Each and every week from 1971 to 1980, the popular TV sitcom All in the Family was heralded by the glass-shattering offkey singing of Edith Bunker, aka "Dingbat." This tended to obscure the fact that Jean Stapleton, the woman who so brilliantly portrayed Edith not only possessed a lilting, well-modulated singing voice, but also was as far removed as possible from a "dingbat" in real life. While attending Hunter College, Stapleton began her performing career as a member of the Robert Shaw Chorale. She made her professional stage debut in 1941, then went on to fruitful work-study associations with the American Apprentice Theater, the American Actors Company, the American Theater Wing, and director-acting coach Harold Clurman. Her first Broadway appearance was in the 1953 production In the Summer House; the following year, she made her TV bow as a semi-regular on the daytime drama Woman With a Past. She endeared herself to Broadwayites with her wistfully funny characterizations in the SRO musicals Damn Yankees, Bells Are Ringing, and Funny Girl, roles that she would carry over into the film versions of these hits. In 1958, she made her first appearance at the Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville, PA, a summer-stock operation managed by her husband, Bill Putch.
Most of Stapleton's onscreen work in the 1960s and 1970s could be found in New York-based movies (Something Wild, Up the Down Staircase, Klute) and TV series (Car 54, Where Are You, The Defenders, The Patty Duke Show). Her earliest association with producer-director Norman Lear occurred in the 1969 theatrical feature Cold Turkey, in which she played a neurotic housewife named Edith. When Lear began assembling the cast for his upcoming TV sitcom All in the Family, he immediately thought of Stapleton for the role of slow-witted, strident, essentially kindhearted Bronx housewife Edith Bunker. Before leaving the series in 1980, Stapleton earned three Emmy Awards for her portrayal of Edith -- not to mention the undying affection of millions.
Once free of All in the Family, she sought out roles that she hoped would demonstrate her versatility: She played the distraught mother of a drug-addicted teenager (enacted by her real-life son, John Putch) in the made-for-TV Angel Dusted (1981), and effectively portrayed Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1982 TV biopic Eleanor: First Lady of the World. Stapleton kept her comic skills sharpened by appearing in the made-for-cable productions of Shelley Duvall: She was terrific as a no-nonsense Fairy Godmother ("Trust me. This is important.") in Duvall's Faerie Tale Theater adaptation of Cinderella, and even better as the title characters in Mother Goose Rock 'n' Rhyme and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. In 1990, she briefly returned to weekly television as co-star (with Whoopi Goldberg) of the offbeat sitcom Bagdad Café. Jean Stapleton was then an infrequent but always welcome TV guest-star presence; in 1995, she startled (and delighted) her Edith Bunker fans with her con brio portrayal of Lea Thompson's sex-starved aunt in an episode of Caroline in the City. In 1998 she had a major part in the romantic comedy You've Got Mail, and that same year she voiced a character in Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi