Oh they're burying Edith Bunker in the fall, yes they are. They're burying Edith Bunker in the fall.
Which is a little odd considering that she died on April 10, but then, that's television for you. Little flickers of light that go on and go out. Itsy-bitsy electrons of energy that vanish just as suddenly as they -- and so on and so forth, and then some.
Jean Stapleton has decided to put her own interests above the best interest of the nation. She refuses to make any more appearances on television as the seemingly immortal Mrs. Bunker. And so the producers of "Archie Bunker's Place" -- sequel to the classic "All in the Family" -- have put out a contract on the beloved old dingbat.
They will stifle her for once and for all.
When "Archie Bunker's Place" returns to CBS in September, Edith will have already died. The first show of the season will probably be a one-hour special dealing with her funeral. Strays Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers may return for one episode in order to mourn the magnificent Edith.
"You know, I really don't feel anything at all," says Stapleton from her Los Angeles home when asked about Edtiy Bunker's death. "It's like talking about something that really doesn't die. Edith still exists in the imagination.
"And in reruns."
Producer Norman Lear, who invented Edith as the '70s began, announced in New York this month that the decision had been made to eliminate her. Stapleton wanted out of the show; Carrol O'Connor, as Archie, wanted to be free of this semi-visible wife who appeared on only a few episodes during the season.
But Lear, king of the causes, said Edith wouldn't die for nothing. His Tandem Productions was tossing $5000,000 into a kitty in her name and calling it The Edith Bunker Memorial Fund for the ERA and Women's Rights.
This may be the first time a fund like this has been established in loving memory of a character in a TV sitcom. Lear said in his press conference that "the ERA represents everything Edith believed in and stood for." She did become slightly radicalized as the years went by, standing up to Archie on occasion and getting a big hoo-rah from the studio audience when she did.
Stapleton says there was no corresponding feminist consciousness-raising in her own life as a result of playing Edith. But the Bunker Fund is okay with her.
"It's a very good cause," says Stapleton. "No, Norman didn't ask me anything. He told me what he was going to do. They had the grace to talk to me, but they were just talking to an old friend. I was finished with Edith as of last August."
On, it sounds so hearless! We and Edith have been through so much together -- menopause, Archie's heart attack, the birth of a grandchild, the loss of friends, the feminist uprisings, an attempted rape, and even learning that auntie was a lesbian.
Edith Bunker achieved mythic proportions, yet remained nearly as real as mom or grandma or the lady next door. In fact, when an actor forsakes a role this extraordinary, it almost seems ungrateful.
"Well, people don't understand the acting process," Stapleton says. "Does a painter paint the same canvas over and over all his life? He can't. He would be no stimulation, no refreshment, no challenge, Artists change their subjects and methods in order to keep fresh. So that's what I'm doing. t
Of course, it was suggested somewhere along the way that perhaps Stapleton would return for one last time in order, morbid as it sounds, to die on the air. But then it was decided that perhaps this was an ordeal the viewing nation couldn't be expected to endure.
"Naturally that came up," says Stapleton. "But they knew already it wasn't a good idea. This was too heavy maybe to lay on the public. Also, that episode would have to be masterfully written and only Norman could do that. And I don't think he wanted to."
In fact, Lear wanted to kill off the whole show more than a year ago, feeling it had run it course and retiring himself from any role in its production. But CBS wasn't about to let a show that was still a hit slip away. Thus was "Archie Bunker's Place" opened for business.
Surprisingly enough, considering the big fat place she has in America's heart, the phasing out of Edith Bunker appears to have had little effect on the Bunkers' ratings. "Archie Bunder's Place" will probably finish the season only a couple of points behind what "all in the Family" got last year -- a 35 as opposed to a 37 percent share of the viewing audience.
Even without Edith, Archie was able to clobber "Mork and Mindy," most of NBC's Sunday night movies and ABC's "Tenspeed and Brownshoe," which started big and then nosedived. People flocked back to the Bunker place. Only in recent weeks, with NBC's move of "CHiPs" from Saturdays to Sundays, has Archie's reign over his time spot -- like his reign over his household -- been seriously threatened.
If Edith's death would be unbearably traumatic on TV, all anguish will not be assuaged by keeping the death itself offstage. Already Stapleton has heard pleas from a Save Edith Bunker Committee quickly formed by a number of her rabid fans, and read passionate eulogies to the charcter pubished in newspapers.
"You know, it may be better for those who are that sentimental that we don't show it one the air," she says of Edith's death. "It will save them the grief. Honestly, we must remember what's reality and what's fiction.
"We must encourage people to realize that Edith doesn't die because she never really lived. You can't kill something that's an idea, can you?
"You certainly can't kill the reruns. Unless they burn the tapes."
After Edith has formally died -- probalby of cancer, by the way, although no script has yet been written -- she'll go to the burial ground where old icons go, a Boot Hill for TV series characters who died before their shows did. It's a long list and one that sometimes eerily parallels reality.
When Dan Blocker died in 1972, for instance, and the character of Hoss Cartright, had to be written out of NBC's long-running "Bonanza," viewer interest in the show plummeted and it was canceled at the end of the following season. When Bea Benadaret left this vale of tears and "Petticoat Junction" in 1969, it was also the death knell for the show, which passed away the next year.
Ellen Corby returned to the cast of "The Waltons" as Grandma Walton after suffering a stroke in real life, only to be greeted soon after her return by the death of Will Geer, who played Grandpa. Grandpa is buried on Walton's Mountain, and his survivors occasionally visit his grave for chats.
"Eight is Enough" premiered on ABC in 1977. But after only four episodes had been filmed, actress Diana Hyland, who played the mother on the show, died. When the program returned in the fall, papa was a widower and remained one until meeting Hyland's replacement, Betty Buckley.
This was a more dignified dispatch than was given William Frawley, once Fred Mertz of "I Love Lucy" and later crotchety old Bub on "My Three Sons." Frawley died in 1964, to be replaced the next season by William Demarest as Uncle Charlie. And where was Bub? He'd gone off, the script explained, to Iceland.
Perhaps the most extravagant departure from a TV series in recent years was McLean Stevenson's ill-advised departure from "M*A*S*H" in 1975. When Stevenson imagined himself getting too big for Col. Blake's britches, the show's writers had the character blown to smithereens in a helicopter crash. It was said at the time that this was partly to prevent Stevenson from ever returning to the war zone.
He langishes now in the puerile purgatory of "Hello, Larry."
Stapleton is not worried about the Stevenson curse. She is not interested in doing another TV series right at the moment, she says, and she will not be swayed by any amount of wailing and self-flagellation over Edith Bunker's demise.
"No, I dismiss it," she says. "I have to go about my business. I'm a character actress, and this was one of the characters I played. It was a wonderful part that I enjoyed doing, but there was never a possibility that I would return for another season. There was never any doubt I was making the right decision. I am absolutely adamant about that."
Among Stapleton's more immediate plans are appearances this summer at her annual haunt, the Totem Pole Theater in Pennsylvania, where she will play, among other parts, that of Aunt Eller in "Oklahoma!"
Does she ever think she'll get anotherer role to match the scope and impact of Edith Bunker? She's crazy if she does.
"Possibly not," she says. "Roles like that are rare. But it was more than that. Norman and the others and all those actors and directors all came together to make a wonderful whole. It was the college of comedy, really. Oh, what a working together that was! Oh, boy!"
During the long run of "All in the Family," there were regular reports of temper tantrums and rampant star-itosis on the set, but these never seemed to involve Jean Stapleton. Vistors to the set might see her standing, patiently by while somebody else griped or sulked.
What she brought to the role of Mrs. Archie Bunker will, indeed, help keep Edith alive forever.