Archie Bunker was an angry, bitter man, and without his wife Edith to play comedic foil, All in the Family wouldn’t work. She grounded the show, and her calm and caring attitude juxtaposed Archie’s anger. Edith was the forever-put-upon wife who just wanted to make her husband happy.
Jean Stapleton, the actress who played Edith Bunker, was not all of those things. Or maybe she was. It’s irrelevant in her opinion. And, in fact, conflating her and her character is “bunko.”
“I think it’s bunko, this merging of personalities and the roles you play,” Stapleton told the Hartford Courant in 1999. “And speaking of bunko, [Edith] Bunker is an example of that. Many people are so surprised that I’m not like that woman.”
Stapleton, who was playing Eleanor Roosevelt in a play at the time, who an accomplished actress. Norman Lear discovered her on Broadway in the play Bells Are Ringing. However, the role of Edith Bunker overshadowed her entire career and have some producers and audiences a warped view of her.
“She was a very nice woman who was the total opposite of the role she played,” said Peg Yorkin, a friend and the former wife of Bud Yorkin, executive producer of All In the Family. “She had been a very serious actress before she took on that role. That show made her famous, but she always remained humble.”
Jean Stapleton died in 2013 at the age of 80. She worked until her death.
“It’s because when you’re doing something you love, there is no retirement,” Stapleton Courant. “You don’t retire from something you love and that has been such a large part of your life.”
Carroll O’Connor Loved His TV wife Jean Stapleton
Carroll O’Connor, who played Archie Bunker, told the Television Academy Foundation was a career highlight. But their relationship was why the show worked.
“Working with Jean was one of the great pleasures of my life,” O’Connor said. “Jean – I say so in my book – I think Jean made ‘All in the Family.’ I think she set that show going. Because she was the exactly right counterforce for Archibald.”
“And her character was all-important,” he added. “She represented, not the target of all of his remarks, but the proper reaction. She was the proper, sensible, moral reaction to this nonsensical, immoral man. It was just as important a role as the immoral man.”
Stapleton eventually wanted to kill off the character of Edith Bunker. CBS was looking to start a new show called Archie Bunker’s Place, but she was ready to move on. Her only request was that she die off-screen.
Edith Bunker died of a stroke off screen in the ninth and final season of the show.
“We loved it,” Stapleton said afterward, according to Variety. “We cried for [Archie’s] compassion. Carroll is a wonderful actor.”