The death of Jean Stapleton's Edith Bunker on All in the Family — or, more precisely, it's spin-off, Archie Bunker's Place — remains one of the most profound and moving events involving a television character ever aired (and our subject at hand). It was, of course, only one of numerous TV series to experience such a major cast shake-up, which, over the years, has taken place for a wide variety of reasons. And, naturally, the on-air effectiveness of those departures has varied from show to show, depending on the creativity of those involved and the circumstances surrounding their absence.
From 1974 to 78, NBC aired the sitcom Chico and the Man, starring comedian Freddie Prinze as Chico Rodriguez and Jack Albertson (Willy Wonka's Grandpa Joe) as Ed Brown, who work together in a garage in East L.A. Toward the end of the third season, Freddie took his own life and while in response NBC could have canceled the show, they elected to go forward without him. For this reason, year four saw the introduction of Gabriel Melgar as 12-year-old Raul, producers hoping a new dynamic would work. It didn't.
On MASH, in Season 3, McLean Stevenson, who played Col. Henry Blake, decided he should be the star of his own show. He wanted out and the producers weren't willing to allow him a way back in. Creative solution? Shortly after taking off from the 4077th via helicopter, the doctors, who were in the midst of surgery on wounded soldiers, received the news over the PA system that Henry's helicopter had crashed and all aboard were dead. They paused for barely a second in acknowledgment before going back to work. As Dale Sherman, author of MASH FAQ, recently commented to us, "Stevenson hated seeing the character be killed off, but he would later admit that it was the right way to show the audience that war kills indiscriminately. It is still remembered as one of the biggest shocks in television series history."They may say that war is hell, but given McLean's sitcom follow-up, Hello, Larry, he was better off in South Korea.
More recently, on Kevin Can Wait, when Leah Remini guest starred on the show, it marked a reunion between her and King of Queens co-star Kevin James. Producers decided they wanted to recapture the magic of that show (somehow forgetting that it had run out of creative steam during its run) and in season two made Leah a regular. Not a big deal, until you remember that Kevin's character was married, so the solution was to bump off the wife. The audience tuned out in droves, which must have been some form of vindication for actress Erinn Hayes, whose character's death was handled off camera between seasons. It was a completely bungled effort.
But to see how it should be done, look no further than dear old Edith Bunker.
America Meets the Bunkers
All in the Family ran on CBS from 1971 to 1979, and was a revolutionary show in that it dealt with taboo subjects TV had not dealt with before (the sound of a flushing toilet included). The concept pit conservative bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) against his liberal son-in-law, Mike "Meathead" Stivic (future director Rob Reiner), setting the stage for back and forth arguments between them that covered a wide variety of social issues, among them women's rights, the Vietnam War, homosexuality, rape, religion, menopause, abortion, and so much more. Stuck between them is Archie's "dingbat" (his nick-name, not ours) wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) and their daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), who's married to the Meathead and lives in the Bunker household. Over the course of the series, the characters experienced and went through a lot, including Archie who evolved from an offensive bigot to a somewhat loveable guy who had lived what he learned, but was genuinely changing.
The Stivics stayed with the show for the first eight seasons, Jean Stapleton announcing she would be leaving after the ninth. Everyone, including series creator Norman Lear, seemed pretty much ready to wrap things up. Except for CBS. They wanted the show to continue due to the fact that it was still so highly rated.
"The show, as it was constituted, was over," Carroll O'Connor related to the Television Academy Foundation. "Jean Stapleton had given notice that she would not come back. Robert Daly, the head of CBS, came to me and said, 'I've gotta have that show, Carroll.' I said, 'You expect me to do it alone?' Norman Lear said he wouldn't let it go on, that he wanted the show to die an honorable death. Then another day or so later, Bob Daly called me up again and asked me to talk to Norman. So I went over his house that evening and he said, 'Why do you want to do this?' I told him what Bob said, that it was a question of ratings. Norman said, 'That's all it means? Just doing a show for ratings?' I said I would do it, and naturally as I proceed with the show, I'm hopefully going to give myself better reasons to produce it. To make a long story short, he said that night we could do it. We couldn't call it All in the Family anymore, we couldn't use the opening song, and we'd have to keep Edith alive as a character, even though she wasn't seen."
That last bit was tough to do, but it wasn't an immediate concern. The final season of All in the Family had an arc toward the end where Archie becomes a partner in a neighborhood a bar, which would largely be the setting of a spin-off show that would be called Archie Bunker's Place (and which would run from 1979-83). Jean Stapleton actually agreed to appear as Edith in five of the first 14 episodes of Season 1, but ultimately decided that she truly was done with the character. Edith was referred to occasionally, but not seen for the rest of the first year. Season 2 picked several months later, after the character had died, off camera, of a stroke. But Archie was refusing to grieve. At least not until that episode's end (more on that in a moment).
As related to the Television Academy, Jean explained, "I had decided that we'd done everything we could with her and I could either go on or be buried as far as casting is concerned in this kind of part. So that was my decision."
"Norman didn't want us to kill Edith," Carroll pointed out. "I told him it was crippling the show. I think Edith must die.' 'No, no, no! I don't want that.' So negotiations broke down."
Laughed Jean, "I must tell you a story about objectivity in relation to Norman Lear. So I left Archie Bunker's Place and was on tour with a play in Florida. I got a call from [producer] Bud Yorkin that on the show they wanted to expand the stories, get them out of the bar where it was usually set and have Archie date women so they could have a greater variety of scripts. They were calling, I guess, to ascertain that I truly wasn't interested in returning, and whether or not I minded and I told him no. And then Norman called and he said he had been having meetings with CBS about it. Well, Norman said on the phone, 'I just haven't been able to say yes to this.' So I brought it down to this. I said, 'Norman, you do realize that she is only fiction, right?' There was a long pause and I thought, 'Oh, I've hurt this dear man that I love so much.' And then his voice came back: 'To me, she isn't.' But shortly thereafter, he gave the word and they made Edith die."
Which leads to the point of all of this. It would be truly difficult to think of the death of a fictional character (with all due respect to Mr. Lear) that was as moving as this one was, thanks purely to the writing and the performance by Carroll O'Connor. Oh, sure, we were all startled to hear at the start of Archie Bunker's Place's second season that Edith had died. Even saddened by the news. But the emotional impact of it didn't hit us until the end of the episode — much as it hit Archie at the same time. He'd been avoiding his bedroom since her passing, but was finally convinced by the end that he had to move forward. He entered the stripped down room, glanced around at the emptiness, and sat heavily on the mattress. And then he noticed, sticking out ever so slightly from under the bed, one of Edith's slippers. Gingerly he picked it up, weighed the significance of it all in his hand, looked heavenward and spoke to his wife in a way we had seldom seen him do before.
"It wasn't s'posed to be like this, y'know; I was s'posed to be the first one to go," he said, tears gradually welling up. "I know I always used to kid ya about you going first; you know I never meant none of that. And that morning when ya was layin' there, I was shakin' you an' yellin' at you to go down and fix my breakfast, I didn't know... Ya had no right to leave me that way, Edith, without givin' me just one more chance to say I love you..."