She never just walked into view.
Call what she did a half-run. Or a trot. But whatever it was, it was always how Jean Stapleton came into our sight on “All in the Family.” And it was always how she exited our sight, too.
Walking was for Archie, Gloria and Meathead. Edith always raced into and out of our attention.
Until, that is, Jean Stapleton – who died at 90 over the weekend – walked away from the Bunker family for good after appearing in a few episodes of the first season of “Archie Bunker’s Place.” And we all too seldom saw that legendary TV actress again – not so that it registered in the major way it should have, anyway.
It made tragically perfect sense that this was so. She played, I’d argue, the most lovable single character in the entire history of television.
No one in TV history – not even Peggy Wood long, long ago on “I Remember Mama” – inspired the loving unanimity that Jean Stapleton did as Edith Bunker.
The audience’s love for Mary Tyler Moore, immense as it was, had a different shape to it altogether.
Edith Bunker was an extraordinary nine-year triumph of performance and writing both. But then she had to be. Without her, there was no show. She – not Archie – was the reason “All in the Family” was one of the most popular shows in TV history.
Archie was a given – a bigot, a blowhard, a fool scraping his opinions and notions off the floor and putting them into the face of anyone they’d be likely to disgust. He was there to make mischief. It was all he had left to him.
History was passing Archie and Edith by – and not at a trot, either. It was speeding past in a Formula One racer. Archie – the original talk radio bloviator – was the voice that squeaked through after it was drowned out.
He was also a jerk. Almost unwatchable at times. So, to me, were Mike Stivic and his wife, Gloria, who was Archie’s beloved daughter. They were as charmless as young married couples got. Granted, living with the parents isn’t likely to bring out any young couple’s better qualities. But the Stivics, husband and wife, could both act like meatheads.
In hard fact, I didn’t watch “All in the Family” every week. But I couldn’t possibly have admired more the performances of Carroll O’Connor and, especially, Jean Stapleton, who was the heart and soul of one of the greatest hits in TV history.
She was, I think, the reason people watched the show – and loved it.
Time was making Edith an anachronism. Feminism – which was called “Women’s Liberation” at the time because people didn’t yet feel comfortable with a historical perspective about it – was insisting on the necessity of radical changes in opportunity for women.
Edith had married a jerk when she was young. And, no matter what, she insisted on treating him as if he’d remained lovable. She considered it her job to clean and cook and dispense love, warmth and cheer to three of the most self-absorbed, self-righteous and least lovable people in the Tri-State area.
We watched Archie at all because Edith loved him. That was more than enough for America to know.
We watched to laugh, of course, too. As a professional armchair provocateur in the American living room, he made us laugh. He chortled whenever he could do his mischief.
But it was Edith who made it OK to watch. It was Edith and Edith alone who made “All in the Family” a family. She was Mother Love incarnate.
She was so much wiser than she let on. She’d learned long ago that cheery innocence and naiveté kept the peace. And with Archie and the Stivics taking every possibility to be in each other’s faces, there was a lot of peace to be kept.
But Edith is whom they all agreed on – they all loved Edith.
And Edith is whom America all agreed on. America loved Edith – even those of us who had never, for a minute, been in love with the show.
Jean Stapleton understood that. And, to their infinite credit, so did the producers and writers.
When, as time went on, they fully realized the tidal power of what actress and writers had created together, they began to use it brilliantly. The attempted rape of Edith Bunker was an amazing statement about the world we live in (just as the shooting of J.R. Ewing said nothing at all about the world and everything about the desperation of TV networks during Sweeps Weeks.)
The irony of Jean Stapleton is she had so gloriously come into her own while Edith Bunker – a woman who lived only to love – was receding into the fantasies of a bygone era. She was a profoundly great TV sitcom actress.
But not really adaptable in the same way to film.
Sitcoms are more like live theater than film.
A TV show like AMC’s “The Killing” can show you an actress – Mireille Enos – who remains virtually expressionless and whose voice rarely exceeds a murmur in volume level.
On “All in the Family,” what Archie and Edith said and did could probably have been heard, seen and understood perfectly from the last row in the balcony in the biggest theater on Broadway. She wasn’t in a lot of movies after she left “Archie Bunker’s Place” after its first season. Nora Ephron was smart enough to put her into two movies. But in a way that some people do sometimes, she’d done her work on television all too well.
She would always be Edith Bunker.
How wonderful for the rest of us in America that Jean Stapleton was the one who was.