By Maria Schulz
My smart phone is set up to receive breaking news from the newspaper, which often leads me to just close it without even looking at the story. But on Saturday, it stopped me cold when I saw this headline:
Jean Stapleton, Who Played Archie Bunker’s Better Angel, Dies at 90.
Oh no! I thought. Not Edith!
I ran to my husband and told him the news. “Oh no,” he said. “Not Edith!”
We spent the day talking about our favorite episodes and singing/screeching “Those Were the Days,” the theme song that Edith and her husband, Archie, sang at the beginning of every episode. We talked about other things that we remembered Jean Stapleton doing, like her turn in “You’ve Got Mail” as a quirky bookseller and friend to Meg Ryan, or her turn as Eleanor Roosevelt, Julia Childe, and on Broadway. She was a really accomplished actress.
Our older daughter finally asked us: “What’s the big deal about this Edith person?”
“She was a part of the biggest TV show around when I was a kid,” I said, “and everyone watched it when it was on.”
Her eyes began to glaze over and I realized that she was done wondering about Edith anymore. But it didn’t stop me from thinking of why it was such a big deal to me.
When All in the Family was on, everyone (and I do mean everyone) I knew would stop whatever they were doing come Saturday night, and watch Archie, Edith (a.k.a. “Dingbat”), Gloria (a.k.a. “Little Girl”) and Mike (a.k.a. “Meathead”) live, love, and fight.
They were a normal working class family from Queens (yes! Queens!) who lived in a row house in Astoria. Archie worked on a loading dock to support his family, which now included his son-in-law, Mike. Gloria worked in a local department store while Edith stayed at home.
Some of the funniest episodes featured Edith trying to make sense of a changing world. She was not the brightest bulb on Broadway, but her big heart and a compassionate streak a mile wide helped her learn as she went.
Edith’s lost look when she began struggling with hot flashes and mood swings during the onset of menopause caused Archie to try to make her happy by buying her little gifts (a Lady Gillette razor, which she promptly threw at him) until he finally lost his patience with her and said, “You’ve got 5 minutes Edith. NOW CHANGE!”
Mike and Gloria were horrified at Archie’s insensitivity, but Edith was delighted. All she wanted was someone to make her feel like nothing would really change, and Archie came through for her.
Another episode found Edith struggling with a cancer scare. In the end, the lump in her breast was negative; so when Archie asks her why she’s still in bed at the hospital, she pulls off the sheet and explains, “I got so excited by the good news that I jumped off the examining table and broke my leg!”
You couldn’t help but love Edith. When the people around her were sad, she always had a story that would make them stop, and think, and realize that maybe she wasn’t so dumb after all. Of course, this happened after many winding turns and the feeling on Archie’s part that he would like to hang or shoot himself, as evidenced by him making believe he was fastening a noose over his head or pumping a bullet into his skull. Still, Edith insisted on making her point, and everyone felt better afterwards.
Two episodes stand out in my mind. The first one is about how Edith, good, kind, gentle Edith, opens the door to a salesman who attempts to rape her. No one will be coming to save Edith, because everyone is next door at Gloria’s house, waiting to surprise her for her birthday. It’s up to her to figure out how to escape, and she does—by pulling a burning cake out of the oven and shoving it in the creep’s face.
The second episode is the one where Archie is angry at Edith for loving her new job as a sunshine lady at the local nursing home. Archie feels abandoned and he goes off on a date with another woman. Of course, Edith recognizes that Archie has been out since he’s wearing his Disney World shirt, and she immediately gets out of him that he “kissed another woman!” Who couldn’t feel bad for Edith as she runs out the door towards her daughter’s house?
When Jean Stapleton finally tired of being known to the world as Edith, she bowed out of the series. It was renamed “Archie’s Place,” and in the first episode of the second season, they killed Edith off.
Everyone I knew watched this episode. When Archie finally broke down and cried over Edith’s death (we find out that she died in her sleep, laying in bed next to Archie), everyone in my family sat and cried along with Archie.
How could you not grow to love someone you watched over the course of 10 years?
So, in answer to my daughter’s original question, “what’s the big deal about this Edith person,” I finally got an answer.
When I was a kid, there were only the 3 Networks and some local channels, plus PBS. If we called something the biggest show on TV, it meant that virtually everyone was watching it. An episode of All in the Family wasn’t just a random episode in the hundreds of alternative television shows that was on any old night; it was Must See TV long before the phrase was coined.
I didn’t have to worry that my friends were busy watching a cable show on their iPads or playing Angry Birds on their phones. You sat glued to the television with your family, taking it all in, and anxious to talk to friends about it the next day. Today’s television isn’t so much a communal event as it is just another way we sit by ourselves and shut the world out.
Edith was a housewife and a mother. She wasn’t famous or well educated, but she made a huge difference in the lives of everyone who loved her. In big and small ways, Edith was everyone’s mother back in the day.
I’m so glad that Norman Lear “found” Jean Stapleton on Broadway and plucked her out of relative obscurity to become America’s favorite “other mother.”
I tried to think of a recipe that was quintessentially “1970s” in honor of Edith, and the first thing that popped into my mind was meatloaf. Here’s a recipe that looks delicious:
One suggestion: add Worcestershire sauce (1 tablespoon) to your meatloaf recipe to keep it moist.
So, Hungry Lifers…do you remember All in the Family? What was your favorite Edith moment? What would be your favorite 1970s recipe? Please leave a comment and let us all know. Thanks.