Little known to the public before "All in the Family," Stapleton co-starred with Carroll O'Connor in the top-rated CBS sitcom about an unrepentant bigot, the wife he churlishly but fondly called "Dingbat," their daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and liberal son-in-law Mike, aka Meathead (Rob Reiner).
Stapleton received eight Emmy nominations and won three times during her eight-year tenure with "All in the Family." Produced by Norman Lear, the series broke through the timidity of TV in the U.S. with social and political jabs and ranked as the No. 1-rated program for an unprecedented five years in a row. Lear would go on to create a run of socially-conscious sitcoms.
"No one gave more profound 'How to be a Human Being' lessons than Jean Stapleton," Lear said Saturday. In a statement, Reiner added: "Jean was a brilliant comedienne with exquisite timing. Working with her was one of the greatest experiences of my life."
Stapleton also earned Emmy nominations for playing Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1982 film "Eleanor, First Lady of the World," and for a guest appearance in 1995 on "Grace Under Fire."
Her big-screen films included a pair directed by Nora Ephron: the 1998 Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romance "You've Got Mail" and 1996's "Michael" starring John Travolta.
The theater was Stapleton's first love and she compiled a rich résumé, starting in 1941 as a New England stock player and moving to Broadway in the 1950s and '60s. In 1964, she originated the role of Mrs. Strakosh in "Funny Girl" with Barbra Streisand. Other musicals and plays included "Bells Are Ringing," "Rhinoceros" and Damn Yankees," in which her performance and the nasal tone she used in "All in the Family" attracted Lear's attention and led to his auditioning her for the role of Archie's wife.
"I wasn't a leading lady type," she once told The Associated Press. "I knew where I belonged. And actually, I found character work much more interesting than leading ladies." Edith, of the dithery manner, cheerfully high-pitched voice and family loyalty, charmed viewers but was viewed by Stapleton as "submissive" and, she hoped, removed from reality. In a 1972 New York Times interview, she said she didn't think Edith was a typical American housewife "at least I hope she's not."
"What Edith represents is the housewife who is still in bondage to the male figure, very submissive and restricted to the home. She is very naive, and she kind of thinks through a mist, and she lacks the education to expand her world. I would hope that most housewives are not like that," said Stapleton.