Thirty-three years later, this still makes me cry.
Somehow, this scene from Archie Bunker's Place seems highly appropriate today. The New York Times today bears the sad news:
Jean Stapleton, the character actress whose portrayal of a slow-witted, big-hearted and submissive — up to a point — housewife on the groundbreaking series “All in the Family” made her, along with Mary Tyler Moore and Bea Arthur, not only one of the foremost women in television comedy in the 1970s but a symbol of emergent feminism in American popular culture, died on Friday at her home in New York City. She was 90.I REMEMBER, during a 1986 visit to the Smithsonian's American history museum, that one of the biggest thrills for me -- this in a museum filled with amazing things, including the original "Star-Spangled Banner" from the War of 1812 -- was being able to gaze upon Archie and Edith's chairs from All in the Family.
Ms. Stapleton, though never an ingénue or a leading lady, was an accomplished theater actress with a few television credits when the producer Norman Lear, who had seen her in the musical “Damn Yankees” on Broadway, asked her to audition for a new series. The audition, for a character named Edith Bunker, changed her life.
The show, initially called “Those Were the Days,” was Mr. Lear’s adaptation, for an American audience, of an English series called “Till Death Us Do Part,” about a working-class couple in east London who held reactionary and racist views.
It took shape slowly. The producers filmed three different pilots, the show changed networks to CBS from ABC, and Ms. Stapleton acted in a film directed by Mr. Lear, “Cold Turkey,” before “All in the Family,” as it was finally called, was first broadcast in January 1971.
For three or four months, hampered by mixed reviews, it struggled to find an audience, but when it did, it became one of the most popular shows in television, finishing first in the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive seasons and winning four consecutive Emmy Awards for outstanding comedy series. Ms. Stapleton won three Emmys of her own, in 1971, ’72 and ’78.
Perhaps it was that I had seen these things every week for years on the small screen. Or maybe it was because they were second-class relics of two of the greatest actors in the history of television.
Whatever the case, I am sure of one thing. No one will ever fill those chairs.