Norman Lear, whose hard-hitting, socially-relevant programs took television by storm in the 1970s and the 1980s, has died at age 101.
If one can imagine a television equivalent of a soundtrack, Norman Lear helped create a large portion of mine. Lear, a prolific producer capable of making his audience laugh and cry — and more importantly, think — all in the span of a 30-minute episode, died Tuesday. He lived to be 101 years old.
His resumé included some of the biggest TV hits of the 1970s. With those shows, he brought a new frankness to television, replacing the always-rosy sitcoms of the 1960s. Lear, NPR said, “made funny sitcoms about serious topics.”
One of his most influential — and certainly one of my favorites — was All in the Family, which premiered in 1971. When CBS aired that first episode, it feared the worst. Network executives ordered a disclaimer to run, convinced that the politically incorrect content would earn them thousands, if not millions, of angry callers.
“The program you are about to see is ALL IN THE FAMILY,” the disclaimer began. “It seeks to through 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.”
They needn’t have worried, however. That premiere went largely unnoticed, he would later admit. But it was during summer reruns, when audiences were looking for something they hadn’t already seen, that they found his show. Suddenly, that little comedy about a bigot and his family in Queens, New York, started getting lots and lots of notice. Suddenly, topics like politics, racial prejudice, religion, poverty, menopause, rape, abortion and homosexuality beamed into people’s living rooms. Lear presented the hard topics in a way that took some — but not all — of the edge off. He managed to make those conversations just palatable enough to cut to the quick.
‘All in the Family’ was just the beginning
Lear also brought us hits like Sanford and Son, a story about a Black father and son who work as junk dealers in the Watts community of Los Angeles. Maude took a liberal foil of All in the Family’s Archie Bunker and put her center stage. Maude spun off Good Times, which told the story of the Black experience in a Chicago ghetto.
All in the Family spun off The Jeffersons, showing the opposite end of the Black experience, showing a prosperous Black family finding that prejudice exists from all sides and all income levels.
One Day at a Time brought more contemporary topics, divorce and single moms, to center stage.
Lear spoofed soap operas with Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
He took on racism and inner-city poverty with Diff’rent Strokes in the late 1970s.
A legacy still strong
You can still watch a majority of Lear’s hits on various streaming channels. Most also still air on cable channels.
In their last interview together, actors Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton told Donny and Marie Osmond that All in the Family’s continued popularity meant a new generation of fans was discovering the show in reruns.
“Their reaction is just like it was in the beginning,” Stapleton said, comparing fan letters from younger viewers to those of the original viewers.
And just five years ago, when Lear was a mere 96, ABC launched a special tribute to two of his classics. An episode of All in the Family and an episode of The Jeffersons were reshot using a new cast but the same scripts. The special proved to be a hit and spawned more.
As the story goes, the special happened because someone reminiscing about Lear’s legendary shows said something to the effect of “You couldn’t put a script like that on the air these days.”
Lear proved that person wrong. And he made us think all over again.
My favorite Lear story
The story I find most interesting and most telling about the man behind the hits isn’t in one of his scripts. It dates back to the early 1980s when All in the Family had become Archie Bunker’s Place after Stapleton decided to leave the series. O’Connor wanted to kill off the character of Edith, his beloved “dingbat” wife, so that the show could expand with new stories. Lear refused to allow that to happen, suggesting that they could just say that Edith was away visiting relatives.
O’Connor was adamant.
“That’s crippling the show,” O’Connor told Lear at a meeting at Lear’s home. “I think Edith must die. ‘No, no, no, I don’t want, I don’t want that,’ he said. So negotiations broke down that night.”
Stapleton herself had a conversation with Lear about Lear’s inability to give the OK for killing off Edith.
“So I brought it down to this,” she recalled of the telephone conversation. “I said, ‘Norman, you realize, don’t you, she is only fiction.’ There was a long pause. And I thought, ‘I’ve heard this dear man that I love so much.’ And then the voice came back, ‘To me, she isn’t.'”
‘The soundtrack of my life’
Lear himself described for CBS Sunday Morning the experience of standing in the studio and listening to an audience experience a giant, collective belly laugh. That laugh came from one of the greatest scenes in the run of All in the Family:
“The soundtrack of my life has been laughter,” Lear said, adding when asked about whether he thinks laughter is medicine, “I happen to believe it has everything to do with a long life.”
Lear, then 98 years old, said death didn’t bother him.
“I don’t mind the going. It’s the leaving: That is the problem for me. Going, who knows what’s out there?” he said. “It can’t be all bad. But leaving, I can’t think of anything good about leaving.”
Even at 101, Lear left us too soon.