The world’s favorite dingbat died yesterday. Jean Stapleton, forever known to Americans as Edith on the groundbreaking show, “All in the Family,” was 90. The news instantly transported me back to the early 1970s, when “All in the Family” was the most popular — and, by far, the most controversial — TV show in the land. So controversial, in fact, that I can remember our local preacher ripping into it from th pulpit on Sunday mornings. The controversy was lost on me, a mere boy of 9 or 10, at the time. To me, the most outrageous thing on the show was the occasional sound effect of the “terlit” flushing upstairs. That and Archie’s slightly-more-than-occasional swearing (remember this was the early ’70s).
But the show took on social issues like nothing other show before it, and very few since. And did so in a smart, thoughtful way. Whether racism, the Vietnam War, women’s rights or politics, the show went head-on with the topic, and in front of a live audience, this was sure to cause more than a few moments of discomfort and/or anger.
Archie, of course, was a full-on bigot who was constantly being challenged by his “Meathead” son-in-law and his “Little Girl” daughter, Gloria. Archie and Meathead (whose “real” name was Michael Stivic) were nearly always at war over everything, even the process of putting on your socks. The “sock and a sock or a sock and a shoe” argument was pure genius.
I remember the episodes with the neighbors, the Jeffersons (yes, George and Weezy) being especially prickly, especially after discovering George was almost as bigoted as Archie. The confrontations were boisterous and pointed, with everyone taking a side — except Edith, the peacemaker and often the only voice of reason in the madhouse that was the Bunker residence.
Edith was the real spirit of the show. She was kind and naive (leading Archie to think she was a “dingbat”) and really served as Archie’s conscience and the family anchor that made her immediately lovable.
I was an adult before I realized that Edith’s voice was not Jean Stapleton’s real voice, or that she was a powerful dramatic actress. Her physical comedy and her perfect timing took a character that could have come across as a simpleton and a doormat for her boorish husband and turned it into a nearly angelic, delightful mother with an unshakable integrity. The “cling peaches” episode is proof of this — and this episode was the first thing that came to mind when I learned she had passed. And when Edith announced she had breast cancer — a topic never before broached on TV, much less a sitcom — you felt as if a family member was telling you this news.
“All in the Family” broke a lot of ground — and made the “spin-off” a thing of art. “The Jeffersons,” “Maude” and “Good Times” all traced back to “All in the Family,” as well as some others that didn’t fare as well.
TV sitcoms were never the same. Because those characters did, in fact, make you feel like it was all in the family.