Childhood & Early Life
Jean Stapleton was born Jeanne Murray, on January 19, 1923, in Manhattan, New York. Her father, Joseph Edward Murray, was an advertising salesman. Her mother, Marie A. (née Stapleton), was a concert and opera singer. Jean followed in her mother’s footsteps.
She attended the ‘Wadleigh High School’ in New York City. She graduated in 1939 and then joined ‘Hunter College.’ After completing her studies, Stapleton worked as a typist and secretary while taking theater classes at night.
Later, she changed her name and took her mother’s maiden name. Her older brother, who was a theater actor, had changed his name to “Jack Stapleton.” Actor Betty Jane Watson was her cousin.
She did a work–study apprenticeship at the ‘American Actors’ Company’ and also performed with them. In the touring company of ‘Come Back, Little Sheba,’ she worked as an understudy for Shirley Booth. She also worked opposite Frank Fay in ‘Harvey.’
Stapleton started her career in 1941, with summer stock theater, at the ‘Greenwood Play House,' Peaks Island, Maine. Her New York debut was an ‘Off-Broadway’ play called ‘American Gothic.’
She made her ‘Broadway’ debut in 1953, with Jane Bowles’s play ‘In the Summer House,’ directed by Jose Quintero. ‘Damn Yankees’ (1955), was one of her most successful ‘Broadway’ musicals.
She gave a number of melodious musical performances. In the 1950s, she was the part of the original cast of the ‘Broadway’ production ‘Bells Are Ringing.’ In the 1960s, she performed with Barbra Streisand in ‘Funny Girl’ and came up with the songs ‘If a Girl Isn’t Pretty’ and ‘Find Yourself a Man.’
Apart from her musicals, she also did other ‘Broadway’ plays such as ‘Rhinoceros’ in 1961, which was a farce by Eugene Ionesco. She acted in a revival of ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ in 1987.
Stapleton reprised her roles in the movie versions of ‘Damn Yankees’ (1958), and ‘Bells Are Ringing’ (1960). She was also a part of the film ‘Something Wild’ in 1961 and essayed the role of a secretary in the 1971 thriller ‘Klute,’ starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.
She portrayed guest roles in many TV shows and series, such as ‘Starlight Theatre,’ ‘Dr. Kildare,’ ‘Woman With a Past,’ ‘The Patty Duke Show,’ ‘My Three Sons,’ ‘Car 54, Where Are You?,’ and ‘The Defenders.’ She essayed the role of ‘Rosa Criley’ in ‘The Eleventh Hour’ (1963), a medical drama based on psychiatry.
Some of her earlier TV and feature films were ‘Something Wild’ (1961), ‘Up the Down Staircase’ (1967), Norman Lear’s comedy ‘Cold Turkey’ (1971) among others. She was a part of the TV series ‘Scarecrow and Mrs. King’ and the educational series ‘Beakman’s World.’
She had already done some TV shows and ‘Broadway’ plays, when producer Norman Lear asked her to audition for the role of ‘Edith’ in ‘All in the Family.’ This major role in her first TV series proved significant for her career. This series was an American adaptation of the British series ‘Till Death Us Do Part.’ Initially, ‘All in the Family’ faced immense difficulty finding an audience. However, it soon became popular and remained at the top of the ‘Nielson’ ratings for five consecutive seasons.
With a high-pitch nasal dialogue delivery, a perplexed expression, and a trotting gait, Stapleton added fine touches to the character of ‘Edith Bunker.’ The series ran from 1971 to 1979, and was followed up by ‘Archie Bunker’s Place,’ which continued till 1983. Stapleton, however, requested to be written out of the show, as she was tired of the same role.
Stapleton then chose various characters that were starkly different from her celebrated role. She made guest appearances in the TV series ‘Caroline in the City’ and ‘Murphy Brown.’ She worked with Whoopi Goldberg in the TV series based on the movie ‘Bagdad Café.’ She was part of the Canadian production of the musical ‘Something’s Afoot’ (1979). She also played the title role in the TV movie ‘Aunt Mary,’ which was based on a true life story.
She co-starred with Peter Ustinov in the 1986 TV adaptation of ‘Dead Man’s Folly.’ She played ‘Julia Child,’ who sings the recipe for chocolate cake, in the 1991 ‘Off-Broadway’ mini-musical ‘Bon Appétit.’
She starred with Meg Ryan in ‘You’ve Got Mail’ (1998) and with John Travolta in ‘Michael’ (1996). In 1982, she portrayed ‘Eleanor Roosevelt’ in the TV movie ‘Eleanor: First Lady of the World.’ The film was later turned into a one-woman show, and Stapleton toured the country with the show.
Later, she essayed some significant roles in ‘Off-Broadway’ plays such as Mr. Foote’s ‘The Carpetbagger’s Children,’ John Osborne’s ‘The Entertainer,’ and Harold Pinter’s ‘Mountain Language’ and ‘The Birthday Party.’ Her work, especially in ‘The Birthday Party,’ was immensely appreciated.
In the famous 1996 series ‘Everybody Loves Raymond,’ Stapleton played the role of Raymond’s aunt. She played the title role in ‘Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’ (1993–1995), a children’s show based on Betty MacDonald’s children’s books.
She was considered as one of the leading women in the TV comedies of the 1970s. She is best remembered for her portrayal of a slow-witted, good-at-heart, submissive housewife in the TV series ‘All in the Family.’
In 1978, Stapleton was named as one of the forty members of the ‘National Commission’ on the observance of ‘International Women’s Year.’ She had also worked with screenwriter Rhoda Lerman, to preserve Mrs. Roosevelt’s New York home.
After completing her last acting assignment in 2001, she continued with her social activities, especially at the ‘Woman’s Research & Education Institute.’ She focused on the issues affecting women.
Awards & Achievements
Stapleton won the ‘Primetime Emmy Award’ in 1971, 1972, and 1978, for her role in the series ‘All in the Family.’ She also won two ‘Golden Globe Awards’ for the same series.
In 1978, she received an ‘Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters’ degree from ‘Emerson College’ in Boston. She has a scholarship named after her. In 2002, she was inducted into the ‘American Theater Hall of Fame,’ and into the ‘Television Hall of Fame.’
Stapleton married William Putch on October 26, 1957, during the production of the musical ‘Bells Are Ringing.’ He directed a summer stock theater, ‘Totem Pole Play House,’ in Caledonia State Park in Fayetteville, Pennsylvania.
Her husband died in 1983.
Stapleton died of natural causes on May 31, 2013, in New York City. She was 90 years old at the time of her death. ‘Broadway’ had dimmed the marquee lights for one minute on June 5, 2013, in honor of her memory. She is survived by her daughter, TV producer Pamela Putch, and her son, John Putch, an actor, writer, and director.