A version of this story about Marisa Tomei and “All in the Family” first appeared in the Movies & Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
Actress Jean Stapleton was nominated for eight Emmys for her performance as good-hearted “dingbat” Edith Bunker in Norman Lear’s “All in the Family,” winning three and making her one of television’s most iconic actresses.
It fell to Oscar winner Marisa Tomei to take the role (opposite Woody Harrelson as Archie Bunker) in ABC’s “Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons,'” a live restaging of episodes from the two shows produced by Lear and Jimmy Kimmel.
When he introduced the show, Jimmy Kimmel kept talking about how nervous the cast must be backstage. Were you?
For sure. We joked about it every day leading up to it. We rehearsed for about three days the week before, and then two days the following week. But we had the weekend off so we could pace our nerves — you don’t want to waste the adrenaline surge.
And for me, I was very, very scared to do the (“All in the Family” theme) song at the opening. We had done a taped version, which was always the plan. But (director) Jimmy Burrows thought it would be so much more fun to do it live. I was scared I was going to get laryngitis from the fear of it — or that I would cry, because I found it very emotional to be part of this experience.
Did you breathe a sigh of relief once you got through the song?
I think it was about halfway through the show when I suddenly felt very out-of-body. That was one of the things the actors joked about: You can’t imagine when you’re a child and you’re seeing this show that you could ever go into the television and be on that set.
Being in that famous living room, then, must have been both a thrill and a huge challenge.
It was certainly a challenge. Even when Norman called me, I felt very touched and honored and tickled, but I also was terrified. He’s so charming, and absolutely as hard to resist today as ever.
But we even talked about it in that first call: “This is ridiculous. Why touch something that is perfection?” I guess I just felt that the love won out. I love the show, I love him, and my love overcame the fear of doing it. So I said, “OK, I’ll need a wig and someone to stretch my voice.”
Was it tricky to figure out how closely you should stick to Jean Stapleton’s voice and mannerisms?
Yes, that was an ongoing question for the whole piece. And there wasn’t really a mandate from Norman, which was scary. He just said, “I can’t wait to see what the actors do.” I felt, “No, we’re here to celebrate you — don’t put it on us.”
But I thought about it a lot, and watched probably two seasons of the show, which was pure pleasure. I stayed away from researching anything about Jean or her approach, or seeing interviews with her. I just wanted to see the show.
And I also realized that she was co-creating those scripts. They were using her assets and her personality. That was one of the great joys of the whole experience, to see and feel how much love Jean Stapleton had inside, and how that love has touched so many people through the character of Edith.
If you look at the very first episode, Edith was very put-upon and very unhappy. But after less than a season, you see that they have been making adjustments along the way. The pitch of her voice changes, and she figures out how to love this person.
Were there keys to the character for you?
I was far away from understanding Edith until I realized that she was in the tradition of many dingbats — Carole Lombard, Gracie Allen… This is a tradition out of vaudeville, out of the theater.
And this dingbat isn’t just the butt of jokes–she’s the heart of the show, and fairly often the voice of reason.
Oh, yeah. She’s nonjudgmental and deeply honest. And very forgiving. It’s a beautiful space to be in. (Laughs) I can only maintain it for about a week. I’m a little too flawed.
To read more of TheWrap’s Movies & Limited Series issue, click here.