Arts Mixtape

For Jean Stapleton: The Mingling Miracles of Edith Bunker
by Jerry Tallmer

Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker in "All in the Family:"

It was Jimmy Wechsler, the last unadulterated liberal on the face of the earth, who one day in our hideaway next to the City Room on the New York
Post told me I should start watching a television program called "All in the Family." "It's about this guy, Archie Bunker, all-American bigot,"Wechsler said. "Lives out in Queens. Got this wife. It's funny as hell."Television! Vast wasteland! Sitcom! Comic bigotry! Who needed it? I went home and turned on the tube. CBS, Channel 2. And didn't turn off "All in the Family" for the best part of the next seven years. Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker -- overweight, beer-guzzling, ignorant, opinionated Archie -- was funny as hell, and I had seen him in a scary performance Off-Off-Broadway in "The Big Knife" (Odets) years before "All in the Family," but his was what I would call external acting -- laid on from outside. It was the woman playing Edith Bunker, Archie's just slightly ditsy wife, whose acting was, miraculously, from the inside. On television yet! The actress was Jean Stapleton, and I had seen her, too, years before, in Jose Quintero's production of Jane Bowles's "In the Summer House," but had forgotten it.

Now the question was: How does she do this?.How does she convey six or eight mingling emotions -- pity, shock, love, ignorance, insight, protectiveness, prudishness, protest -- all in the same breath at the same time? Magic isn't in it, as my mother would have said. Meaning yes, it is magical, and there are nights when Edith Bunker leaves you gasping in tears of wonder and fury and joy. I wonder what Edith Bunker would have said about the bunch of vicious clowns who've made Archie Bunker's worst political and racial prejudices stifle our brains these past six years.
Whenever James A. Wechsler would sneak out of our office a little early, with a slight grin on his serious face, I knew where he was going. Home
-- or maybe some saloon? -- to watch Archie and Edith and Gloria and the Meathead. Miracles don't happen every day. So long, Miss Stapleton. So long, Edith.For that matter, so long, Jim.

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