Marisa Tomei was planning to go to the Cannes Film Festival to promote her role opposite Isabelle Huppert in “Frankie” when Norman Lear called her cell phone. The 96-year-old “All in the Family” creator was planning a one-of-a-kind live broadcast of his treasured ABC sitcom, alongside its spinoff, “The Jeffersons,” on May 22. He wanted Tomei to portray bigoted family man Archie Bunker’s wife, Edith, a role originally played by Jean Stapleton for a decade.
“I couldn’t wrap my head around it at all,” Tomei said over lunch in Manhattan’s West Village a month after the broadcast. “I just thought none of this should be done in any format again. It was so perfect. Why are we even talking about this?”
Eventually, she relented, and the result is one of the most fascinating curveballs in the Tomei’s nearly 40-year career. As Edith, the actress buried herself under a frumpy wig and outsized glasses, adopted a high-pitch wail, and transformed into the ditzy housewife who supports every demand of Woody Harrelson’s Archie.
At the same time, she injected the character with subtle pathos and charm, the simmering attributes of a woman committed to playing the unifying matriarch at all costs. In under half an hour, Tomei commands the screen, dropping in and out of the picture with staccato rhythms in her most energized turn since her Oscar-winning breakout in 1992’s “My Cousin Vinny.” It’s a welcome and unexpected reminder that Tomei’s talents, so often relegated to supporting roles, can outshine the more prominent ones around her.
A decade ago, she scored her third Oscar nomination for acting opposite Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler.” Since then, she has mined substantial material out of supporting parts in everything from “Empire” to the new spate of “Spider-Man” movies, where she plays Aunt May. But the sprawling platform of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has minimized her contributions despite her appearance in four of its films to date.
In recent months, Tomei said, she had grown frustrated with a spate of commercial projects that shunted her to the side. “I didn’t get the warmest welcome from some producers,” she said, declining to offer specifics. “I just felt like I didn’t want to do this anymore. I didn’t feel as valued. I really was looking for a bonding experience in my work life.” With “All in the Family,” which Lear co-executive produced with Jimmy Kimmel, she was tossed into a whirlwind rehearsal process that merged her ongoing work in live theater with her early television days on “As the World Turns.”
The live broadcast offered a unique bonding experience. “On opening night in the theater you’ve already had the critics come, and this one is for friends and family,” she said. “But this was everything all at once. All eyes would be on it, all in one big kettle of fish. We were all so excited and scared together.”
The “All in the Family” episode selected for the ABC broadcast, “Henry’s Farewell,” asked less of Edith than Archie, as the conflict revolved around the racist Archie’s discomfort with the family hosting a farewell party for the brother of their black neighbor, George Jefferson (Jamie Foxx). “It was a lot of short sentences, mostly answering the door or bringing food in,” Tomei said.
She focused on sorting out Edith’s psychology. “She is a nonjudgmental person who really tries to see the good in everybody, and her breadth of knowledge isn’t big,” she said. “Her world is going from her home to the supermarket and back.” Initially, that irked her, until she began to see the bigger picture. “The idea of this housewife turned me off initially,” she said. “That space of innocence can also be translated as dingbat. I love playing a dingbat, but I also love playing the person who’s wise and you don’t think she’s wise.”
“All in the Family”
At key moments, Edith plays the peacekeeper: She’s the one who offers the Bunker home to host the Jeffersons’ party, and when they bicker about race and gender, she pops in with snappy one-liners to change the subject. When Henry Jefferson (Anthony Anderson) teases Archie by suggesting he has “colored blood,” Edith surfaces with a giddy smile to point that he does: “It’s red!” And in the midst of an argument about whether a woman could be president, she changes the subject: “You know what I think? I think…we should eat!”
Tomei wrestled with that moment. “I labored over that for so long,” she said. “In my heart I was I like, she couldn’t be against this.” Eventually, she landed on a rationalization: “Bonds trump politics. This is a celebration. Eating is wonderful. I believe in that. I could get behind that.”
Tomei and her co-stars rehearsed the episode 10 times before the broadcast, with only a two-day break, but Lear gave them loose guidelines to prepare. While everyone received the script and a link to view the original episode, “Norman said to treat it as if you just got this script pulled and you were offered this role,” Tomei said, and then he left them to sort out their motivations. “It was up to each individual. I watched some of the early episodes. I knew I wasn’t looking to copy Jean because that’s not my forte and I wasn’t interested in that. You have to filter it through what we know now. You see the character and the performance of the character morph into a lighthearted, loving character. That was her superpower.” She had no trouble crafting Edith’s distinctive warble. “I think it’s somewhere in my system,” she said. “I just went for it.”
But she struggled to find the right balance with Harrelson, who, like originator Carroll O’Connor, was saddled with hurling passive-aggressive remarks at his wife under cringeworthy circumstances, including a complaint about cold toast at the breakfast table. Edith absorbs it all with a frozen grin. “What Archie says to her is very difficult,” she said. “I wondered if people were going to understand Edith in today’s world.” At one point, she nixed a suggestion from director James Burrows to have Harrelson stick his hand over Edith’s mouth when he commands her to stop eating. “That felt very violating to me,” she said. “We tried it out and I knew I had better come up with something fast. It just felt wrong.”
However, her greatest anxiety came from the show’s biggest nostalgic gesture — performing the beloved opening song “Those Were the Days” at the piano alongside Harrelson. Tomei was so nervous about her ability to pull it off that the pair initially recorded the performance so they wouldn’t have to do it live. “I was really scared to sing it,” she said. “I thought I would cry.” Eventually, Harrelson talked her into it. “Woody was hyped,” she said. “He was like, ‘We can do it, we’ll do it together.’” The show’s producers eventually worked out a system in which a real piano player sat opposite the actors and followed them along, so they wouldn’t have to match the rhythm of a playback. “Each day, it seemed more like an exciting challenge as opposed to an impossible one,” she said.
While Tomei nailed her big moments, not everyone was so lucky. The episode’s biggest viral moment came from Jamie Foxx, who slipped on one key line and decided to break the fourth wall while he recovered. (“People are gonna think their TVs are screwed up!” he quipped.) Tomei harbored no ill will. “I loved it,” she said. “It felt like a relief. There’s a certain level on which this had to be perfect because it’s live, but when that happened it was like, OK, we’re all in this together.”
The jitters gave way to relief in the form of a warm audience reception — an average of 10.4 million viewers tuned into the 90-minute special; it was only beaten by CBS’s “NCIS” for the week in terms of total viewers on broadcast. Many of them singling out Tomei as a highlight.
For Tomei, the experience helped solidify her interest in returning to comedy. She’s now acting opposite “SNL’s” Pete Davidson in Judd Apatow’s new untitled studio project. “I was sad because I felt like maybe my comedy days are over,” Tomei said. “I want to hone that more and more. This just surprised me.” It also led her to consider the comedic possibilities hiding in other opportunities. “If anything, I think, let’s make Aunt May funnier,” she said.
Still, she was bummed to miss the Cannes red carpet for “Frankie,” the introspective new drama from director Ira Sachs. “I love Ira so much and wanted to be there with him and the film,” Tomei said, but the screening was scheduled for a Monday, two days before the broadcast. Tomei made the tough call. “When do you get to be this terrified and challenged as an actor, in the presence of these icons?” she said. “It’s just an incredibly rare thing.”
Tomei plans to stick around New York for the rest of the year, and after the Apatow project wraps, will go right into rehearsal for a new staging of Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo” on Broadway. But the small screen continues to appeal to her: While a reported HBO miniseries about Gloria Steinem has been tabled (“I may not have that privilege,” Tomei said), she remains open to the medium. She has been in talks with playwright Amy Herzog about developing a series with Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company. “I’d love to do a limited series, and I’d love to do my own show,” she said.
Tomei said she would even consider another live event, but wasn’t holding her breath. “I honestly would love to do this format again,” she said, “but this was one of those perfect gems that’s not to be repeated. It’s a unicorn. It’s hard for me to say this, but, oh, I found the thing I love, and it doesn’t exist.”
“Live In Front Of A Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s ‘All In The Family’ And ‘The Jeffersons’” is eligible in the Outstanding Variety Special (Live) Category; while there isn’t a specific acting category for variety performers, Tomei and the other actors are eligible in the Outstanding Limited Series or TV Movie acting categories.
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