(Bloomberg) -- Norman Lear, the US television producer who used characters like the lovable bigot Archie Bunker to address racism, feminism, homosexuality and other social issues in the 1970s hit shows All in the Family and Maude, has died. He was 101.
Lear died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles, according to the New York Times, quoting Lara Bergthold, a family spokeswoman. No cause was given.
Lear upended the sitcom format created in the 1950s by adding a volatile mix of political satire and previously taboo topics at a time when the US was in upheaval stemming from the Vietnam War, Watergate and the women’s-liberation movement.
“Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it,” President Bill Clinton said in 1999, as he awarded Lear the National Medal of Arts.
Lear’s interest in politics extended beyond the TV screen. He founded the lobbying group People for the American Way in 1980 to counter the influence of religious conservatives and two decades later created a nonpartisan organization that encourages young people to vote.
He began writing for TV shows in the late 1940s and by the mid-1970s was one of Hollywood’s most powerful and influential executives, whose stable of shows attracted 120 million viewers a week.
Talk-show host Johnny Carson introduced the 1972 Emmy Awards show as “an evening with Norman Lear.” In 1976, Time magazine dubbed him “King Lear.”
In addition to Archie and his acerbic liberal counterpart, Maude Findlay, memorable characters created or developed by Lear and partner Bud Yorkin included Edith Bunker, Archie’s long-suffering wife; the comically macho building superintendent Dwayne Schneider on One Day at a Time, the clueless George Jefferson of The Jeffersons and the irascible junk dealer Fred Sanford of Sanford and Son. Yorkin died in 2015 at age 89.
Throughout his life, Lear maintained that he wasn’t trying to deliver a social message through All in the Family and Maude, only reflecting what Americans heard during the daily course of their lives.
“As far as the epithets and language and everything else, you could hear that in any schoolyard,” Lear told the Onion’s AV Club website, in 2005. “My shows were not that controversial with the American people; they were controversial with the people who think for the American people.”
After All in the Family made its debut on CBS in January 1971, network executives feared a backlash from viewers who wouldn’t grasp that Archie was a caricature, someone to laugh at, not with.
The anticipated flood of complaints never came. Within five months, All in the Family was the top-rated show in the US, drawing 50 million viewers a week, a position it held for five years. The program, which stopped production in 1979, became a pop-culture phenomenon, spawning T-shirts, record albums and beer mugs.
“The network did not know whether the show would be a scandal or a flop,” Time magazine wrote in 1972. “It was neither, of course, but instead a piece of instant American folklore.”
Archie and his son-in-law, Mike Stivic (played by Rob Reiner), argued about the Vietnam War, Watergate, racial injustice, women’s rights and homophobia. Archie called Black people “spades,” Puerto Ricans “spics” and Jews “Hebes.”
In one episode, entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., who was Black and Jewish, showed up. Archie, played by Carroll O’Connor, initiated this exchange:
Archie: “Now, no prejudice intended, but I always check with the Bible on these here things. I think that, I mean if God had meant for us to be together he’d-a put us together. But look what he done. He put you over in Africa, and put the rest of us in all the White countries.”
Davis: “Well, he must’ve told ’em where we were, because somebody came and got us.”
Hall of Fame
Lear was among the first group of industry pioneers inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. He received four Emmys and a Peabody Award for All in the Family. In 2016, he was given a Peabody Lifetime Achievement Award.
In February 2021, at age 98, he received the Carol Burnett Award for his career achievements at the Golden Globe Awards. “I could not feel more blessed,” he said. “I am convinced that laughter adds time to one’s life, and nobody has made me laugh harder, nobody I owe more time to, than Carol Burnett.”
Norman Milton Lear was born on July 27, 1922, in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of Herman Lear, a salesman from a Russian-Jewish family, and Jeanette Seicol Lear.
He attended Emerson College in Boston for two years before joining the US Army Air Force during World War II, serving as a radio operator based in Italy.
Lear once said that when he was 9, his father was arrested and imprisoned for selling fake bonds. “The night that he was taken away, there were a ton of people at the house, and somebody puts their hand on my shoulder, and says, ‘You’re the man of the house now, Norman,’” Lear said in an interview with PBS NewsHour.
Lear said the Archie Bunker character was based partly on his father.
“My father was the blusterer,” Lear said in a 2014 radio interview with Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air. “He had an opinion on everything, he knew everything. And he was a bit of a racist, although he would never, ever have thought so, or admitted it.”
After marrying Charlotte Rosen, he got a publicity job in New York and then started a novelty ashtray company. In 1949, he moved with his wife and daughter to Los Angeles.
Lear’s TV career began when he and a partner, Ed Simmons, wrote for The Ford Star Revue. They soon were hired as writers for the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy team on The Colgate Comedy Hour, where Lear worked until 1963, when he decided to branch out on his own.
After a divorce, Lear married the former Frances Loeb, a buyer for the Lord & Taylor department store in New York, in 1956.
He teamed with Yorkin in 1968 to create Tandem Productions, which produced feature films, including Come Blow Your Horn in 1963, The Night They Raided Minsky’s in 1968 and Cold Turkey in 1971. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for Divorce American Style (1967).
Tandem acquired the US rights to a satirical British TV sitcom called Till Death Us Do Part, about a working-class Tory and his socialist son-in-law. Lear moved the setting to the Astoria section of Queens, New York, and made two pilot episodes for ABC called Those Were the Days, starring O’Connor as Archie and Jean Stapleton as Edith.
ABC rejected the pilot, but CBS, looking for new shows that would appeal to a sophisticated urban audience, committed to 13 episodes.
Tandem then applied its successful formula to another British show, Steptoe and Son, about a Cockney junk dealer and his son. This time, Lear and Yorkin made the show’s characters Black, set them in Los Angeles, cast comedian Redd Foxx as its star and called it Sanford and Son.
Their third hit, Maude, starred Beatrice Arthur as the acid-tongued liberal Maude Findlay, who first appeared as Edith Bunker’s cousin on All in the Family. The most famous episodes dealt with Maude’s decision to have an abortion, a charged topic after the US Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal in every state. When CBS re-aired the two-part episodes in August 1973, 39 affiliate stations refused to run it.
After Yorkin and Lear split in 1975, Lear and Hollywood talent agent and financier Jerry Perenchio, who was working as Tandem’s president, formed a TV and movie production company called TAT Communications.
In 1985 Lear and Perenchio sold their company, then known as Embassy Communications, to Coca-Cola Co., which at the time owned Columbia Pictures, for $485 million. Perenchio died in May 2017.
Lear used the proceeds to finance a new company, Act III Communications, a multimedia holding company with interests in music, film, broadcasting, publishing and licensing, including Concord Music Group and Village Roadshow Pictures Group. Act III produced the films Stand by Me in 1986, The Princess Bride in 1987 and Fried Green Tomatoes in 1991.
In 2019 and 2020, All in the Family, The Jeffersons and Good Times were re-created through Jimmy Kimmel’s Live in Front of a Studio Audience. Produced by Kimmel and Lear, the shows led to the veteran producer’s fifth and sixth Emmy Awards.
In addition to People for the American Way, Lear in 2003 created Declare Yourself, a nonprofit group that encourages young people to vote. He and a partner paid more than $8 million in 2000 to buy a copy of the Declaration of Independence, which Lear turned into a traveling exhibit.
Lear and wife Frances divorced in 1985. She used her settlement of more than $100 million to start Lear’s, a magazine for women over age 40. Widely thought to have been the inspiration for the Maude character, Frances died in 1996.
In 1987, Lear married his third wife, Lyn Davis Lear. He had six children: Ellen, Kate, Maggie, Benjamin, Brianna and Madeline.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.