Thursday, 11 July 2013

Jean Stapleton: More Aunt Mary than Edith Bunker

Jean Stapleton during her hey day on "All in the Family"
It was 33 years ago that Edith Bunker, beloved wife of that loveable bigot Archie Bunker, died of a stroke. It came just as the 1980s was beginning. Now, 33 years later, Edith Bunker’s alter-ego Jean Stapleton has just passed away.

Although I was too young to truly understand the nuance and cleverness of Norman Lear, creator of "All in the Family", I do recall Edith Bunker. More it was the things Archie said to her: “Shut – up – you”; “Ding Bat!”; “Stifle yourself”; and so on. I watched the show in reruns, but it did not appeal to me back as a child in the 1980s, as it did a decade later when I was an adult.

Instead, what I will remember most about Jean Stapleton is a role she played in a TV movie I was lucky enough to see twice, and wish I could find on DVD. That movie was simply called, “Aunt Mary”.

Mary Dobkin: inner-city champion
Jean Stapleton and he real Aunt Mary Dobkin
"Aunt Mary" was Stapleton's first role after she left "All in the Family". She played Mary Dobkin, a disabled woman and baseball fan living in Baltimore. She helped the children in her neighbourhood by organizing and managing their baseball team. She opened the team up to everyone, including a young African-American boy and eventually girls, and battled the backlash that ensued. The whole time, she fought a disease that took her leg and left her first using a crutch then a wheel chair.

It was based on a true story, and I recall reading in TV Guide that Mary Dobkin’s efforts led to thousands of children registering for little league baseball.

I had seen enough of "All in the Family" by that point to have this distinct impression of Edith Bunker as flighty and a dizzy. What really impressed was knowing that, and seeing Stapleton play pretty much the exact opposite type of character. Mary Dobkin was a woman battling racism and sexism, while facing personal disability and loss. There was not a lot to joke about. I thought she had been nominated for an Emmy for this role but, upon further research discovered she was not. She really should have been.

In any case, it was the combination of baseball and compelling human interest that affected me the most, and why more than three decades later it is the reason I most remember Jean Stapleton.

The real Mary Dobkin
This article written after Aunt Mary died in 1987 explains her life the best:

(Below is an interview Jean Stapleton did for the Emmy Awards where she talks about Aunt Mary)

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