Roger Ebert Home

Goodbye to a TV Pioneer: Norman Lear (1922-2023)

A century was not long enough for all the Norman Lear we needed, but we know how lucky we are to have had him. Television pioneer, philanthropist, and political activist Lear died this week at age 101.  His impact will continue to be felt every time we see television comedy that is both outrageous and hilarious, with characters who reflect our own insecurities and fears. When his first series, “All in the Family,” premiered on January 12, 1971, it was like a shot of espresso next to the oatmeal of safe programing from the then-three dominating networks.  Audiences were used to all-white, suburban family stories like “Father Knows Best,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” with plotlines about trivial mix-ups. Even a working-class series like “The Honeymooners” stayed far away from social issues, keeping the storylines about buffoonery and mock marital conflict. This was an era when the variety show led by the Smothers Brothers was canceled for being too political.

Suddenly, there was “All in the Family,” a show about a blue-collar family in Queens who talked about real-life issues, from Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin. The series was inspired by a British series called “Till Death do Us Part,” but it was also inspired by Lear’s own family. Carroll O’Connor played one of television’s most historic and iconic characters, Archie Bunker, with Jean Stapleton as his wife, Edith. Their living room chairs are now displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

The shows began with Archie and Edith singing wistfully about the good old days with “songs that made the hit parade,” when “guys like us we had it made.” This was the era of social upheaval and the “generation gap,” when every assumption about American life and leadership was being questioned, and “All in the Family” brought those questions and that upheaval into our living rooms through the conflicts with the Bunkers’ daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers) and her husband, Mike (future director Rob Reiner), strong advocates of feminism, civil rights, and ending the war in Vietnam. There’s a reason Archie’s last name was Bunker—for him, his home and his views were the reinforced retreat from a world he did not understand anymore.

Archie was openly bigoted against anyone not exactly like him. He called Mike “Meathead.” Significantly, that was Lear’s father’s favorite insult for his son, and in one episode Archie admits he was called that by his father. Archie barked at Edith. He called her a dingbat and, another favorite term of Lear’s father, told her to “stifle.” But Archie loved his daughter, and it was clear his prejudices came more from ignorance and fear than hatred. He just did not understand how the world was changing from one that made him feel “normal.” And while the viewpoint of the show was more aligned with the progressive younger generation, Mike and Gloria were not always portrayed as right.

CBS was so nervous about the first episode of “All in the Family,” it ran what today we might call a trigger warning, saying that the show “seeks to throw 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.” In the context of comedy, “All in the Family” dealt forthrightly with extremely controversial topics including bigotry based on ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and class. The Bunkers faced issues barely mentioned in homes or by politicians, much less on television: miscarriage, rape, abortion, cancer, menopause, and impotence. In an episode written by comedian Bill Dana, Archie, making extra money by driving a taxi, discovers that actor and nightclub performer Sammy Davis, Jr. has left his briefcase in the cab. Davis, playing himself, comes to the Bunker home to retrieve it. Archie may be bigoted, but he is also starstruck.  He feels called upon to express his views about race in what he thinks is a friendly fashion, calling Davis a credit to his race, and asking, “You didn’t have a choice in being colored. But whatever made you turn Jew?” Archie goes on, “I think that if God had meant us to be together, he'd have put us together. But look what he done. He put you over in Africa, he put the rest of us in all the white countries.” Davis responds, “Well, you must have told him where we were, 'cause somebody came and got us.” Finally, Archie asks for a picture and just as his friend clicks the shutter, Davis gives Archie a big kiss on the cheek followed by one of the longest prolonged laughs in the history of television.

The Atlantic called it “The Show that Changed Television Forever.” “All in the Family” aired from 1971-79, with 55 Emmy nominations and 22 Awards. It was the first show to be number one in viewership for five years in a row and is always included in lists of the best, best-written, and most influential series of all time. It also generated hugely popular spin-offs, including “Maude,” featuring Bea Arthur as an outspoken, politically left-leaning suburban woman introduced as Edith Bunker’s cousin.  She had the first abortion on night-time series television, two months before the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. The series addressed pharmaceutical and alcohol abuse, marijuana, and the hypocrisy of “limousine liberals.” “Good Times,” set in a housing project, centered on a character introduced as Maude’s housekeeper, Florida (Esther Rolle). While it dealt with issues of prejudice, domestic abuse, and poverty, it was criticized for “minstrelsy” when the family’s teenage son, J.J. (Jimmie Walker) became an unexpected hit as a character who was exaggerated and silly.

Lear was visited by three members of the activist group the Black Panthers, who complained that "Every time you see a Black man on the tube, he is dirt poor, wears shit clothes, can't afford nothing," Lear recalled in his memoir, Even This I Get to Experience. That led to “The Jeffersons,” a Black family introduced as the Bunkers’ next-door neighbors, who “moved on up” when their business became successful. The series song said they “finally got their piece of the pie” and the Jeffersons lived in a luxurious high-rise apartment. In the first episode, a Black woman who worked as a maid in the building and assumed that Mrs. Jefferson (Isabel Sanford) was one, too, says when she finds out that they own the apartment, “How come we overcame and nobody told me?” Like Archie, Mr. Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) had strong opinions, often bigoted (he refuses to hire a woman as a manager, losing a qualified candidate to his competitor).

“The Jeffersons” featured the first interracial couple on series television (the wife played by Roxie Roker, mother of Lenny Kravitz), as well as issues of racism, passing, transgenderism, and suicide. It is still the second-longest running series centering Black characters. 

Norman Lear accepts the Humanitarian Award at the 2017 Ebertfest.

Other successful Lear series included “Sanford and Son,” another story of generational conflict, with Redd Foxx as a junk dealer and Demond Wilson as his son, and “One Day at a Time,” about a white single mother of two daughters, the first divorced woman in comedy television. Lear, then well into his 90s, brought the series back in 2017, re-imagined as a Cuban-American family, the mother a veteran of the US Army, her mother played by Rita Moreno. He was executive producer of one of television’s most prestigious anthology series, “ABC Stage 67,” featuring work by Stephen Sondheim, “Fiddler on the Roof” song-writers Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jule Styne, musical stars The Mamas and Papas and The Supremes, writers Truman Capote, Jean Cocteau, James Goldman, documentaries about President John F. Kennedy, “A Look at Negro Humor,” and performances by Geraldine Page, Rick Nelson, Ingrid Bergman, Lew Ayres, Pearl Bailey, Betty Furness, Lee Grant, Phil Harris, Mercedes McCambridge, Vera Miles, Anthony Perkins, Maurice Chevalier, and Diahann Carroll.

Lear’s failures are also worth noting, especially “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” with Louise Lasser in a parody soap opera addressing themes of consumerism, and its spin-off, “Fernwood 2Night,” a parody of talk shows, starring Martin Mull and Fred Willard, and “All That Glitters,” a thought experiment of a show, set in a gender-switched world where women had all of the jobs, responsibilities, and prestige that men have in the real world. Its original title was “Womb at the Top.” I remember enjoying the premise but still being shocked, and then laughing at being shocked, when the characters went to a baseball game and all the players were women.

Lear never stopped being involved in cutting-edge television, voicing Benjamin Franklin in an episode of “South Park” and consulting on the seventh season’s premiere. He put together all-star casts for live broadcasts based on some of his series’ classic episodes. In 2018 he did a pilot that was not picked up called “Guess Who Died?” It was about a topic still apparently not interesting enough for television -- old people.

Lear had a difficult childhood. He was just nine when his unstable, abusive father was sent to prison and Lear was sent to live with relatives. “This had to be the moment when my awareness of the foolishness of the human condition was born,” he wrote in his memoir,

“How could I not have developed a deep appreciation for the absurdities amid the gravity of our existence?” He left college early to fight in WWII, flying 52 bomber missions, then went to California to break into comedy, eventually working with Danny Thomas and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. He then worked in film, adapting the Neil Simon play, “Come Blow Your Horn,” for a movie starring Frank Sinatra. He wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Divorce American Style,” directed by Yorkin and starring Dick van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds. It is an underrated gem, hilariously funny and one of the sharpest satires of its era.  Another satire starring van Dyke was “Cold Turkey,” about a town that agrees to quit smoking to win a prize. Lear co-wrote “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” an affectionate tribute to the vaudeville era. And then came television. He said, "I had a front-row seat at the birth of television; wrote, produced, created, or developed more than a hundred shows; had nine on the air at the same time; finished one season with three of the top four and another with five of the top nine; hosted Saturday Night Live; wrote, directed, produced, executive-produced, or financed more than a dozen major films."

Lear was involved in a number of progressive causes, co-founding the nonprofit liberal advocacy group People for the American Way with Texas Congresswoman and Watergate hearing heroine Barbara Jordan in 1980 in response to the growing strength of conservative religious groups. With his wife, he created the Environmental Media Association, an organization that promotes conservation in the entertainment industry. And his Lear Family Foundation funds the Norman Lear Center at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, which provides entertainment industry professionals with accurate and timely information for storylines on health, safety and national security, gives awards to outstanding journalists, and studies how media can change knowledge, attitudes and behaviors. His awards include two Peabodys, The Kennedy Center Honors, a GLAAD Media Pioneer Award, and six Emmys.

The Atlantic quotes Lear: “I have never, ever remembered thinking, ‘Oh, we’re doing something outlandish, riotously different,’” he recalled. “I wasn’t on any mission. And I don’t think I knew I was breaking such ground. I didn’t watch Petticoat Junction, for Chrissake. I didn’t watch Beverly Hillbillies. I didn’t know what I was doing.” What Lear did know was that in comedy you can have the liberty to say the un-sayable. Laughter gets audiences to question their assumptions in a way that the news and drama cannot. And what he also knew, and reminded us, is that it may be uncomfortable to talk about some issues, but it is more dangerous not to.

 

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at RogerEbert.com.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Spaceman
Drive-Away Dolls
Dune: Part Two
Kiss the Future
The Arc of Oblivion
Monolith

Comments

comments powered by Disqus