Jean Stapleton, the character actress whose portrayal of a slow-witted, big-hearted and submissive — up to a point — housewife on the groundbreaking series “All in the Family” made her, along with Mary Tyler Moore and Bea Arthur, not only one of the foremost women in television comedy in the 1970s but a symbol of emergent feminism in American popular culture, died on Friday at her home in New York City. She was 90.
Ms. Stapleton, though never an ingénue or a leading lady, was an accomplished theater actress with a few television credits when the producer Norman Lear, who had seen her in the musical “Damn Yankees” on Broadway, asked her to audition for a new series. The audition, for a character named Edith, changed her life.
She was born Jeanne Murray on Jan. 19, 1923, in Manhattan. Her father, Joseph, was an advertising salesman; her mother, Marie Stapleton, was a concert and opera singer, and music was very much a part of her young life.
Jeanne was a singer as well, which might be surprising to those who knew Ms. Stapleton only from “All in the Family,” which opened every week with Edith and Archie singing “Those Were the Days,” Ms. Stapleton lending a screechy half of the duet that was all Edith.
Ms. Stapleton herself had a long history of charming musical performances. She was in the original casts of “Bells are Ringing” on Broadway in the 1950s and “Funny Girl,” with Barbra Streisand, in the 1960s, in which she sang “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty” and “Find Yourself a Man.” Off Broadway in 1991, she played Julia Child, singing the recipe for chocolate cake in the mini-musical “Bon Appétit.” On television, she sang with the Muppets.
Ms. Stapleton studied and performed with the American Actors’ Company, whose alumni include Horton Foote and Agnes DeMille, and did a great deal of summer stock. She toured opposite Frank Fay in “Harvey,” and was the understudy for Shirley Booth in the touring company of “Come Back, Little Sheba.” Even during her television heyday, Ms. Stapleton’s schedule almost always included summer shows because her husband, William Putch, whom she married in the late 1950s, operated the Totem Pole Playhouse in Pennsylvania.
Mr. Putch died in 1983. Ms. Stapleton is survived by their two children, Pamela and John.