I've always felt that the best litmus test for measuring the impact an actor has on the audience is asking myself, "Could I see anyone else playing that role?"
Try as I might, I can't see anyone in my mind's eye other than Jean Stapleton playing Edith Bunker.
Could others have done it? Of course. Could they have been good at it? Absolutely.
But could anyone have done it better?
It wasn't until near the age of 50 that Stapleton, who died last week (she was 90), became known to anyone other than hardcore theater goers and sharp-eyed TV viewers in the medium's Golden Age.
She wasn't the first stage and live TV actor to find fame past 50 in the age of pre-recorded television shows "filmed before a live audience" (as they still like to say, up front).
Stapleton finally found her fortune when she hooked up with "All in the Family" creator Norman Lear and co-star Carroll O'Connor in 1971, playing the confused, bemused, and sometimes amused wife of O'Connor's bigoted king of the malapropism, Archie Bunker.
There was a constant warmth to Edith Bunker, and we all knew she had to be a saint in order to be married to Archie. We didn't like the way Archie talked to her, but the fact that O'Connor was often going one-on-three against Stapleton, Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers (Mike and Gloria Stivic, respectively---Archie's son-in-law and daughter), made Archie's acerbic crankiness somewhat bearable. Stapleton, et al enabled us to laugh at Archie, instead of letting him get under our skin.
There is no question that Stapleton's long resume prior to "All in the Family" prepared her for the show's run, as well as letting her tap into the various facial expressions that Edith's character provided. Often, Edith didn't need to speak. We saw everything we needed to see, heard everything we needed to hear, just by looking at her.
That knack for wordless emotions was a bi-product of the Golden Age of television, which Stapleton was heavily involved in, back in the 1950s. In those days, TV shows (especially dramas) were basically nothing more than theater on camera. The stage blocking was similar to live theater. The scripts were rarely made-for-TV; they were all adaptations of Broadway and off-Broadway plays.
The TV directors of the day loved to use this thing called a close-up, which film directors had begun to use with remarkable success a decade or so prior. A full head shot of an actor could tell volumes, even if that actor never opened his/her mouth.
The technique was used mainly for dramas. That's why you'd rarely see a close-up during an episode of "I Love Lucy" or "The Honeymooners." Comedy didn't need close-ups; drama did.
But let us not kid ourselves. Edith Bunker was a very verbal character. There was her voice, for one---high-pitched to the point of grating, her lines often blared rather than spoken. Stapleton's voice as Edith made anything Fran Drescher has uttered seem like child's play.
Archie Bunker was a character more bigoted than life. He was everything that was wrong with the small thinking of the 1960s' Civil Rights Movement, all condensed into one character.
Generally, loudmouth boobs work best on TV when they have a sweet-as-pie counterpart. And that's what Edith was.
Of course, the danger of playing a character as iconic as Edith Bunker is the T-word---typecasting.
Stapleton did work after her character was killed off when O'Connor got his own show spun off the Bunker family, but few of the roles resonated. She did some voice work. She took bit parts and guest starring roles. She went back to Broadway, perhaps her true love. She and her husband ran a summer stock theater for about 30 years, which overlapped the run of "All in the Family."
What Jean Stapleton didn't do, believe it or not, was watch "All in the Family." At the very least, she didn't go out of her way to watch the episodes. Finally, by 2000, she relented, and agreed that it was pretty damn good.
Stapleton eventually tired of Edith Bunker, and asked to be written out of the spin-off, "Archie Bunker's Place," in the early-1980s. But the impression she made on us was indelible.
Stapleton has said that the thing she liked about TV, as opposed to films, is that TV shows are generally shot in sequence, just as plays are performed. She liked the whole "beginning to end" feel of recording a TV show in front of a live audience.
"On the last day of our five-day work week, we did two performances and we had an audience. It was similar to theatre; we went from beginning to end, and it was very pleasing," she said.
Not half as pleasing as it was for us to watch it, Edith, you lovable dingbat.