By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Actress Jean Stapleton, best known for her Emmy-winning role as the good-hearted housewife Edith Bunker in the groundbreaking 1970s television comedy "All in the Family," has died at age 90, her family said on Saturday.
Stapleton died on Friday of natural causes at her home in New York City, her son, film and television director John Putch, said in a statement.
"It is with great love and heavy hearts that we say farewell to our collective Mother, with a capital M," Putch and his sister, Pamela Putch, said in a joint statement. "Her devotion to her craft and her family taught us all great life lessons."
The actress won three Emmys, U.S. TV's highest honor, for her role as Edith, the long-suffering, unsophisticated but understanding wife of the reactionary and often racist Archie Bunker, played by the late Carroll O'Connor, in the hit TV sitcom.
"All in the Family," inspired by the British program "Till Death Us Do Part," was a success with audiences even as it helped usher in a new era for U.S. television by confronting contentious topics such as racism, the Vietnam War and the feminist movement.
Archie, a working-class New Yorker, often clashed over politics and social issues with his adult daughter, Gloria, and his liberal son-in-law, Michael Stivic, whom he called "Meathead."
Edith spoke in a nasal, high-pitched voice, and seemed confused at times by the social changes going on around her. Her gentle nature contrasted with her husband's mean streak. Although Archie often called her a "dingbat," she patiently stood by him.
In a nod to the generational conflict on display in the show, the program, aired on CBS, began with Archie and Edith at a piano singing the nostalgic "Those Were the Days."
"No one gave more profound 'How to be a Human Being' lessons than Jean Stapleton," Norman Lear, the producer of "All in the Family," said in a written statement released to Reuters.
Film director Rob Reiner, who played Edith's son-in-law, said in a statement to CBS News that Stapleton was "a brilliant comedienne with exquisite timing."
Stapleton appeared in "All in the Family" from 1971 to 1979, and continued her role for a time in the 1979 spinoff show "Archie Bunker's Place."
MAKING EDITH FUNNY
Stapleton was born Jeanne Murray in New York in 1923 to an opera singer mother and a businessman father. She would later use her mother's maiden name, Stapleton, as her stage name.
She worked during World War Two as a typist for the British War Ministry Office in New York and made her professional stage debut in 1941. In the 1950s and 1960s, she acted in a number of Broadway productions, including a part in "Damn Yankees" that got Lear's attention and her role in "All in the Family."
Sitting alongside O'Connor for a 2000 interview on the talk show "Donny & Marie," Stapleton said she developed her nasal voice to play an oddball in "Damn Yankees" and decided to use it again in "All in the Family," after behind-the-scenes work that saw Edith go from abrasive to daffy.
"As we developed and found the characters, which was in the rehearsal process and which was very stimulating, very exciting and a learning process, as these elements came to us, something else developed," Stapleton said. "And one was, I think I'll use that nasal voice because it's funny."
O'Connor, who died in 2001, said in the same interview that if Stapleton had followed the British version of the show and played Edith as sharp-tongued, the program would have been less successful. "She had to be what she created in order to make Archie work," he said.
After "All in the Family," Stapleton played former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in a 1982 television movie, and had a supporting role in the 1998 romantic comedy "You've Got Mail."
She maintained a lifelong love of the theater, and in 1990, received the Village Voice newspaper's Obie Award for her performances in Harold Pinter's Off-Broadway plays "Mountain Language" and "The Birthday Party."
She spent a number of years living and working in Los Angeles, but returned to her native New York in 2002 to live permanently.
Stapleton is survived by her son and daughter. Her husband, William Putch, died in 1983.
(Writing and additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Cooney)