Norman Lear, the groundbreaking TV producer who smashed boundaries with politicized sitcoms such as All in the Family, helped diversify network television with shows The Jeffersons and Good Times, and used the half-hour comedy to address social issues and taboo, hot-button topics, died Tuesday at his Los Angeles home. He was 101. Lear’s rep, Lara Bergthold, confirmed his death to The New York Times.
“Norman lived a life in awe of the world around him,” his family wrote in a statement. “He marveled at his cup of coffee every morning, the shape of the tree outside his window and the sounds of beautiful music. But it was people — those he just met and those he knew for decades — who kept his mind and heart forever young.” Lear’s family added that he was “surrounded by his family as we told stories and sang songs until the very end.”
Before Lear and his pioneering series All in the Family, network sitcoms had as much edge as a butter knife — and Lear himself was more than happy to take credit for changing that. “Before All in the Family, there were a lot of families on television, but the biggest problem they faced was Mom dented the fender or the boss is coming to dinner and the roast is ruined,” Lear once said. “America had no racial problems, no economic problems. Women didn’t get breast cancer; men didn’t get hypertension.”
All those issues and more were addressed in the shows Lear developed, produced, and sometimes wrote. All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and Good Times, among others, brought political and social awareness to TV. As Robert Redford once said of Lear, “He brought humanity, edge, humor, and vulnerability into the mainstream, and we owe him a great debt for that.”
Born July 27, 1922, Lear endured an early childhood trauma: When he was nine, his father, Herman, was convicted of selling fake bonds and sentenced to three years in prison. After briefly attending Boston’s Emerson College, Lear dropped out and joined the Air Force during World War II, flying 52 combat missions. He ventured into public relations afterward, but comedy writing would prove to be his forte. In the 1950s, he wrote for variety series like The Colgate Comedy Hour and eventually started a production company, Tandem Productions, with director Bud Yorkin. Lear’s screenplay for Divorce American Style, cowritten with Robert Kaufman, was nominated for an Oscar in 1967.
But Lear was destined to change TV. In 1968, he adapted a British sitcom, Till Death Us Do Part, for American TV. The show was based around the bigoted head of a household who reminded Lear of his own father. After knocking around as a pilot for ABC for two years, the network dropped the show (once called Justice for All), but in 1970, CBS, eager to draw in younger viewers after dropping more wholesome sitcoms like Green Acres, picked it up.
The first episode of the renamed, recast All in the Family — starring Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker; Jean Stapleton as his long-suffering wife, Edith; Sally Struthers as their daughter, Gloria; and Rob Reiner as her boyfriend and later husband, Mike — started with a disclaimer: “The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It 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.”
What followed — arguments about Black Power, bits of raunchy humor, and sex jokes — was unlike anything on TV at the time, and it never let up: Brilliantly played by O’Connor with equal parts bluster and vulnerability, Archie, a proud, politically incorrect bigot, antagonized his family (and hippie son-in-law) about race, the Vietnam War, and race relations. Initially controversial, All in the Family became a phenomenon — watched by over 50 million viewers and winning 22 Emmys during its run from 1971 to 1979. (The show was renamed Archie Bunker’s Place and lasted another four seasons.)
Lear was sometimes asked if the series’ popularity had to do with attracting viewers who were just like Archie. “Maybe they continued to agree with Archie Bunker — you can’t change people’s minds, but you can get them to think,” he replied. Lear himself had another explanation for the show’s success — that dispelled one particular TV myth. “The myth is: ‘The average man doesn’t want to come home from a hard day’s work and be faced with problems on television. He wants escapism, entertainment, fluff,’” Lear told the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights in 1972. “All in the Family has tackled many everyday problems and the average American, returned from his hard day’s work, has not only accepted it but made it the most popular show on TV.”
Lear continued moving into that uncharted TV territory with Maude, an All in the Family spinoff centered around the older, left-wing title character played by Bea Arthur. Lear would later say that, of all his characters, Maude spoke to him the most. “She was the out-front liberal but didn’t really take responsibility for knowing what she was talking about all the time, which is what most of us do,” he once said. “We deal from our feelings more than from the information and the facts.”
Lear also created or developed arguably the first TV series centered around Black families: Sanford and Son (like All in the Family, adopted from a British series with the same premise), The Jeffersons, and Good Times. As with All in the Family and Maude, the shows intercut humor with messages. When Lear read an article about the rise in hypertension in Black men, the story became the basis for one episode. “By the time we went into reruns, we knew that we had to have an advisory at the end of it, advising where people could turn for help,” Lear said. “Because we had had so many calls on the first show that were unanticipated. There were lots of examples of that.”
“You have to go back to Norman Lear,” Good Times star Jimmie Walker later said. “He just really pushed it. Things like the ‘Black Jesus’ show [in which Walker’s character, the lazy but artistic J.J., paints Jesus as Black], it’s still socially relevant. People are still slugging that out today.”
Sometimes working on several shows at once, Lear was involved in the sitcom One Day at a Time, the soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and its fake-talk-show spinoff, Fernwood 2Night. By the dawn of the Eighties and the end of Lear’s heyday, TV had been transformed.
Just as TV would change again — losing some of its social consciousness and, with series like Dallas and Dynasty, focusing on the country’s new One Percent — Lear changed gears. He launched a nonprofit organization, People for the American Way, to address election reforms and protect First Amendment rights. (In 2000, Lear and his wife, Lyn, purchased one of the 25 surviving original prints of the Declaration of Independence for $8.14 million and sent it on a “road trip” so Americans could view it.)
In 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Lear with a National Medal of Arts and said, “Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it.” Lear’s concerns about voting rights were also reflected in the launch of another group, Declare Yourself. In 2003, he said that by starting that group, he hoped to dispel “cynicism, hopelessness, the thought that one vote doesn’t matter, not liking the candidates…. we’re encouraged in our culture to think too much in the short term as opposed to what’s in it for my children and grandchildren? That’s the way we have to encourage people to think.”
Lear’s later forays into television weren’t as successful as his first. In 1994, he produced 704 Hauser, an All in the Family spinoff of sorts set in the same house where the Bunkers lived (but now occupied by a Black family led by John Amos). It was canceled after one season. But Lear’s legacy was affirmed when he consulted on a few episodes of South Park. In 2014, he published a well-received autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience, in which he wrote about his clashes with O’Connor during the All in the Family years. At the time of his death, Lear was living in Los Angeles with Lyn Davis Lear, his third wife.
Although All in the Family may seem dated, Reiner has said that the show’s — and Lear’s — intent lives on. “The issues are also still real,” Reiner said in 2014. “We’re still a very divided country — we’re a red and blue state country. Many of those issues brought up on the show are debated today, so it still has relevance from that standpoint.”
From Rolling Stone US