NEW YORK — Jean Stapleton, the character actress whose portrayal of a slow-witted, big-hearted and submissive — to a point — housewife on the groundbreaking series “All in the Family” made her, along with Mary Tyler Moore and Bea Arthur, one of the foremost women in television comedy in the 1970s and a symbol of emergent feminism in American popular culture, died Friday at home in New York City. She was 90.
Ms. Stapleton, though never an ingénue or a leading lady, was an accomplished theater actress with a few television credits when producer Norman Lear, who had seen her in the musical “Damn Yankees” on Broadway, asked her to audition for a series. The audition, for a character named Edith Bunker, changed her life.
The show, initially called “Those Were the Days,” was Lear’s adaptation of an English series called “Till Death Us Do Part,” about a working-class couple in east London who held reactionary and racist views.
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The show took shape slowly. And when “All in the Family,” as it was finally called, was first broadcast in January 1971, it struggled to find an audience; but when it did, it became one of the most popular shows in television, finishing first in the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive seasons and winning four consecutive Emmy Awards for outstanding comedy series. Ms. Stapleton won three Emmys of her own, in 1971, ’72 and ’78.
“All in the Family” was set in Queens. Most of the action took place in the well-worn living room of the Bunker family, led by an irascible loading-dock worker named Archie whose attitudes toward anyone not exactly like him — that is, white, male, conservative and rabidly patriotic — were condescending, smug and demonstrably foolish.
Memorably played by Carroll O’Connor, Archie bullied his wife, patronized his daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), and infuriated and was infuriated by his live-in son-in-law, a liberal student, Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner), whom he not-so-affectionately called Meathead.
Archie employed the vocabulary of a bigot and wielded the unenlightened opinions of a man from a bygone era who refused to admit the world was changing. Edith loved him, certainly, though he referred to her, in her presence, as a dingbat and was perpetually telling her to shut up. “Stifle yourself,” was how he put it.
Ms. Stapleton gave Edith a high-pitched nasal delivery, a frequently baffled expression and a hustling, servile gait that was almost a canter, especially when she was in a panic to get dinner on the table or to bring Archie a beer.
Edith wasn’t, like Moore’s Mary Richards, a spirited young professional seeking traction in a mostly male workplace, nor was she like Arthur’s Maude, a brassy, clamorously insistent personality.
Rather, when the issues of “All in the Family” centered on Edith — as when she went through menopause, beset with hilarious mood swings — she became an emblem of all housewives who felt their problems were pooh-poohed at home.
“What Edith represents is the housewife who is still in bondage to the male figure, very submissive and restricted to the home,” Ms. Stapleton said in an interview in The New York Times in 1972, with the show still early in its life. (It ran until 1979, and a continuation, “Archie Bunker’s Place,” that starred O’Connor but not the rest of the cast, lingered until 1983.) “She is very naive, and she kind of thinks through a mist, and she lacks the education to expand her world.”
Yet as the ’70s went on, and the women’s movement gained a hold in the public mind, Edith gained a measure of strength and self-respect that deepened her character movingly.
In one episode, against Archie’s wishes, she took a volunteer job as a “Sunshine Lady,” providing company and support for the residents of an old-age home, and when Archie tried to force her to quit because he didn’t want her working out of the house, her explosive adamancy took him, and the show’s viewers, by surprise, a triumph for her character that made the episode among the show’s most affecting.
Ms. Stapleton born was Jeanne Murray on Jan. 19, 1923, in Manhattan. Her father, Joseph, was an advertising salesman; her mother, Marie Stapleton, was a concert and opera singer, and music was very much a part of her young life.
Ms. Stapleton was a singer as well, which might be surprising to those who knew her only from “All in the Family,” which opened every week with Edith and Archie singing “Those Were the Days,” Ms. Stapleton lending a screechy half of the duet that was all Edith.
Ms. Stapleton had a long history of charming musical performances. She was in the original casts of “Bells are Ringing” on Broadway in the 1950s and “Funny Girl,” with Barbra Streisand, in the 1960s, in which she sang “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty,” and “Find Yourself a Man.” Off-Broadway in 1991, she played Julia Child, singing the recipe for chocolate cake in the mini-musical “Bon Appétit.” On television, she sang with the Muppets.
After high school, Stapleton worked as a typist and a secretary, taking acting classes at night. This is also when she changed her name to her mother’s, feeling it was, as she put it once, “more distingué” than Murray. Her older brother, Jack, had done the same. She was not, as often presumed, related to the actress Maureen Stapleton.
Ms. Stapleton studied and performed with the American Actors’ Company, whose alumni include Horton Foote and Agnes DeMille, and did a great deal of summer stock. She toured opposite Frank Fay in “Harvey,” and was the understudy for Shirley Booth in the touring company of “Come Back, Little Sheba.”
Even during her television heyday, her schedule almost always included summer shows because her husband, William Putch, whom she married in the late 1950s, operated the Totem Pole Playhouse in Pennsylvania.
Putch died in 1983. Ms. Stapleton is survived by their two children, Pamela and John, and grandchildren.
After “All in the Family,” Ms. Stapleton sought roles that would separate her from Edith, and in so doing she led a busy and varied, if less celebrated, performing life. She turned down a chance to star as Jessica Fletcher, the middle-aged mystery writer at the center of “Murder, She Wrote,” which became a long-running hit with Angela Lansbury.
But she appeared as a guest on numerous television series, including “Caroline in the City” and “Murphy Brown,” starred with Whoopi Goldberg in a short-lived series, “Bagdad Café,” did character turns in Hollywood films (“You’ve Got Mail,” “Michael”) and made several television movies, including “Eleanor: First Lady of the World” (1982) in which she starred as Eleanor Roosevelt, a film that led to a one-woman show that toured the country.
Perhaps the most significant work of her later life, however, was Off-Broadway, where she performed in challenging works by Horton Foote (“The Carpetbagger’s Children”), John Osborne (“The Entertainer”) and Harold Pinter (“Mountain Language,” “The Birthday Party”) to sterling reviews.