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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Edith Bunker' brought warmth to radical sitcom

Jean Stapleton, 90, dies in New York

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LOS ANGELES -- Jean Stapleton's Edith Bunker was such an offbeat, irresistible charmer that we had to love her. And because she loved her bombastic husband Archie, we made room for him and TV's daring All in the Family.

It took an actress as smart and deft as Stapleton to create the character that Archie called "dingbat," giving a tender core to a sitcom that tested viewers with its bigoted American family man and blunt take on social issues.

Stapleton, 90, who died Friday of natural causes at her New York City home, was the sweet, trusting counterpoint to Carroll O'Connor's irascible Archie on the 1970s groundbreaking show from producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin.

"No one gave more profound 'how to be a human being' lessons than Jean Stapleton," Lear said Saturday.

While Edith faced problems, including a breast cancer scare, with strength, it was the demanding Archie who presented her greatest challenge. Stapleton made her much more than a doormat, but the actress was concerned about what the character might convey.

Edith's dithery manner, high-pitched voice and family loyalty enchanted viewers, while Stapleton viewed her as oppressed and, she hoped, removed from reality.

"What Edith represents is the housewife who is still in bondage to the male figure, very submissive and restricted to the home. She is very naive and she kind of thinks through a mist, and she lacks the education to expand her world. I would hope that most housewives are not like that," Stapleton told the New York Times in 1972.

Her character regularly obeyed her husband's demand to "stifle yourself."

But Edith was honest and "in most situations she says the truth and pricks Archie's inflated ego," Stapleton added.

The stage-trained actress was little known to the public before All In the Family, the top-rated CBS sitcom that also starred Sally Struthers as the couple's daughter and Rob Reiner as their liberal son-in-law Mike, a.k.a. Meathead.

"Jean was a brilliant comedienne with exquisite timing. Working with her was one of the greatest experiences of my life," Reiner said in a statement.

Stapleton was surrounded by family and friends when she died.

She proved her own toughness when her husband of 26 years, William Putch, suffered a fatal heart attack in 1983 at age 60 while the couple was touring with a play directed by Putch.

Stapleton went on stage in Syracuse, N.Y., that night and continued on with the tour. "That's what he would have wanted," she told People in 1984.

She received eight Emmy nominations and won three times during her eight-year tenure with All in the Family. The series broke through the timidity of U.S. TV with social and political jabs and was the No. 1-rated program for an unprecedented five years in a row.

Stapleton also earned Emmy nominations for playing Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1982 film Eleanor, First Lady of the World and for a guest appearance in 1995 on Grace Under Fire.

Her big-screen films included a pair directed by Nora Ephron: the 1998 Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romance You've Got Mail and 1996's Michael starring John Travolta. She also turned down the chance to star in the popular mystery show Murder, She Wrote, which became a showcase for Angela Lansbury.

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2013 A7

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