Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Jean Stapleton: Legendary Television Star

There's nothing like humour to burst what seems to be an enormous problem.  Humour reduces it to nothing and wipes it out.  That's what humour does.  That was a great part of that show in terms of every issue, but especially bigotry.  And you know you make fun of something, it reduces it to nothing."

- Jean Stapleton on the humour of All in the Family
From her November 28, 2000 interview for the Archive of American Television

At night, I've been watching old episodes of All in the Family on the Deja View channel.  This has caused me to think about the actors on the show, particularly Jean Stapleton.  Yes, Edith Bunker, The Dingbat herself.

Stapleton's television husband, Carroll O'Connor, who portrayed the bigoted Archie Bunker, died of a heart attack in Los Angeles on June 21, 2001.  Jean is 88 years old now and hasn't been active in show business for years.  Although an accomplished actress of the stage and screen, she has made her greatest impact in the role of Archie's dim-witted but kindly and devoted wife.

Jean Stapleton was born Jeanne Murray in New York City on January 19, 1923, the daughter of Joseph E. Murray, a billboard advertising salesman.  Her mother, Marie Stapleton Murray, was a singer.

In real life, Jean is nothing like Edith Bunker.  Well-educated and intelligent, Jean attended Hunter College on Manhattan's Upper East Side.  It was while attending Hunter College that she began her theatrical career by performing as a member of the Robert Shaw Chorale.

Jean made her professional stage debut in the summer of 1941 at the Greenwood Playhouse in Peaks, Maine.  She made her first New York stage appearance in 1948 in The Corn is Green and by the mid-1950s she was appearing in Broadway musicals such as Damn Yankees! and Bells are Ringing

Jean's began her illustrious television career in 1951 with an appearance as an unnamed woman on an episode of Starlight Theatre titled "The Come-back."  Her next appearance was in "The Storm," a 1952 segment of Robert Montgomery PresentsIn 1954 Jean had a recurring role on a short-lived daytime soap opera called Woman with a Past.  She played a secretary named Gwen. 

On October 26, 1957, Jean Stapleton married William H. Putch, a theatre director and producer.  They raised two children, a son named John and a daughter, Pamela, who both pursued show business careers.  John Putch is an actor/writer/director and Pamela Putch is also an actor. 

Jean's early work in television included roles in The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, Dr. Kildare, Dennis the Menace and Naked City.  In 1955, she appeared in an episode of the Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse called "A Business Proposition."  She played Nurse Whitney in a 1961 episode of Dr. Kildare titled "The Patient."  In 1962, she portrayed Mrs. Flora Davis, Mr. Wilson's housekeeper on Dennis the Menace.  Between 1961 and 1963, Jean appeared three times on the police drama Naked City.

On an episode of the courtroom drama series The Defenders which aired on December 1, 1962, Jean co-starred with future TV husband Carroll O'Connor.  Both were unknown at the time and Jean's character was asked to identify a murderer while on the witness stand.  The actor playing the murderer was O'Connor.

Before her iconic role on All in the Family, Jean Stapleton had guest spots on Route 66 (as Mrs Snider on a 1963 episode called "93 Percent in Smiling"), My Three Sons (as Molly Dubar in a 1964 episode called "The People's House " and on The Patty Duke Show as Mrs. Pollack in 1965's "The Raffle."

Television producer Norman Lear remembered Jean's performance in Damn Yankees! and cast her in the part of Edith Justice in a 1968 pilot for a new sitcom titled Justice for All.  Carroll O'Connor played her husband, Archie Justice.  In 1969 there was a second pilot, Those Were the Days.

CBS eventually picked up the series and called it All in the Family.  The family's last name was changed from Justice to Bunker and Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner joined the show as the Bunkers' daughter Gloria and her husband.  Archie and Edith's son-in-law no longer had an Irish background but a Polish one.  His name was changed from Richard "Dickie" (no last name given) to Mike Stivic.

All in the Family aired from 1971 until 1979 and was truly one of the most remarkable series in the history of American television.  This groundbreaking series was not afraid of tackling the issues of the day straight on.  It dealt with a plethora of social, political, religious and racial issues.  Given its sensitive subject matter, it was bound to be controversial, especially when the liberal Mike and the conservative Archie locked heads.

In all the turmoil, Edith Bunker was the voice of reason.  Edith was not a bright woman, but she was compassionate and nonjudgmental.  She had a certain intuitive wisdom.  She understood Archie and loved him inspite of his flaws.  During the course of the show, she underwent many traumas.  She endured menopause.  She was almost raped and she had phlebitis.

As the 1977-78 season began, changes were in the air for All in the Family.  Archie left his job as a dock foreman in order to pursue his dream of owning his own business.  Together with Harry the bartender, he purchased Kelsey's Bar from its ailing proprietor and renamed it Archie's Place.

At the end of the 1977-78 season, Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers announced that they were leaving the show for other pursuits.  Thus, on the season finale, Mike, Gloria and their son Joey headed for California where Mike was to take a teaching position. 

After the departure of Reiner and Struthers, the show changed radically.  Most of the action shifted away from the Bunker home to Archie's bar. In the fall of 1979, the title of the series was changed to Archie Bunker's Place.  Edith's appearances became less frequent.

In 1980, Jean Stapleton left her role as the beloved Edith Bunker.  She felt that the role had reached its potential and that it was time for her to move on. Norman Lear was not thrilled at the prospect of Edith's death.  When Jean reminded him that Edith was only a fictional character, Lear replied, "I don't see it that way."  Nevertheless, on the very first episode of the second season of Archie Bunker's Place, it was revealed that Edith had died after suffering a stroke.

After leavng behind her Edith Bunker character, Jean took on the role of Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1982 television movie Eleanor: First Lady of the World.  For her performance in the role of the former First Lady, Jean received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or a Special.

On November 23, 1983, William H. Putch died suddenly of a heart attack while directing his wife in The Showoff in Syracuse, New York.  He was 60 years old at the time of his death.

In 1990-91, Jean starred with Whoppi Goldberg in the short-lived sitcom Bagdad Cafe.  Jean and Whoopi played a sort of female "Odd Couple," two women with vastly different personalities.  Whoopi portrayed Brenda, the owner and operator of a diner named Bagdad Cafe located in the middle of the Mojave desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.  Jean's role was that of Jasmine Zweibel who went to work for Brenda and took up residence in the motel.  Jasmine was Felix Unger type, neat and structured while Brenda was sloppy and disorganized.  Unfortunately, the series only lasted for 15 episodes.

During the 1990s, Jean Stapleton continued making guest appearances on television comedies.  She was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Aunt Vivian in a 1994 episode of Grace Under Fire called "The Road to Paris, Texas."  In a 1996 episode of Everybody Loves Raymond entitled "I Wish I Were Gus," she played the role of Ray Barone's Aunt Alda, his mother's estranged sister.  In 1996, she also guest-starred in an episode of Murphy Brown in which she portrayed Miles' grandmother, Nana Silverberg. 

Jean Stapleton has not appeared in a television role since 2001 when she portrayed Irene Silverman in the TV movie Like Mother Like Son: The Strange Story of Sante and Kenny KimesAs of 2008, she was living in retirement in Manhattan.


* Jean is not related to the late actress Maureen Stapleton. Maureen Stapleton died in 2006.

* Jean's cousin is former musical theatre actress Betty Jane Watson.   Her uncle, Joseph E. Deming, was a vaudevillian and her brother, Jack Stapleton, was a stage actor. 

* Jean turned down the role of Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote.  The part went to Angela Lansbury instead.

To watch the highlights of Jean Stapleton's November 28, 2000 interview for the Archive of American Television, click on the link below.


EDITOR'S UPDATE (April 4, 2013): Jean Stapleton turned 90 years old on January 19, 2013.

EDITOR'S UPDATE (June 2, 2013):  Jean Stapleton died of natural causes on Friday, May 31, 2013 at the age of 90.  Her son, John Putch, informed the Associated Press that she passed away at her home in New York City. R.I.P. Jean.

- Joanne

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