Norman Lear, Producer of TV Classics like ‘All in the Family,’ Dies at 101
One of the most important TV producers in the history of the medium has died. Norman Lear, whose work completely reshaped the American television sitcom, passed away in Los Angeles on Tuesday. He was 101 years old.
Born in Connecticut in 1922, Lear served in the Air Force in World War II, where he took part in bombing missions over Europe. After returning home, he moved to Los Angeles and began writing comedy sketches for television, and gradually moving into producing as well. Although he worked consistently through the 1960s, his breakthrough came in 1971, when Lear convinced CBS to air All in the Family, a series based on a British sitcom Till Death Do Us Part. In Lear’s version, cantankerous and bigoted blue-collar worker Archie Bunker (Carol O’Connor) confronts (and bemoans) the changing America of the 1970s from his family’s home in Queens, with his beloved wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) at his side.
All in the Family tackled all sorts of timely social issues of its day, something that was almost unheard of on television until the early 1970s, where you were more likely to see someone marry a genie or try to escape from a deserted island than grapple with the reality of day-to-day-life in America. All in the Family’s honesty helped make it a hit, and turned Lear into one of the biggest producers in television. All in the Family ran for nine seasons, and then was spun off to a second show without Edith, Archie Bunker’s Place, which continued for four more years.
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Lear’s IMDb page reads like a collection of the most beloved television series of the 1970s. After All in the Family there was also Sanford and Son, starring Redd Foxx and based on another British sitcom, Steptoe and Son.
Lear also spun All in the Family characters off into their own very successful shows. The first was Maude, featuring Bea Arthur as Edith’s cousin. Maude was as progressive as Archie Bunker was regressive, and the series, which ran for six years, used the women’s liberation movement of the era as the backdrop for its humor.
Then Maude spun off its own spin off, Good Times, developed by Lear and co-created by Eric Monte and Mike Evans, about life for an African American family in inner-city Chicago. Esther Rolle and John Amos starred as Florida and James Evans, although the show’s most popular character soon became Jimmie Walker as their son J.J., whose famous catchphrase was “Dy-no-mite!” It also had one of the great opening theme songs in TV history...
The most successful of Lear’s shows, also spun off from All in the Family, was The Jeffersons, which ran from 1975 to 1985, and produced over 250 episodes. The Jeffersons, George (Sherman Hemsley) and Louise (Isabel Sanford), had been Archie and Edith Bunker’s neighbors, but they moved to a “deluxe apartment” in Manhattan in their own series.
Although Lear’s biggest hits all came in the 1970s and early ’80s, he remained a fixture in television for the rest of his life and even into the streaming era. A few years ago, Netflix rebooted his classic show One Day at a Time with a new cast; when they decided to cancel it, Pop picked it up for another season. And his old series like All in the Family and Good Times were recently recreated live in front of studio audiences for several TV specials featuring new actors inhabiting the classic roles of Archie, Edith, and others.
That’s already a lot of work, and it barely scratches the surface of Lear’s life and career, which includes movies (he directed the 1971 film Cold Turkey) and decades of work for progressive political causes. (Lear owned one of the earliest copies of the Declaration of Independence, and would tour it around the country so citizens could see it for themselves.) It’s a legacy of good work and service that we should all aspire to.
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Gallery Credit: Emma Stefansky