Marisa Tomei admittedly felt “major intimidation” stepping into Jean Stapleton‘s iconic shoes as Edith Bunker. The Oscar-winning actress was tasked with bringing the lovable dingbat to life for a new generation in ABC’s “Live in Front of a Studio Audience,” a one-night special featuring recreations of Norman Lear‘s classic sitcoms “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons.” Tomei wanted to honor the “sacredness” of Stapleton’s performance while at the same time “stepping into the arena” head-on. Watch our exclusive video interview with Tomei above.
When it premiered in 1971 “All in the Family” shocked audiences with its frank discussions of racism, sex and other taboo subjects. It centered on working-class bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), his wife Edith, their daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner), who regularly debated the issues of the day. All four actors won Emmys for their work, with Stapleton taking the Best Comedy Actress prize three times (1971, 1972 and 1978). And the series itself won Best Comedy Series four times (1971-1973, 1978). So expectations were high for the live special, which was produced by Jimmy Kimmel and featured Woody Harrelson as Archie, Ellie Kemper as Gloria and Ike Barinholtz as Mike.
Given how much times have changed, Tomei worried there would be “a weird feeling about Edith.” She explains, “She grew up in so much of a different time, which would be more like my grandmother’s time.” Back then expectations for women in the household were quite different, as we see in the way Archie frequently bosses her around. “I didn’t know how that was going to affect me, and how the audiences were going to hear it now.”
But viewers had no trouble relating to Edith then or now “because she has such a giant heart, which everyone can feel.” It’s “written into the fabric of the show that she doesn’t lie, and she’s nonjudgmental … That strength is underrated, but it comes across.”
Tomei won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for “My Cousin Vinny” (1992). She competed twice more in the category for “In the Bedroom” (2001) and “The Wrestler” (2008), both of which also brought her Golden Globe nominations. On TV, she earned a Daytime Emmy bid for hosting her special “Marisa Tomei’s Salute to Shirley Temple” in 1997, but she has yet to be nominated in primetime.
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