She received eight Emmy nominations and won three times during her eight-year tenure with “All in the Family.” The series broke through the timidity of U.S. TV with social and political jabs and ranked as the No. 1-rated program for an unprecedented five years in a row. Lear would go on to create a run of socially conscious sitcoms.
Stapleton also earned Emmy nominations for playing Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1982 film “Eleanor, First Lady of the World” and for a guest appearance in 1995 on “Grace Under Fire.”
Her big-screen films included a pair directed by Nora Ephron: the 1998 Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romance “You’ve Got Mail” and 1996’s “Michael” starring John Travolta. She also turned down the chance to star in the popular mystery show, “Murder, She Wrote,” which became a showcase for Angela Lansbury.
The theater was Stapleton’s first love and she compiled a rich resume, starting in 1941 as a New England stock player and moving to Broadway in the 1950s and 60s. In 1964, she originated the role of Mrs. Strakosh in “Funny Girl” with Barbra Streisand. Others musicals and plays included “Bells Are Ringing,” ”Rhinoceros” and Damn Yankees,” in which her performance — and the nasal tone she used in “All in the Family” — attracted Lear’s attention and led to his auditioning her for the role of Archie’s wife.
“I wasn’t a leading lady type,” she once told The Associated Press. “I knew where I belonged. And actually, I found character work much more interesting than leading ladies.”
She confounded Archie with her malapropos — “You know what they say, misery is the best company” — and open-hearted acceptance of others, including her beleaguered son-in-law and African-Americans and other minorities that Archie disdained.
As the series progressed, Stapleton had the chance to offer a deeper take on Edith as the character faced milestones including a breast cancer scare and menopause. She was proud of the show’s political edge, citing an episode about a draft dodger who clashes with Archie as a personal favorite.
But Stapleton worried about typecasting, rejecting any roles, commercials or sketches on variety shows that called for a character similar to Edith. Despite pleas from Lear not to let Edith die, Stapleton left the show, re-titled “Archie’s Place,” in 1980, leaving Archie to carry on as a widower.
“My decision is to go out into the world and do something else. I’m not constituted as an actress to remain in the same role…. My identity as an actress is in jeopardy if I invested my entire career in Edith Bunker,” she told the AP in 1979.
She had no trouble shaking off Edith — “when you finish a role, you’re done with it. There’s no deep, spooky connection with the parts you play,” she told the AP in 2002 — but after O’Connor’s 2001 death she got condolence letters from people who thought they were really married. When people spotted her in public and called her “Edith,” she would politely remind them that her name was Jean.
Stapleton was born in New York City to Joseph Murray and his wife, Marie Stapleton Murray, a singer. She attended Hunter College, leaving for a secretarial stint before embarking on acting studies with the American Theatre Wing and others.
Stapleton had a long working relationship with playwright Horton Foote, starting with one of his first full-length plays in 1944, “People in the Show,” and continuing with six other works through the 2000s.
“I was very impressed with her. She has a wonderful sense of character. Her sense of coming to life on stage — I never get tired of watching,” Foote told the AP in 2002. He died in 2009.
Her early TV career included guest appearances on series including “Lux Video Theatre,” ”Dr. Kildare” and “The Defenders.”
Her post-“All in the Family” career included a one-woman stage show, “Eleanor,” in which she portrayed the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Stapleton spent summers working at the Totem Pole Playhouse near Harrisburg, Pa., operated by her husband, William. She made guest appearances on “Murphy Brown” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” and even provided the title character’s voice for a children’s video game, “Grandma Ollie’s Morphabet Soup.”
For years, she rarely watched “All In the Family,” but had softened by 2000, when she told the Archive of American Television that enough time had passed.
“I can watch totally objectively,” she said. “I love it. And I laugh. I think, ‘Oh,’ and I think, ‘Gee, that’s good.'”
Associated Press writers Jake Pearson in New York and Nedra Pickler in Washington contributed to this report.