Rock n' Roll Doggie
Join Date: Aug 2004
Local Time: 08:57 AM
RIP Jean Stapleton
RIP Edith Bunker
June 2, 2013
The Miracle of a Ditz With Depth
By NEIL GENZLINGER
It’s not easy playing dumb. But Jean Stapleton, who died on Friday in Manhattan at 90, did it spectacularly for more than 200 episodes of “All in the Family,” a watershed television show that never would have worked without her daft, poignant portrayal of Edith Bunker.
The role, wife to the bigoted Archie of Carroll O’Connor, could easily have been rendered as a mere middle-aged bimbo. But Ms. Stapleton didn’t just toss it off; she put everything she had into it, and what she had was a lot of stage training.
Her résumé when the series began in 1971 included Broadway musical comedies like “Damn Yankees” and “Bells Are Ringing” and plays like Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.” The tics with which she invested Edith — the shuffling walk, the zinger delivered without realizing its zinginess — are stage techniques translated expertly to television, delivered with the comic timing and commitment of a theatrical performance.
Unlike some television actors who need time to grow into their roles (time that, in these days of the quick hook, networks often don’t give them), Ms. Stapleton delivered a well-defined Edith right from the start. Is there a more classic Edith laugh line than the one she casually flung in original pilot (there were two abortive pilots before the one that sold the series), in which Archie and Edith are celebrating their anniversary, and Archie schools his son-in-law about the good-old abstinence days?
“When me and your mother-in-law was going around together keeping company, two whole years it was, there was nothing,” Archie says. “I mean nothing. Not till the wedding night.”
And Edith interjects, “And even then.”
But what set Ms. Stapleton’s work in the show apart was her ability to create a character who was not imprisoned by her own daffiness. There have been plenty of female airheads on television: bikinied bimbos, empty-headed housewives, batty old broads. But only a few have been able to make the kinds of transitions from the comic to the dramatic that were asked of Ms. Stapleton in “All in the Family.”
And those demands started early. It was in a Season 2 episode, “Edith’s Problem,” that Ms. Stapleton was required to have Edith go uncharacteristically ballistic. It was a tough assignment: Edith enters from a shopping trip right on the heels of a pretty good joke between Archie and Rob Reiner’s son-in-law character, Michael.
“I hope she don’t get hung up in them sales down there,” Archie tells Michael, noting Edith’s late return. “She’s a sucker for specials. That’s why we got 15 pounds of nuts in the closet. We ain’t even got a monkey.”
Michael, of course, says, “I eat those nuts,” giving Archie a chance to take a long comic pause, then say, “Well you ain’t long out of trees anyway.”
The laughter hasn’t died down yet when Edith bursts through the door and Ms. Stapleton has the unenviable task of signaling a change in tone. She comes in yelling at Archie and everyone else, including a “damn it” that shocks the rest of the family. In less than a minute, Ms. Stapleton turns the entire show on its head, announcing that, while the episode will still be funny, it’s also going to be serious. The point, we soon learn, is that Edith is going through menopause, something that baffles Archie, particularly when she reacts harshly to his familiar request that she stifle herself.
“After 24 years of stifles, the dingbat turns on me,” he says, a phrase that was an alert to viewers: This dingbat, the episode in effect proclaimed, was liable to turn at any time, in any episode.
Which she did, most notably in a Season 4 episode that involved breast cancer and a stunning Season 8 two-parter in which she encounters a rapist. It’s difficult to imagine any of the other sitcom wives of television’s first few decades — Mary Tyler Moore’s Laura Petrie, Lucille Ball’s Lucy Ricardo — pulling this off so well and so often, though many of these actresses also had stage experience. Ms. Stapleton won three Emmy Awards for her work as Edith Bunker. Today, when many film and TV actors are trying Broadway, Ms. Stapleton stands as a testament to why the better route might be one where the stagework comes before television.