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Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Norman Lear, Whose Comedies Changed the Face of TV, Is Dead at 101

Norman Lear, Whose Comedies Changed the Face of TV, Is Dead at 101

“As the producer of “All in the Family” and many other shows, Mr. Lear showed that it was possible to be topical, funny and immensely popular.

A portrait of Norman Lear, wearing a blue blazer, a striped shirt (but no tie), a white hat and glasses.
The writer and producer Norman Lear in an undated photo. His shows were so successful for so long that Bob Hope once remarked, “We can all be proud of TV and its owner, Norman Lear.”J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times

By Richard Severo and Peter Keepnews

Norman Lear, the television writer and producer who introduced political and social commentary into situation comedy with “All in the Family” and other shows, proving that it was possible to be topical as well as funny while attracting millions of viewers, died on Tuesday  at his home in Los Angeles. He was 101.

His death was confirmed by Lara Bergthold, a spokeswoman for the family.

Mr. Lear reigned at the top of the television world through the 1970s and into the early ’80s, leaving a lasting mark with shows that brought the sitcom into the real world.

“The Jeffersons” looked at the struggles faced by an upwardly mobile Black family; the very different Black family on “Good Times” dealt with poverty and discrimination. The protagonist of “Maude” was an outspoken feminist; the heroine of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” was plagued by all manner of modern-day problems, not least her own neurosis.

“You looked around television in those years,” Mr. Lear said in a 2012 New York Times interview, referring to the middle and late 1960s, “and the biggest problem any family faced was ‘Mother dented the car, and how do you keep Dad from finding out’; ‘the boss is coming to dinner, and the roast’s ruined.’ The message that was sending out was that we didn’t have any problems.”

Mr. Lear’s shows sent different messages, far more in tune with what was actually happening in those turbulent times. His crowning achievement was “All in the Family,” and his greatest creation was Archie Bunker, the focus of that show and one of the most enduring characters in television history.

An unapologetic bigot who was seemingly always angry at one minority group or another (and usually at least one family member as well), Archie, memorably portrayed by Carroll O’Connor, was also, with his malaprops, his mangled syntax and his misguided enthusiasm, strangely likable.

A Sitcom Shockwave

“All in the Family” sent a shock through the sleepy world of the sitcom with one tart, topical episode after another from the moment of its premiere on CBS, on Jan. 12, 1971.

Even now, more than 50 years later, there are critics who say that this date should live in infamy, that ABC was right when it turned down the show out of fear that it would offend too many people. Archie, in this view, was a fanatic who made narrow-mindedness seem appealing.

But Mr. Lear, who adapted “All in the Family” from a British sitcom and based Archie in part on his own father, saw it differently. “I’ve never known a bigot who didn’t have something endearing,” he once said.

Mr. Lear went on to create a television empire and to become politically active, notably with his founding of the liberal advocacy organization People for the American Way, the kind of organization that Archie Bunker would have enjoyed sneering at.

Archie had choice words for all races, creeds and sexual orientations (except his own), and he didn’t spare his family. His sweet and dignified wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton), was a “dingbat”; his daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), was “a weepin’ Nellie”; his liberal son-in-law, Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner), was a “meathead” and, on occasion, a “dumb Polack.” Strictly a law-and-order guy, Archie also voiced strong reservations about what he saw as campus subversives, welfare chiselers and bleeding hearts.

Such pronouncements were scandalous in the prime-time television world of the day. But Mr. Lear had found a gold mine.

“All in the Family” ran until 1979 and dominated the ratings for most of that time. More important, it established a template for television comedy by mixing political and social messages, as well as moments of serious drama, with the laughter.

The Lear philosophy was further developed in two shows built around characters who originally appeared on “All in the Family”: “Maude” and “The Jeffersons.”

Bea Arthur and Bill Macy in an episode of “Maude,” a spinoff of “All in the Family” that dealt with serious issues like alcoholism and abortion.CBS

“Maude,” which ran from 1972 to 1978 on CBS, centered on Edith Bunker’s cousin Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur), who was as much a doctrinaire liberal as Archie was a determined denizen of the far, far right. The show dealt with alcoholism, pot smoking, abortion (Maude herself had one, in a two-part episode that generated outrage as well as applause) and other subjects to which that quick-tongued title character could apply her shrill wisdom.

George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley), the central character of “The Jeffersons,” was a Black man who ran a successful dry-cleaning business in Archie’s neighborhood and whose disdain for white people rivaled Archie’s for Black people. “The Jeffersons,” the story of George’s life with his newly moneyed family after they moved to the East Side of Manhattan, ran on CBS from 1975 to 1985.

Not all of Mr. Lear’s shows grew out of Archie’s universe. One that did not, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” raised as many eyebrows as “All in the Family.”

A five-episodes-a-week spoof of soap operas, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” was the story of a television-obsessed housewife (Louise Lasser) in the fictional small town of Fernwood, Ohio, who had more than her share of calamity: Her grandfather was a flasher, her mother was a flake, her husband was cheating on her, their daughter was kidnapped, and Mary herself had a breakdown on live TV.

Louise Lasser, second from right, as the title character on “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” Mr. Lear’s five-episodes-a-week spoof of soap operas.CBS

“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” was too hot for the networks. Mr. Lear syndicated it himself, and in most markets it was on after the late news.

He said he thought of the show as “affirmative” and its characters as “survivors.” But for all the waves they made, they did not survive long.

The show made its debut in 1976, Ms. Lasser left the next year, and, after being replaced for the summer by the talk-show parody “Fernwood 2-Night” (which later morphed into “America 2-Night”) and then returning without her as “Forever Fernwood,” it was gone by early 1978.

Other Lear shows had longer lives. “Sanford and Son,” starring the longtime Black comedian Redd Foxx as an irascible junk dealer — and, like “All in the Family,” based on a successful British sitcom — ran on NBC from 1972 to 1977. “One Day at a Time” (CBS, 1975-84) concerned a divorced woman (Bonnie Franklin) living on her own with two teenage daughters. “Good Times” (CBS, 1974-79), a spinoff of “Maude,” was the story of a hard-working Black woman (Esther Rolle) struggling to raise a family in a Chicago housing project — at first with her husband (John Amos) and then, when Mr. Amos was let go, as a widow. (Ms. Rolle herself left the show after the fourth season, unhappy with the direction it had taken, but returned a year later.)

From Salesman to Comedy Writer

Norman Milton Lear was born on July 27, 1922, in New Haven, Conn., to Herman and Jeanette (Seicol) Lear. His father was a salesman of various things who was not very good at selling much of anything, who sometimes ran afoul of the law, and who had, his son later recalled, more than a hint of Archie in him. He would tell his wife to “stifle” herself just as Archie did, and on more than one occasion he told Norman, “You are the laziest white kid I ever saw.”

Raised mostly in Hartford, Norman graduated from Weaver High School there in 1940 and attended Emerson College in Boston, but left shortly after the United States entered World War II to enlist in the Army Air Forces. He rose to technical sergeant and flew 57 missions as a radioman, most from a base near Foggia, Italy. He received the Air Medal with four oak-leaf clusters.

After the war, millions of servicemen and women took advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights to attend college, but Mr. Lear decided he would not return to Emerson. With the help of an uncle who was a press agent, he got a job with the publicity firm of George and Dorothy Ross, who had many clients in the theater. He lasted a year before being fired for planting one too many items that were demonstrably false.

He found a way to put his imagination to better use after he and his first wife, Charlotte, moved to Los Angeles in 1949. For a while he and a friend, Ed Simmons, worked as door-to-door salesmen. Eventually they started to write comedy routines together.

Their break came when Mr. Lear called the agent for the popular nightclub entertainer Danny Thomas, who would later become a TV star, and got his home phone number by pretending to be a New York Times reporter. Mr. Thomas appreciated the boldness of the ploy. He also liked the routine the two men wrote for him, and purchased it.

Television in its infancy needed material of all kinds, and Mr. Lear and Mr. Simmons soon became writers for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who were among the rotating hosts of “The Colgate Comedy Hour.” They went on to write for “The Martha Raye Show” (which Mr. Lear directed as well), after which they went their separate ways. Mr. Lear wrote and produced “The George Gobel Show.”

In 1958, Mr. Lear and his fellow writer Bud Yorkin formed Tandem Productions — so named, they said, because they thought of themselves as not unlike two men going uphill on a tandem bicycle. The company produced the singer Andy Williams’s long-running variety show, as well as many television specials and several movies.

Mr. Lear wrote the screenplay for the Tandem film “Come Blow Your Horn”(1963), starring Frank Sinatra, directed by Mr. Yorkin and based on a Neil Simon play. His script for “Divorce, American Style” (1967), starring Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds and also directed by Mr. Yorkin, was nominated for an Academy Award.

Mr. Lear was also one of the writers of “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” (1968), a celebration of the glory days of burlesque directed by William Friedkin. And he wrote and directed “Cold Turkey” (1971), also starring Mr. Van Dyke, about a town that quits cigarettes en masse to win a $25 million prize. He might have remained a reasonably successful but relatively obscure screenwriter and occasional director had he not read an article in Variety about a BBC series called “Till Death Us Do Part.”

That show, about an outspoken bigot and his family, was a hit in England. Mr. Lear thought he could adapt it for an American audience.

Mr. Lear wrote a script modeled on “Till Death Us Do Part,” and he and Mr. Yorkin shot two pilot episodes for ABC, which rejected the show, originally titled “Justice for All” (the lead character was originally named Archie Justice). CBS almost did, too, but Robert D. Wood, the president of CBS Television at the time, had faith in the idea, fought for it and put the show, by then named “All in the Family,” on the air.

A Hot-Button Hit

Some critics embraced the show; many did not. John Leonard, writing in Life magazine under his pen name Cyclops, called it “wretched.” Fred Ferretti of The New York Times wrote that its ethnic slurs “shock because one is not used to hearing them shouted from the television tube during prime-time family programs.” They “don’t make one laugh,” he added, “so much as they force self-conscious, semi-amused gasps.”

But the public liked it. After being moved from Tuesday to Saturday, it became the top-rated show on television, and while moving in and out of different spots on the schedule, it remained in the top for five consecutive seasons. In March 1972, The Times reported that at 8 p.m. every Saturday, 60 percent of all television sets in America were turned to it, and between 50 million and 60 million viewers were watching — among them Sammy Davis Jr., who rearranged his performing schedule so he could watch in his dressing room. Mr. Davis made a memorable guest appearance, as himself, on an episode of the show that year in which he famously took Archie by surprise by kissing him on the cheek.

Mr. Davis expressed amazement that anyone would be insulted by “All in the Family,” but over the years many groups said they were — and not just ethnic groups. Some older Americans, for instance, took offense to an episode in which two people were married in a nursing home and the bride fell asleep. Mr. Lear agreed not to permit its rebroadcast. It was one of the few occasions when he seemed to find merit in the complaints of his critics.

From left, Jimmie Walker, Esther Rolle and John Amos in an episode of “Good Times,” another of Mr. Lear’s many hit sitcoms.

The debates never really stopped, but the show continued to garner high ratings into the late 1970s. Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers left after the 1977-78 season, and “All in the Family” went off the air in 1979. Mr. O’Connor continued to play Archie on “Archie Bunker’s Place,” which made its debut that fall in the same time slot, focusing on Archie as the proprietor of a neighborhood bar.

Jean Stapleton appeared on a few episodes of the new show before deciding, as she put it, that if she continued to play Edith Bunker “people will never think of me as anyone else.” When the second season began, viewers learned that Edith had died. “Archie Bunker’s Place” remained on the air until 1983.

“All in the Family” and its various cast members, writers and directors won 22 Emmy Awards, including three for Mr. Lear. In 1972, when the show won seven, Johnny Carson, that year’s host, called the Emmy telecast “the Norman Lear show.” Mr. Lear’s shows were so successful for so long that Bob Hope once remarked, “We can all be proud of TV and its owner, Norman Lear.”

But Mr. Lear also had his share of flops. In 1975, his “Hot L Baltimore,” a sitcom set in a run-down hotel and based on a play by Lanford Wilson, lasted 13 weeks on ABC. And after a few more short-lived shows, his hot streak was over by the mid-1980s. Some later projects — among them “704 Hauser” (1994), about a Black family living in Archie Bunker’s former home — were on the air for only a few weeks; others never got off the ground.

Keeping a Hand In

He nevertheless kept his hand in television. In 2003, he helped write a few episodes of “South Park,” the taboo-breaking animated series that was the “All in the Family” of its day. (The show’s creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, have said that their bile-spewing character Eric Cartman is partly based on Archie Bunker.)

In 2009, Mr. Lear developed a series about professional wrestling for HBO, although it was not picked up. For several years he found no takers for his proposed series about retirees in Southern California, “Guess Who Died?”; that changed in 2017, when NBC committed to produce a pilot, but a year later the network declined to pick up the show.

Mr. Lear was the executive producer of a new version of “One Day at a Time,” centered on a Latino family, for Netflix. That series made its debut in 2017, to enthusiastic reviews, and lasted three seasons.

In July 2021, on Mr. Lear’s 99th birthday, TBS announced that it would develop a reboot of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” starring Emily Hampshire, with Mr. Lear as an executive producer. The show has not yet begun production, but at his death Mr. Lear had other projects in the works, including an animated version of “Good Times”; a reboot of “Who’s the Boss?”; and a sitcom, starring Laverne Cox and the comedian George Wallace, about a man who learns that his adult son has transitioned.

In May 2019, Mr. Lear and Jimmy Kimmel hosted a TV special on which episodes of “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” were recreated live by an all-star cast, including Woody Harrelson as Archie Bunker and Jamie Foxx as George Jefferson. The special was produced by Mr. Lear, Mr. Kimmel and others as part of a deal Mr. Lear had signed with Sony that included an option to reimagine his past shows and potentially produce reboots. A second special, recreating episodes of “All in the Family” and “Good Times,” aired that December; a third, recreating episodes of two other series Mr. Lear’s company had produced, “The Facts of Life” and “Diff’rent Strokes,” was broadcast in 2021.

“Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons’” won an Emmy Award, making Mr. Lear, at 97, the oldest Emmy winner in history. It was his fifth Emmy but his first in 46 years. (The others had all been for “All in the Family.”) He broke his own record by winning another Emmy the next year for “Live in Front of a Studio Audience: ‘All in the Family' and ‘Good Times.’”

Honors and Activism

His other honors included lifetime achievement awards from the Producers Guild of America, the Television Critics Association and PEN Center USA. He was among the first inductees in the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1984, and he won Peabody Awards in 1977 (for “All in the Family”) and 2016 (for his life’s work). In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded him a National Medal of Arts.

Mr. Lear was named a recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor in 2017. He attended the ceremony in Washington but skipped the reception at the White House, citing his unhappiness with the policies of the Trump administration.

“This is a presidency that has chosen to neglect totally the arts and humanities — deliberately defund them — and that doesn’t rest pleasantly with me,” Mr. Lear said in an interview with The Times.

Mr. Lear turned his attention back to movies in 1982, when he, Mr. Yorkin and Jerry Perenchio bought Avco Embassy Pictures. The newly renamed Embassy Communications released films, including Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” (1982) and the acclaimed mock documentary “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984), directed by the “All in the Family” alumnus Rob Reiner.

In 1985, after Mr. Lear acquired Mr. Yorkin’s share, he and Mr. Perenchio sold Embassy and Tandem to the Coca-Cola Company for $485 million. That same year, Mr. Lear founded Act III Communications, named to signify the third act of his life. Act III’s most notable productions were two other Rob Reiner films, “Stand by Me” (1986) and “The Princess Bride” (1987).

Mr. Lear entered the music business in 1999, when he and a partner acquired the Concord Music Group. (The company merged with Village Roadshow Entertainment Group in 2008 and was sold to Wood Creek Capital Management in 2013.)

Mr. Lear spoke to reporters in 1976 after a federal judge ruled, in a lawsuit filed by Mr. Lear and others, that the so-called family viewing period adopted by the television networks violated the First Amendment.Associated Press

Mr. Lear never made a secret of his liberal leanings, but he became increasingly active politically with the founding of People for the American Way in 1980 as a response to the Moral Majority and other voices on the right. The organization’s efforts have included opposing a constitutional amendment barring desecration of the American flag, joining lawsuits on behalf of abortion rights and publishing the book “Hostile Climate: Report on Anti-Gay Activity.”

In 1985, after almost 30 years of marriage, Mr. Lear and his second wife, Frances, reached a divorce settlement estimated at $100 million or more, money she used to found Lear’s magazine. (The magazine folded after six years.) He later married Lyn Davis, a psychologist. In addition to his wife, Mr. Lear is survived their son, Benjamin; their daughters, Brianna and Madeline Lear; a daughter from his first marriage, Ellen Lear; two daughters from his second marriage, Kate and Maggie Lear; and four grandchildren.

Frances Lear died in 1996

Mr. Lear’s resources remained formidable even after his divorce, and he continued to give both money and time to numerous causes.

In 1989, he founded the Business Enterprise Trust to promote socially responsible business behavior and was among the founders of the Environmental Media Association, which encourages entertainment industry efforts to educate people about environmental issues. In 2003, he founded Declare Yourself, a nonprofit organization to motivate people between the ages of 18 and 29 to register to vote.

His $5 million pledge to the University of Southern California in the 1999-2000 academic year helped establish the Norman Lear Center at the university’s Annenberg School for Communication, which offers a multidisciplinary program for the study of entertainment as a central component of 21st-century life.

In 2014, he published his autobiography, “Even This I Get to Experience.” In the process of writing it, he told The New York Times, “I began to realize how hard it had been to be a human being.”

He was also the subject of a documentary, “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” released in 2016.

On July 27, 2022, the day he turned 100, The Times published a guest essay by Mr. Lear in which he reflected on the state of the nation and observed, “To be honest, I’m a bit worried that I may be in better shape than our democracy is.”

For all his political activism, Mr. Lear knew that he would be best remembered for his work in television. Interviewed by The Los Angeles Times in 2009, he offered a measured assessment of the impact shows like “All in the Family” had on society.

“I can’t honestly say I can see anywhere where we changed anything,” he said. “But what I have are thousands of memories of people relating to me that we made them talk. And you know, the funny thing is, people are still talking.”

Richard Severo, a Times reporter from 1968 to 2006, died in June. Alex Traub contributed reporting.“

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