Jean Stapleton, the superb character actress best known as “Edith Bunker” from “All in the Family,” has died. She exemplified the actor who, given the chance to use her talents for cultural good beyond mere entertainment, not only did so but did so beyond all reasonable expectations.
Edith Bunker, the submissive, not-too-bright, loving, loyal and thoroughly confused character she played on the 70’s sitcom, always broke my heart. I found Stapleton’s portrayal difficult to watch, even when she was too funny to resist. Edith was an abused spouse who didn’t realize she was being abused. I think many women who were similarly abused resolved to change the course of their lives because watching Stapleton accept being “stifled” and insulted by the man she loved made them recognize the pattern they had accepted too. Yet Edith Bunker, in Stapleton’s hands, made “All in the Family” more than the portrait of a redneck bigot and his enabling wife, broadcast to be mocked by smugly liberal viewers reveling in their intellectual and moral superiority. We felt Archie was redeemable—as indeed the show slowly revealed that he was—-beyond his hard-wired prejudices, in part because such a sweet, good woman loved him. (The other parts included the superb writing of the characters and Carroll O’Connor’s nuanced Archie.) What an achievement Stapleton accomplished by playing a negative stereotype in a way that both promoted sympathy, understanding and rejection, while never becoming so ridiculous that the audience stopped caring about her. She deserved every one of her eight Emmy nominations and three awards: in fact, she smoked the competition every year. There wasn’t a better or more important performance, male or female, on TV while “All in the Family” was on the air.
That’s not why Jean Stapleton is an Ethics Hero Emeritus, however.
In 1983, Stapleton was touring in a play directed by her husband of 26 years, William Putch. He was just 60, but Putch dropped dead of a massive heart attack. Stapleton learned of his sudden death while the play was showing in Syracuse. In the ancient tradition of the theater that is more honored than executed, she went on stage that evening and gave the performance of her life.
I believe deeply in the tradition of “the show must go on,” and not just in the theater. The ethic of the tradition is that we all have duties and commitments, and our personal tragedies, upsets, traumas and even injuries and illnesses do not excuse us from performing when the task becomes difficult and many people are depending on us. For me, going on stage in front of an audience and entertaining them when you want to hide under a blanket and weep is the symbol of all such sacrifices, from the soldier who misses the birth of his child, to the toiling mother who can’t here her child’s first word. It is also the answer when journalists and others call for the suspension of sporting and entertainment events in the wake of every national disaster. Tragedy doesn’t suspend obligations, commitments and duties. Jobs have to be done; life continues, and the living have needs that no longer concern the dead. When Stapleton took the stage that night in Syracuse, she was performing a culturally important act that affirms human strength, resolve, and selflessness.
Facts: Washington Post
Graphic: Fikkle Fame