Ethics Hero Emeritus: Actress Jean Stapleton (1923-2013)

Edith Bunker, being stifled.

Edith Bunker, being stifled.

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

16 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Actress Jean Stapleton (1923-2013)

  1. Archie wasn’t a redneck. Red necks come from working in a farm field without wearing an hat large enough to protect the skin on poserior area between your shirt collar and your hair line. Archie had nothing to do with the rural South. He was more likely supposed to be a Mick (sp? i.e. Irish Catholic) from South Boston a non-Manahatten borough. He was the silent majority, writ large by the elites. I think calling him, or anyone, a redneck is shorthand that’s not fair to any number of people, including Southern farmers. As bad as “weback” or “camel jockey.” But I guess it’s okay because he’s WASP or RC. (only half kidding.)

    And remember the theme song, “Those were the days?” Somebody needs to explicate those lyrics in light of all that’s happened since.

    “And you knew where you were then,
    Girls were girls and men were men.
    Mister we could use a man like
    Herbert Hoover again.
    Didn’t need no welfare state,
    everybody pulled their weight.
    Gee, the old LaSalle ran great,
    Those were the days.”

    Gay rights, Ben Bernanke, the end of welfare as we know it followed by the Food Stamp President, and of course the General Motors bail out. Maybe Archie was prescient? Unfortunately, I think the only one left is the virulently leftie Rob Reiner. Isn’t he Carl’s son? Why didn’t Rob get a sense of humor or perspective?

    • I was using the expanded version of the term, since “Urban Eastern version of a redneck” seemed a bit awkward.
      From Wikipedia, as I expected: In recent decades, the term has expanded its meaning to refer to bigoted, loutish reactionaries who are opposed to modern ways

      That sounds like Archie to me.

      • Archie Bunker worked on the docks. He had moved up to foreman by the time of the series. He is white, urban, and working class. His racial and political views were typical of people of that background because that was the point. His views mellowed and changed over time, as did those of the people he was modelled after. He is both of my grandfathers (minus the spousal abuse part). This demographic is almost invisible in today’s world. White, working class people are most often depicted as ‘rednecks’ (usually in a mocking derogatory way) today. There is a big difference between rednecks and the urban working class.

    • No, Sally Struthers is still around, though hard to recognize. Rob directed “When Harry Net Sally,” “The Princess Bride,” “Stand by Me” and “This is Spinal Tap”…he clearly inherited some of his dad’s comedy sense.

    • Archie also was definitely not RC, there was actually an episode where Edith goes to Mass with a friend and he says something along the lines of “you didn’t eat no cookie, did you?” I doubt he was a “mick” either, but when asked what kind of name Bunker was he responded “American, like Bunker Hill.”

  2. Archie Bunker was a white guy with lots of prejudices – like a lot of white guys in America were in those days. Whether because of the TV show, women seeing themselves in Edith, Maude, some other female role model, federal action, or simple self-education, a lot of those guys changed. I think more of them changed than didn’t. The perpetuation of the Archie[-like] stereotype from one generation to the next certainly seems to have been severely disrupted. Maybe not. Maybe we have just re-programmed.

  3. I am grateful to have grown up in the 70′s and 80′s with the opportunity to watch such great talents as Jean Stapleton. John Ritter, Don Knotts, Andy Griffith, Carroll O’Connor, Sherman Hemsley, etc.; they were class acts. Real talent, actual training, professionalism, unlike the current crop of fly by night “stars”. Thanks, Jean.Rest in peace,A Gen-X Fan

  4. Archie Bunker was Scottish Presbyterian. He was a native New Yorker from Queens. He hated Catholics. On one episode, he harassed Edith because she attended Mass with a Catholic friend. He wanted Joey baptized in the Presbyterian Church. He secretly performed the rite himself.

  5. I am/was a big fan of Jean Stapleton, but she WAS PLAYING A ROLE, FOR A LOT MONEY, when she was Archie’s wife. Playing a psychologically abused wife, FOR MONEY, doesn’t make her a hero. Because the script-writers made her a hero for her occasional abilities to stand up to her husband, doesn’t make the actress herself a hero. She did her job — superbly — but that’s it. Where in the public sector can you find her standing up to emotional abuse by husbands? If you can, show me.

    Meantime, it was clear from the very beginning that this was a liberal, conservative-bashing show, and everyone loved it. But let’s see it for what is was — a TV show, period. Not an attitude-changing, societally-important moment in time. I loved Jean Stapleton, but she was an actress, for God’s sake. Kudos to her for fine performances, but hero, no. Let’s all then bow down to Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler for their society-changing — if brillient — performances. Hah.

  6. Also… let’s not forget that even on “All in the Family,” Edith occasionally got in a good zing at Archie. I remember one episode in which she looked at him and said, “Awchie?” in that twangy, nasal accent. “What?” Archie replied impatiently.

    “STIFLE!” Edith snapped. I damn near fell off my chair laughing.

    I never perceived the “Edith” character as being “abused.” Yes, her husband was a jerk, but she loved him (God only knows why) and she put up with his flaws because she loved him– but she never forgot that it was HER choice to put up with him, and every now and then, she stood up and reminded HIM of that fact.

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