Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton played Archie and Edith Bunker… (Tandem Productions )
Jean Stapleton, the actress who endeared herself to viewers in the 1970s as Edith Bunker, whose sudden bursts of truth regularly cut through her husband Archie's bluster on the groundbreaking television series "All in the Family," has died. She was 90.
Stapleton died Friday of natural causes at her New York City home, her family announced.
She earned three Emmy Awards starring as the wife of Carroll O'Connor's loud-mouthed, bigoted Archie Bunker on the show, which marked the beginning of sitcoms as a forum for political -- albeit often comical -- family warfare.
As Edith, Stapleton became a role model for other women who had to deal with their own hot-headed Archies, a fact that O'Connor relished.
"Before Edith ... women who lived with fellows like Archie were usually submissive and suffering in the face of roaring nonthink," O'Connor later wrote of his on-camera wife. "After Edith, they confronted nonthink a little more sternly and stiffly and gave hint of a serious readiness to rebel, just as Edith rebelled from time to time."
On Saturday, series creator Norman Lear said in a statement: "No one gave more profound 'How to be a Human Being' lessons than Jean Stapleton. Goodbye Edith, darling."
Eventually even Archie showed some growth on the show. He refrained from regularly calling his wife "dingbat" and, although he remained prejudiced, he learned to curb his remarks in public.
Stapleton bowed out of the role in the 1980 season, and Edith was written out of the show as dying of a stroke. Archie was left to mourn her loss and carry on in the less popular "Archie Bunker's Place," which continued until 1983. "All in the Family" also spawned two popular spinoffs: "Maude" and "The Jeffersons."
The character that Stapleton created made the break-the-mold sitcom work, according to O'Connor.
"The benign, compassionate presence she developed made my egregious churl bearable," he wrote in his 1998 autobiography. Her "idea of Edith Bunker was not only original and perfectly suited to the American audience, but very comical and emotionally moving."
As fans of "All of the Family" observed week after week, Archie's fruitless attempts to get his wife to "stifle yourself" and his many labels for "women's libbers," people of color and homosexuals only accentuated his powerlessness in a world that no longer acknowledged guys like him as kings of the hill.
He couldn't escape the evidence anywhere, least of all in his own home, where daughter Gloria, played by Sally Struthers, and her new husband, Mike, a.k.a., "Meathead," played by Rob Reiner, lived with the Bunkers. Constant arguments erupted, often requiring the intervention of the simple but sensible Edith.
"Jean was a brilliant comedienne with exquisite timing," Reiner said Saturday in a statement. "Working with her was one of the greatest experiences of my life."
The program was based on a popular British series, "Till Death Do Us Part," and brought to American viewers in 1971 by Lear, who said Archie reminded him of his own father. Until then sitcoms were mostly bland fare designed to offend no one.
Howard Rosenberg, then The Times' television critic, once called "All in the Family" the "shocking Lenny Bruce of sitcoms," saying that the show provided a mirror "of the worst part of ourselves, and occasionally the best part."
In the opening to the show, Archie and Edith are at the piano in their home at 704 Hauser in New York City's Queens borough. They alternate singing the lines to "Those Were the Days":
Boy, the way Glenn Miller played,
Songs that made the hit parade,
Guys like us, we had it made,
Those were the days.
The song ends with Edith reaching a comic screech of warped notes that required real acting from Stapleton, who was a singer before she was an actress.
Parts of Edith were based on an aunt whom Stapleton had loved, she once said. She stole Edith's nasal voice from herself -- she had used it in her role as Sister in "Damn Yankees" on Broadway.
"I had to do something to get laughs," Stapleton told National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" in 2001.
As the show unfolded, Edith's obvious if sometimes puzzling affection for the bombastic Archie was what lifted "All in the Family" out of nastiness and allowed it to shine a light on the ways that people divide themselves from each other.
"To unmask all those prejudices and be able to laugh at [them] was a great healer," Stapleton said of "All in the Family" more than 20 years after leaving her role as Edith.
In real life, Stapleton was quiet-spoken and dignified. She brought Edith to life with a coltish walk, blank stares and by simply speaking the truth. Unlike other sitcom wives, she did not resort to sarcasm to bring her husband down a peg.
"When she punctures Archie's hot air it's not with a wisecrack," Stapleton said in an interview in 1971. "She does it out of honest, native intuition."
Here's some typical dialogue: