Keck's Exclusives: Sally Struthers Remembers All in the Family Mom Jean Stapleton
As the world mourned Jean Stapleton this week, I was reminded of the sadness I felt in the fall of 1980 when it was revealed on CBS's Archie Bunker's Place (the rechristened All in the Family) that Stapleton's Edith Bunker had died suddenly of a stroke. Stapleton's TV daughter Sally Struthers (Gloria) shares memories of her onscreen mom, who passed away May 31 at age 90 of undisclosed causes.
TV Guide Magazine: Sally, thank you so much for calling.
Sally Struthers: You're very welcome. This is the first I've been able to talk without crying. I'm in Maine in rehearsals for Thoroughly Modern Millie.
TV Guide Magazine: I'm so sorry about the loss of your TV mom.
Struthers: Yeah. I last spoke with Jean two years ago but saw her children two weeks ago.
TV Guide Magazine: Tell me about your last visit with Jean.
Struthers: I flew up to New York from Virginia specifically to visit Jean. I was so happy to see her in her beautiful apartment overlooking Lincoln Center. The walls were this buttery yellow inside — as cheery and happy as Jean was. She couldn't have picked a better color. She was so proud of that space and kept showing me around. Her favorite room was quite tiny: an office filled with all her awards, mementos and scripts. She had a place where she could sit and write. A lot of reminiscing and laughter went on. I caught her up on my daughter, and she caught me up on her children, John and Pam. It was as if we had said goodnight the night before in the CBS parking lot and had picked up the next day.
TV Guide Magazine: Besides her three Emmys and two Golden Globes for playing Edith, did she have any other All in the Family reminders on display?
Struthers: No. Jean lived so in the present. She was a Christian Scientist who didn't say or think a negative thing. I have been her friend for 43 years and in all those years never once heard her angry, say a swear word or anything negative about another human being. I saw her delicately and brilliantly bow out of conversations that were turning in a negative direction. She was just a walking, living angel.
TV Guide Magazine: Norman Lear (All in the Family's executive producer) told me that Jean had been in declining health for years. How was she during your visit?
Struthers: She was struggling physically, but I didn't mention it because she wouldn't have wanted me to. She didn't dwell on it. She didn't choose to accept it as her reality.
TV Guide Magazine: Norman said Edith shared the voice of Jesus. Even though Jean was very intelligent and Edith was a dingy, what did the two have in common?
Struthers: Edith was Jean and Jean was Edith, except for the high pitch of Edith's voice and Jean's much lower-registered speaking voice. And except for Edith not having had the chance to go beyond a high school education. Jean was world-y smart, book smart and I.Q. smart — things Edith never got to be. But Jean and Edith shared one huge heart that beat for all mankind and a joy of living. She was old enough to be my mother but always giggled like a schoolgirl. I loved that giggle.
TV Guide Magazine: Did she ever have any real-life Edith moments?
Struthers: On a rehearsal day about three years into the show we were on a coffee break and I looked over at Jean. She was reading The L.A. Times classified section and I thought, 'Why's she doing that? Is she trying to sell a car?' I saw her face go bright red and then she gasped to herself. I ran across the room and said, 'Jean, what is it?' And she said, 'Sally darling, look at this!' And she turned the paper around toward me. It was advertisements for jobs and she said, 'This carwash is advertising for Polish men!' And I said, 'Jean, it's 'polish'. It was her one Edith moment.
TV Guide Magazine: What was your favorite Edith/Gloria moment?
Struthers: The writers wrote a flashback to Mike and Gloria's wedding. There was a scene in the bedroom where I was in my wedding dress ready to come down the stairs and mom came in to have one final talk with me. It was about sex, but she couldn't even say the word. You've never seen anybody dance around the subject. I kept tenderly filling in the words for her and then I thanked her for the talk. That was my favorite acting scene.
TV Guide Magazine: What about favorite memories of Jean?
Struthers: So many. I was sitting with her one day having lunch in the CBS commissary and I said, 'Jean, my father was a doctor. I can't imagine practicing a religion [like Christian Science] where you don't use doctors; you use God as your ultimate doctor. I can't fathom God giving us the knowledge to apply medicine and healing and not utilize it.' And she said, 'Would you like to go to church with me this weekend?' I said, 'I would.' That was an eye-opening, generous thing she did for me.
Then when my contract was up on All in the Family after my eight years, Rob Reiner [who played Gloria's husband, Mike 'Meathead' Stivic] and I both decided not to renew because we had other fish we wanted to fry. Jean left the following year. As I was leaving I remember saying to her, 'I hope this isn't the biggest mistake of my life,' and she said, 'Oh Sally darling, you started in the theater. It doesn't much matter what happens in this world of television or film, the theater will always welcome you back with open arms because it's your home.' And of course I was away doing theater when I heard about her passing. I had just been up to visit a mountain and I was coming down the mountain when my phone rang with someone telling me that she was gone. I thought, 'Well, I suppose having just sat at the top of a mountain looking at beautiful scenery for an hour, this is a peaceful time for me to hear this'.
TV Guide Magazine: Have you had a chance to speak with Rob?
Struthers: I have not. I do not know how to reach him. Years ago Rob and I did the TV Land Awards and sang the opening theme song to All in the Family, with Rob singing it as Carroll [O'Connor, Archie] and I sang it as Jean.
TV Guide Magazine: How did you feel about the decision to kill of Edith when Jean decided to leave? It was traumatizing for me, and I only knew her through the TV set.
Struthers: It was traumatizing for North America. It really was. But Norman Lear's hands were tied behind his back. He could no longer do episodes in the house because there wasn't any family left. Mike and Gloria had moved to California with baby Joey, and then gotten divorced. There was no choice but to make her die. I at least applaud Norman Lear for us not having had to see some long drawn-out scene with her in a bed sick. It was just after she died. It was still devastating, but so tastefully done because Carroll O'Connor wanted to continue going on. It was probably wonderful for Jean having Edith pass away because then she wouldn't have to be bothered with [pressure] to do reunions.
TV Guide Magazine: It's so sad to think about what happened to the Bunker family. It all ended so sadly with divorce and death. Is there any silver lining?
Struthers: Well... I think with divorce as prevalent as it is, it's a reality to almost every family. My family divorced when I was a little girl, and my mother became a recluse after that. She didn't want to show her face she was so ashamed. And that doesn't occur anymore. So in some ways, it's better now. Why shouldn't it have touched the Bunkers? And none of us get out of this world alive, so Edith dying was maybe a healthy thing for the world to digest as well. Because no matter how much you love somebody in your own family or outside of your family, you're going to have to deal with their passing.
TV Guide Magazine: It's sad for us to think that Gloria lost her mother so long ago, but it's comforting to hear your relationship with Jean continued for so long. Any last stories you'd like to share about who Jean was?
Struthers: In 1983 she was doing a play with her husband, Bill Putch. They had traveled with the company and were about to open in upstate New York. When she discovered Bill had died suddenly, she called the stage manager of the show and said only, 'Can you please gather everyone in my hotel room in one hour.' The cast came to her room and she gently told them all that Bill had passed away an hour and a half ago and the biggest tribute they could pay him would be to open that night. And they did. She's a remarkable woman. I can't even speak about her in the past tense. We were friends for 43 years. She was my last surviving parent and now she's gone.
TV Guide Magazine: How would Jean like us to honor her spirit?
Struthers: While we're sad, if we can go to the place in our hearts to feel grateful for the years we got to see Jean and fall in love with her as Edith week after week, then we'll always have her with us.