Jean Stapleton, better known as Edith Bunker, one of the most popular and beloved characters in U.S. television history, died in New York Friday at the age of 90.
Stapleton, an accomplished stage actress, had no idea that the show she agreed to star in, “All in the Family,” would change the course of history.
In the early 1970s, writer-producer Norman Lear revolutionized American television by creating or co-creating popular, socially conscious situation comedies such as “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times,” “Maude” and others. But it appears that, after more than 40 years, “All in the Family” remains Lear’s greatest and most enduring cultural legacy.
The show, based on a British sitcom called “Till Death Us Do Part,” told the bittersweet tale of Archie Bunker, an uneducated, working-class bigot in Queens, N.Y., his loving wife Edith (the so-called dingbat), his liberal, hippie son-in-law Mike (the so-called meathead) and his beloved daughter Gloria.
“All in the Family” startled, delighted and often outraged audiences with its stark, realistic depiction of blue-collar life, as well as by Archie’s unrestrained, sometimes thoughtless prejudice. The show became a huge hit -- perhaps the most popular program in U.S. television history -- and is now accorded a lofty position in American culture shared by the likes of Mark Twain, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.
But, at its core, the show was essentially about a loving family struggling to survive in a rapidly changing world -- using such topics as race, war, sex, politics and women’s rights as a point of reference for an audience hungry for entertainment mixed with substance and innovation.
International Business Times spoke with a media expert to sort out the popularity and legacy of “All in the Family.” Lance Strate is professor of communication and media studies and associate chair for graduate studies at Fordham University in New York.
IBTimes: What do you attribute the enduring popularity of “All in the Family” to?
Strate: “All in the Family” perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the early 1970s, a period that most people think of as still being part of “The Sixties.”
As much as we go on about the polarized nature of contemporary U.S. politics and society, no other time was so very harshly defined by what was known as the “generation gap” -- the conflict between the baby boomers and what former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw [later] called the “Greatest Generation.”
Politics was part of the divide, as the civil-rights movement built up steam over the course of the 1960s and the anti-war movement caught fire later in the decade, but it was the social and cultural chasm that really characterized this era.
The baby boomers grew up with affluence and looked for generosity, while their parents grew up with the Great Depression and a sense of insecurity. They clung to family and community for survival, which often meant depending on members of the same ethnic group, religion and race, while excluding others, and this reinforced the natural human tendency toward bias and prejudice, while their children grew up without such constraints, fully embracing the ideals of freedom and equality.
The “Greatest Generation” were told that they were all heroes, but their children weren’t buying it, and saw themselves as trying to save a world that was messed up by the older generation. Their parents had fought the good fight in the Second World War, and believed that they were doing the same in taking on communism, but their children saw them as a bunch of warmongers.
While their parents relied on traditional values and mores to get them through difficult times, the baby boomers had the luxury to be open and progressive.
And even small cultural differences were magnified, as the men of the Greatest Generation favored military crew cuts, while their sons let their hair grow long in a manner their parents viewed as feminine. The baby boomers listened to rock music and wouldn’t be caught dead with an album in their collections from one of the big bands or crooners like Frank Sinatra. And as Marshall McLuhan observed, the baby boomers said “cool” where their parents liked to say “hot.”
My point is “All in the Family” captured this moment in our history perfectly, and all credit is due to Lear, the writers, and the actors, especially Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton, Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner.
IBTimes: Was “All in the Family” an immediate hit, or did it take a while to find an audience?
Strate: It caught on pretty quickly, and it certainly was well-promoted -- but that included prominent warnings about its content being offensive, which, of course, served to attract a big audience.
In those days, very little on television was offensive, and controversial content, such as the “Smothers Brothers Show” waded into, tended to get you canceled, not celebrated.
IBTimes: Did “All in the Family” initially trigger a lot of criticism, protests, threats of boycotts, etc.? Or is this an exaggeration?
Strate: It was controversial, yes, especially at first, but everyone quickly adjusted to it, as I think it was widely recognized for its honesty. O’Connor’s brilliant and sensitive portrayal of Archie Bunker made the program more balanced than it otherwise would have been.
IBTimes: Would “All in the Family” have worked as well as a drama series, given all the serious topics it dealt with?
Strate: I don’t think so. The program emphasized our ability to laugh at our own foibles, and comedy is, after all, about survival, about just getting by. And it helped to balance the drama and tragedy that we all saw on the news and read in the papers day after day after day.
IBTimes: Do you look at “The Honeymooners” as a kind of precursor to “All in the Family”? That is, even though “The Honeymooners” did not deal directly with social issues, Ralph and Alice Kramden lived in grim poverty and frequently argued (in contrast with the bright, middle-class lifestyles of many other 1950s shows)?
Strate: I would agree that there are similarities, and that “All in the Family,” as innovative as it seems, in some ways retrieved aspects of “The Honeymooners” and similar shows of that era, such as “Amos’n Andy,” “The Goldbergs” and “Car 54, Where Are You?”
These programs were set in urban areas and depicted working-class lifestyles, which is why I wouldn’t describe “The Honeymooners” lifestyle as “grim poverty” as it depicted an exaggerated version of blue-collar Brooklyn.
IBTimes: Lear reportedly wanted the public to dislike Archie Bunker -- but the audience loved Archie, even if they disagreed with some of his views. In this respect, do you think Lear’s “experiment” backfired?
Strate: A large segment of the audience was predisposed to sympathize with Archie Bunker’s conservative views, and would have tuned out if he had been portrayed as a complete fool. So while the positive reception for that character came as a surprise to many, and an unintended consequence of Lear’s experiment, I think on the whole it was beneficial.
The baby boomers faulted their parents for stereotyping others, but we were not immune from that tendency ourselves and stereotyped “the older generation” -- and the humanized portrayal of Archie Bunker broke free of that vicious cycle. In this, I think Lear’s inspiration exceeded his intentions.
IBTimes: Prior to Lear, in the 1960s, did U.S. TV shows generally shun dealing with real-world issues, like Vietnam, drugs, racism, civil rights. If so, why? What were they afraid of?
Strate: Yes, for the most part they did, and their main fear was that advertisers would pull out. Television networks and stations make their money by selling advertising time, and if advertisers do not want to be associated with controversial views, or if controversy results in poor ratings, profits decline.
“All in the Family” was instrumental in demonstrating that dealing with real-world issues in an honest and open manner can also serve as an effective vehicle for commercial advertising.
IBTimes: Why do you think CBS -- already the most powerful and successful TV network -- took a risk with such a daring, provocative and controversial offering like “All in the Family”?
Strate: CBS had actually run into some trouble with advertisers, because while they were pulling in the largest audiences, advertisers shifted their focus to demographics, and CBS’s popularity was not with the highly coveted young adult market.
Airing “All in the Family” was part of their strategy to shift their image away from being the rural, country, hick network, into something more hip and current.
IBTimes: Archie Bunker used many racial and other types of epithets, like coon, spade, spook, jigaboo, jungle bunny, spic, fag, queer, Hebe, Mick, Polack, chink, Ay-rab, Jap, etc. Had U.S. television audiences ever heard such words on the air before? Did it shock the public?
Strate: Of course they had heard those words before; they were part of the vernacular of the time. So in a sense, it was not all that shocking, except for the context, because the epithets were rarely if ever heard on television. So it was a little bit shocking, and a little bit titillating, but in the main it contributed to the program’s aura of honesty and authenticity.
IBTimes: But Archie, as best as I can recall, never used the N-word (although some black characters like George Jefferson and Sammy Davis Jr. did). Why did the writers forbid Archie from spewing that particular epithet, when he freely used so many others?
Strate: Given Norman Lear’s liberal orientation, the N-word was a bridge too far. There was simply too much hatred associated with that word. It wasn’t until rap music arrived and became popular that the taboo about the N-word, which obviously still exists and is used, was loosened at all.
IBTimes: Archie was also anti-Catholic, often making fun of the pope, nuns and the church. But was this realistic, given that white, working-class New York City -- and especially Queens -- was overwhelmingly Catholic at that time? And that many of Archie’s friends, lodge-members, bar pals, etc., seemed to be Catholic?
Strate: No, that was unrealistic and a major disconnect regarding “All in the Family.”
As you point out, especially in the context of New York City, the character of Archie Bunker was very much representative of white Catholic males of that generation, and the fact that O’Connor himself was of Irish Catholic descent contributed to that feeling.
It wasn’t until the 1980 presidential election that that demographic became clearly identified as the “Reagan Democrats.” But Lear was aiming at Middle America, the mainstream audience, and wanted to make Archie Bunker representative of the majority, and therefore Protestant.
He did accurately portray Bunker as not having a car, however, which is not at all unusual for a New Yorker, but interpreted as a sign of poverty by folks living elsewhere. As for the Catholic connection, it was also downplayed in regard to Rob Reiner’s character, Bunker’s son-in-law Michael Stivic, who was often subjected to derogatory remarks on account of his ethnicity, being Polish.
And there is also a sense in which the character, especially as brought to life by Reiner, came across as Jewish in many ways.
But creating a Catholic-Jewish dynamic would have made the characters much less mainstream, and entirely blunted the generational basis of the conflict, which was the whole point of the show.
IBTimes: In 1972, almost two years after “All in the Family” began broadcasting, Richard Nixon won re-election in a landslide. Does this suggest that Archie Bunker represented the majority view?
Strate: The “Silent Majority” as Nixon put it, yes. But keep in mind that his landslide amounted to 60 percent of the popular vote, so the electorate was still quite split and Democratic challenger George McGovern’s campaign had been a bit of a disaster for various reasons, some of which later resulted in Nixon’s own downfall.
And, of course, Nixon was not all that popular among the youth, voters and non-voters alike. But for that silent majority, Archie Bunker represented their sense of discomfort and consternation with all the social, cultural, and political upheaval that the nation was experiencing. It was the sense that, as Bob Dylan put it, “something is happening here but you don’t know what it is,” and the feeling that someone needs to stop it or at least slow it down.
IBTimes: After about five seasons, “All in the Family” seemed to run out of gas -- Nixon was out of office, the Vietnam War was over and U.S. society had drastically changed since the 1960s. Why did the show go on for another four seasons when it had little left to say?
Strate: It was popular, it was profitable, and commerce trumps art for the most part on television, which is why such programs often get stretched out in this way. But in all fairness, along with the lure of success, I think Lear and his colleagues felt that with this platform, they had a responsibility to continue to express their progressive views.
IBTimes: By the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan (a favorite of Archie Bunker) was president and it seemed TV shied away from political and provocative programming. Did this reflect a kind of backlash against Lear and “All in the Family”?
Strate: I don’t think it was so much a backlash as a change in the spirit of the times. During the sixties and into the seventies, relevance was emphasized. Reagan introduced what I believe film critic Pauline Kael called the “politics of bliss.”
Vietnam was over, struggles for equality continued but the basic principles were no longer in contention, and Watergate was a thing of the past. Social and political issues receded in importance as the economy took center stage.
IBTimes: I have heard some people say that “All in the Family” was “left-wing propaganda for the masses.” Do you think this is a fair assessment?
Strate: When people hear the word “propaganda,” they attach all kinds of negative connotations to it, which is why we don’t use the word to refer to the American Revolution, we just talk about “pamphlets” like Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” instead.
So in that extreme sense of political indoctrination and psychological manipulation, no it is not fair.
But in a more neutral sense, yes, Norman Lear was quite clear that the program was expressing a particular point of view, one that we would identify as “liberal” within the American political spectrum, but not “left-wing” in the sense of being extreme and out of the mainstream. Researchers and scholars have long established that all forms of television programming and popular culture in general, have an inherent point of view. They all communicate a set of values, beliefs, attitudes, and opinions, and in doing so promote either the “conservative” view that all is fine the way it is, or the “liberal” view that change is needed.
This happens whether the creators of the program intend it to or not. So Lear was just a bit more self-conscious about it, and a bit more above-board about what he was trying to do with the program.
But let’s be clear that more than anything else, it had to be able to attract a mass audience, and you can’t do that by attacking or contradicting what those people already think and believe to any great extent.
IBTimes: “All in the Family” was based on a 1960s British sitcom called “Till Death Us Do Part,” which was far darker and grimmer than its American version. Do American audiences need its programming to be softer and more sugar-coated than the British public?
Strate: Absolutely. We are sentimental. We sympathize with the underdog, having been the underdog as rebels fighting the “evil” British Empire once upon a time.
We believe that love conquers all. We believe in redemption, being a fundamentally religious people. You can call it sugar-coated, and British television has generally been of better quality than American, but I think British comedy can be somewhat mean-spirited, the different versions of “The Office” being a good example.
IBTimes: Could “All in the Family” be made today? Would there be an audience for such a program now?
Strate: I think the descendants of “All in the Family” can be seen on cable television, in programs like “The Newsroom,” “Shameless” and “The Sopranos.” That’s where Norman Lear would be working today.
IBTimes: Norman Lear produced many TV shows, but “All in the Family” is perhaps his greatest and most popular creation. What do you think Lear’s legacy is?
Strate: Norman Lear’s legacy will most certainly be “All in the Family,” with that alone he has earned his place in history for producing a series that was both culturally significant and an artistic achievement. And he will be remembered for pushing the craft of television production forward, from pure entertainment to a form that could be both enjoyable and socially relevant. His legacy is in the understanding that, just like literature and film, television fiction can be used to say something of immediate and lasting importance about our culture, and about the human condition.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.