Her name is synonymous with the role for which she won three Emmy Awards and two Golden Globes. Jean Stapleton, who died on May 31 of natural causes at the age of 90, will forever be known as Edith Bunker, the sweet and loveable housewife at the center of the great 1970s sitcom All in the Family. Yet Stapleton, who would play the naïve Edith for nine seasons, was a prolific stage veteran who never forgot her theatrical roots even as television fame made her a household figure.
She never won a Tony Award — or was even nominated — but she had the distinction of costarring in musicals and plays that today have become classics of the American theater. After making her Broadway debut in 1953 in Jane Bowles' In the Summer House, she would go on to appear in the original productions of Damn Yankees (as Sister, who sings the great second act reprise of "Heart"), Bells Are Ringing (as Sue, the proprietress of the telephone service "Susanswerphone"), Funny Girl (as Mrs. Strakosh, who sang "If a Girl Isn't Pretty" to Barbra Streisand's Fanny Brice), Juno (Mrs. Madigan), and Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros (Mrs. Ochs opposite Zero Mostel). She would later go on to appear in the film versions of both Damn Yankees and Bells Are Ringing, repeating her roles, though her songs were removed entirely.
While the only time she appeared on Broadway after All in the Family achieved legendary status was in the 1986 revival of Arsenic and Old Lace in which she played Abby Brewster opposite Tony Roberts, Polly Holliday, and Abe Vigoda, she became a regular presence off-Broadway in the 1990s. She won a 1989-1990 Obie Award for her performances in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party and Mountain Language at Classic Stage Company. She also appeared at CSC in Moliere's The Learned Ladies, John Osborne's The Entertainer, and in the solo play Bon Appetit!, in which she starred as Julia Child and sang the recipe for chocolate cake.
Stapleton costarred in multiple plays by dramatist Horton Foote, including Night Seasons at Signature Theater, The Carpetbagger's Children at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, The Death of Papa at Hartford Stage, and The Roads to Home at the Lambs Theater Company.
Her national theater credits are just as extensive. She toured the United States as Shirley Booth's understudy in Come Back, Little Sheba, played Eleanor Roosevelt in the solo show Eleanor: Her Secret Journey, and costarred in the 1999 American premiere of Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, among many others.
And despite her classic, nasal rendition of the All in the Family theme song "Those Were the Days," (written by Bye Bye Birdie scribes Charles Strouse and Lee Adams), she was a better singer than many expected, as you can hear in this song from the original Broadway cast recording of Funny Girl.