The theater was Stapleton’s first love and she compiled a rich resume, starting in 1941 as a New England stock player and moving to Broadway in the 1950s and ‘60s. In 1964, she originated the role of Mrs. Strakosh in “Funny Girl” with Barbra Streisand. Others musicals and plays included “Bells Are Ringing,” ‘‘Rhinoceros” and Damn Yankees,” in which her performance — and the nasal tone she used in “All in the Family” — attracted Lear’s attention and led to his auditioning her for the role of Archie’s wife.
“I wasn’t a leading lady type,” she once told The Associated Press. “I knew where I belonged. And actually, I found character work much more interesting than leading ladies.” Edith, of the dithery manner, cheerfully high-pitched voice and family loyalty, charmed viewers but was viewed by Stapleton as “submissive” and, she hoped, removed from reality. In a 1972 New York Times interview, she said she didn’t think Edith was a typical American housewife — “at least I hope she’s not.”
“What Edith represents is the housewife who is still in bondage to the male figure, very submissive and restricted to the home. She is very naive, and she kind of thinks through a mist, and she lacks the education to expand her world. I would hope that most housewives are not like that,” said Stapleton, whose character regularly obeyed her husband’s demand to “stifle yourself.”
But Edith was honest and compassionate, and “in most situations she says the truth and pricks Archie’s inflated ego,” she added.
She confounded Archie with her malapropos — “You know what they say, misery is the best company” — and open-hearted acceptance of others, including her beleaguered son-in-law and African-Americans and other minorities that Archie disdained.
As the series progressed, Stapleton had the chance to offer a deeper take on Edith as the character faced milestones including a breast cancer scare and menopause. She was proud of the show’s political edge, citing an episode about a draft dodger who clashes with Archie as a personal favorite.