In its day, All in the Family was truly a revolutionary sitcom. Created by Norman Lear, it broke new ground in network television and was the first sitcom to openly discuss subjects like racism, miscarriage, menopause, homosexuality, and breast cancer.
All in the Family revolves around a blue-collar household that’s owned by a bigoted working stiff, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), and his sweet but dim-witted wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton). Living with them are their adult daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), and her liberal husband Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner). Recurring supporting characters are played by Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford, Mike Evans, Mel Stewart, Betty Garrett, Vincent Gardenia, Danielle Brisebois, and Allan Melvin.
The show debuted on January 12, 1971 and CBS ran a disclaimer before it aired: “The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter we hope to show, in a mature fashion, just how absurd they are.”
Struthers once said that the network was bracing for a barrage of angry phone calls but instead received lots of calls from people who wanted to see it return.
After eight seasons, Struthers and Reiner left the series. In season nine, Brisebois joined the cast as Edith’s young niece, Stephanie. Her mother had died and her father, Edith’s cousin Floyd, couldn’t take care of her properly so the Bunkers stepped in to raise her. The tone of the series had clearly changed.
All in the Family ended more than 20 years ago, on March 25, 1979, but the characters continued on in a new series, Archie Bunker’s Place, in the Fall of 1979. The new sitcom focused more on Archie’s neighborhood bar. Stapleton appeared in some of the episodes and then asked to be written out of the show. After that, Edith was mentioned but not shown. In the second season opener, we learn that Edith has passed away from a stroke and Archie and Stephanie are left to continue on together.
Edith’s death is foreshadowed a bit in the series finale of All in the Family. In “Too Good Edith,” Archie calls on his wife to help cook the food for the St. Patrick’s Day celebration at his bar. Unknown to him, Edith has a bad case of phlebitis and has been told by her doctor to stay off her feet. She doesn’t want to disappoint her husband but finally it catches up with her and she can’t walk. The doctor chews out Archie and then feels badly that Edith hadn’t told him.
In the final few moments of the series, Archie visits Edith in bed. Though the characters would continue on, the last scene makes a sweet end to the series and shows the heart of a bigot like Archie Bunker.