Jean Stapleton’s Death Reminds Me of Sneaking to Watch the Forbidden ‘All in the Family’ [VIDEO]
After hearing the news of the death of 90-year-old TV legend Jean Stapleton, I immediately began to think about all those episodes of the landmark sitcom All in the Family…that I was NEVER allowed to watch.
And yet I did.
Stapleton played the iconic Edith Bunker, the “dingbat” wife of Archie Bunker, played by the late Carroll O’Connor. The show also starred Rob Reiner–as the Bunkers’ “meathead” son-in-law Mike Stivic–and Sally Struthers as their daughter, Gloria.
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All in the Family left no stone unturned when it came to subject matter. Seriously, when the show began in 1971–I wasn’t watching it THAT early–no one had EVER heard anyone swear on television. But that kind of language–obviously mild, by today’s standards–was prevalent throughout the show.
What isn’t (or wasn’t?) mild by today’s standards was the subject matter and, really, the overall point of the series.
All in the Family–and the Archie Bunker character, in particular–was created as a satire, a spoof of racism. Blustery, outlandish, and, yes, ignorant Archie was a full-on racist–complete with the use of epithets that would NEVER make it into a television script today, despite the point of their utilization.
It was odd; although Archie was there to put a ridiculous face on racism, to show how foolish and wrong it all is, the American people loved the character. And it’s to their credit that they did, because it means they got it.
They also got that, deep down in there somewhere, Archie was a kind man and a loving husband to Edith, whom he often told to “stifle herself” , you know, when he wasn’t calling her a dingbat.
It’s funny. I remember the whole “dingbat” thing dying down as the shown went on. In fact, when I was sneaking around to watch it in the mid to late 70s, I don’t remember ever hearing that word.
Anyway, regardless of how Archie spoke to Edith, she got it, too. She was never fazed. And in episodes, for example, where Edith got raped or when she developed phlebitis (a potentially life-threatening inflammation of veins in the leg), Archie’s deep concern and love for Edith came through, just as it did on an episode of the All in the Family spin-off Archie Bunker’s Place, in which Archie finally summons the courage to go up to their bedroom after Edith has died. A discovered house slipper ultimately reveals a side of Archie viewers had never before seen.
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It was a landmark show. In addition to racism, it tackled everything from the Vietnam War to politics and religion to hate crimes. Doesn’t sound like much of a situation “comedy”, does it?
Well, it was.
The best humor is derived from everyday life. And only the best actors could have made a startling series like All in the Family work. Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton (with arm loads of Emmys to prove it) WERE those actors.