Saturday, June 1, 2013
I Remember Jean Stapleton
So there I was in the audience of a new CBS sitcom called All In The Family watching a taping at CBS Television City. It was in June 1972 and boy was the atmosphere volatile.
Carroll O'Connor and producer Norman Lear went right at each other.
But in the center of the storm co-star Jean Stapleton simply watched and waited.
After the first taping there was a two-hour wait followed by a second taping of the same episode with completely different dialogue.
And both times Stapleton was the one who shone out.
No doubt about it she was one of TV's best ever actresses.
Her death aged 90 on June 1 was a big loss for the industry.
I'd first glimpsed her as Judy Holliday's chum in the 1960 musical film Bells Are Ringing.
And Stapleton had long been a staple on Broadway and at husband William Putch's Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville, Pennsylvania.
When Norman Lear came to cast Edith Bunker in All In The Family Stapleton was his first and last choice.
"We made the pilot called Those Were The Days for ABC," she told me. "ABC passed but CBS picked us up with a new title. It was based on a British series Till Death Do Us Part."
No doubt about it Edith was the heart and soul of that series. O'Connor supplied the bombast but Stapleton contributed the underlying love and sympathy.
I got to interview Stapleton at length several times.
She told me she never thought the sitcom would last and had settled for a hefty upfront salary in lieu of residuals.
All In The Family was shot as a mini play in front of a live audience with O'Connor and Stapleton demonstrating their solid theatrical credentials.
She openly flinched when one TV critic called Edith a "dingbat".
"No," Stapleton interjected. "She was terribly naive and trusting."
Her favorite episode came when Edith was raped, an experience she described as "terrible but it was a real acting experience."
Stapleton said she knew she was in a hit when people started coming up to her on the street and singing the theme song. "Almost all got that one line wrong about gee our old LaSalle ran great," she laughed.
Stapleton won Emmys as best comedy actress in 1971, 1972 and 1978.
I saw Stapleton on the stage at the Royal Alex in Putch's revival of the 1938 play Morning's At Seven.
It was such a hit a national tour was set up but Stapleton could not make it because of her AITF taping schedule. She cheered when I told her the replacement was going to be Kate Reid.
All In The Family ran from 1971 through 1979.
Following the departure of Sally Struthers (as Gloria) and Rob Reiner (Meathead), Stapleton reluctantly continued in the spin off titled Archie Bunker's Place.
However after the 1980 season she decided to retire from the show. The next season began with Archie mourning the death of Edith from a stroke a few months earlier.
CBS then ordered a new series be built up just for Stapleton.
"It was written by Peter Fischer and all about a detective. Titled Murder, She Wrote. But I said I didn't want to do an hour drama series. Too much work. So I passed.." she told me.
Instead Stapleton made such well received TV movies as Aunt Mary (1969), Angel Dusted (1981) and Eleanor: Woman Of The World (1982).
In 1990 she returned to TV sitcoms opposite Whoopi Goldberg in Bagdad Cafe.
Producer Lear summed it up best when he wrote on his blog after hearing news of her passing : "Goodbye, Edith darling."