporting role in feature film such as "Michael" (1996) and "You've Got Mail" (1998), as well as extensive work on the stage, including productions of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker," Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party" and "Mountain Language."
She eventually brought her collaboration with Lerman full-circle with "Eleanor: Her Secret Journey." The one-woman play detailed Roosevelt's private evolution from patrician debutante to proto-feminist and humanitarian crusader, which she would tour exhaustively across the country through the late 1990s and early 2000s. Stapleton took a last TV role supporting fellow '70s progressive sitcom pioneer Mary Tyler Moore in "Like Mother, Like Son: The Strange Story of Sante and Kenny Kimes" (2001), Moore playing a sociopathic woman who manipulates her son to murder a wealthy socialite (Stapleton). Thereafter, she scaled back her projects, but maintained her socially inclined affiliations, notably as long-running chair of Women's Research & Education Institute, a public policy think-tank focused specifically on issues affecting women. Following her death in 2013, longtime friends and collaborators such as Norman Lear and Rob Reiner were quick to sing her praises as both an actress and an exemplary human being.
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CAST: (feature film)
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Stapleton was U.S. Commissioner to the International Women's Year Commission and National Confernece of Women in 1977.
"Everyone thinks that residuals are pouring into my mailbox, but they're not. I took a buyout--most of us did--which was customary at the time. It was a tidy sum, which I don't remember, and is well gone." --Jean Stapleton in Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1995.
"Music brought our family together. I played piano. I did not aspire to a concert career, but I accompanied my mother at home. All through high school, my main interest was music. Immediately after graduation, I was seized by the desire to act." --Stapleton in Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1995.
"I became a political animal to some degree in the 70s when I came out here [L.A.]. I was a great supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. As a young woman I was apolitical, absolutely geared to my career. I've become more interested in the world as I've grown older. One of the greatest learning experiences in my life was playing Eleanor Roosevelt." --Stapleton to Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1995.
Stapleton has received honorary degrees from Monmouth College in NJ, Emerson College in MA and Hood College in MD.
On watching reruns of "All in the Family": "I watch it much more objectively now, and with less criticism. I look at it and think, 'Hmmmm, that's very good.'" --From New York Post, June 6, 1994.
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