Remembering Norman Lear

Trailblazer created shows that changed TV

One of the most influential voices who helped shaped television for its future in the 1970s has passed on as Norman Lear died Tuesday night at his Beverly Hills, Calif. home in his sleep at the age of 101, surrounded by family.

Lear was born in New Haven, CT and began his television career writing for the Colgate Comedy Hour in the 1950s. In 1959, he and business partner Bud Yorkin founded Tandem Productions and at first, produced several films including Divorce American Style and Cold Turkey, both starring Dick Van Dyke.

In 1968, Lear pitched a sitcom idea based on the British sitcom Til Death Do Us Part to ABC called Justice For All featuring a bigoted, foul-mouthed lead Archie Bunker played by Carroll O’Connor (a role turned down by Mickey Rooney) – something unthinkable at the time. After retooling the pilot into Those Were the Days, ABC passed but CBS, who was looking for a change from its rural-sitcom dominated fare such as The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, agreed to purchase the concept, rework it, became All in The Family and debuted on January 12, 1971, and became the first sitcom to be videotaped and it was shot in front of a studio audience, a concept most producers abandoned in the 1960s for canned laughter. 

While not a hit at first, Family was a critical smash as the series gained traction from being rerun during the summer of 1971 and became a ratings smash. Given this, CBS decided on a last-minute scheduling change for its fall lineup that year, with Family swapping its Monday 10 p.m. ET time slot for My Three Sons‘ Saturday 8 p.m. ET one. The move paid off as Family became the top-rated sitcom for five seasons running and established a powerful programming block for CBS.

All in the Family won several Emmy Awards and broke longstanding taboos on television, tackling subjects such as racism, women’s rights, and homosexuality, among others. In 1979, the show was reformatted into Archie Bunker’s Place and ran four more years.

Lear worked his magic again – this time for NBC with Sanford and Son in 1972 with two Black leads (Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson) as they operated a struggling junkyard business set in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles. The series was a instant smash finishing in second place in its first season and lasted seven years. 

Later that year, All in the Family spun-off Maude, with Bea Arthur played the exact opposite of Archie Bunker. The sitcom would create instant controversy in its first season with an abortion storyline, causing a small number of CBS affiliates to drop the two-part episode when it first aired in November 1972 and an even greater number of affiliates pre-empted when those episodes were rerun again in August 1973, months after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in the U.S. 

In 1974, the first-ever spinoff of a spinoff took place as Maude’s maid Florida – played by Esther Rolle – got her own show with Good Times, a series set in Chicago with an entirely Black cast and set in the since-demolished Cabrini Green housing projects. But there was plenty of controversy – on-screen and off. An Ebony Magazine article in 1975 exposed the behind-the-scenes problems on the show, especially with how Jimmie Walker’s character was portrayed – with many of the complaints from Rolle and John Amos, who was abruptly dropped from the show a year later as Rolle also left the show for a time during the fifth season. Lear often clashed with show co-creator Eric Monte, who would later write the film Cooley High

In 1975, Lear launched another successful sitcom – the third spinoff from All in The Family called The Jeffersons, focusing on the Bunker’s next-door neighbors who moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan. A huge success story, The Jeffersons would run for eleven seasons, becoming one of the last All in the Family-related shows to end with its July 1985 exit. 

“All in the Family” was the first bona fide hit for Norman Lear and changed television forever in its 1971 debut.

Lear developed One Day At A Time the same year with Bonnie Franklin playing the divorced mother of two teenage daughters (the series was created by Allan Manning and former Hazel star Whitney Blake) and The Hot L Baltimore, the first sitcom he sold to ABC that went to series about a run-down hotel in Baltimore. While One Day ran for nine seasons and was successfully rebooted a few years ago with an all-Latino cast, Baltimore would last only a few episodes before getting canned. 

Lear was also the constitute businessman. After failing to interest the networks in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a satiric send-up of soap operas, he created a company called TAT Communications to sell the strip into first-run syndication, a first for a sitcom. It even spun-off another show, Fernwood 2Night, a parody of a talk show set in a small-town living room (a concept later re-created with 1990’s short-lived My Talk Show.) Lear used the same company to sell his sitcoms (excluding All in The Family, whose rights were owned by Viacom at the time) in the off-net market, racking up millions in licensing fees from local stations. 

Lear purchased Embassy Pictures from Avco in 1982 and merged his television assets forming Embassy Television in 1982. Three years later, Lear sold Embassy to Coca-Cola, who promptly merged it with Columbia Pictures, who it owned at the time. In late 1987, Coke spun-off its entertainment holdings to Tri-Star Pictures, took the Columbia name, and was sold in 1989 to Sony, who maintain the rights to Lear’s shows (including AITF) to this very day. 

Lear also formed Act III Communications after selling Embassy to Coke, with varied assets including ownership of eight television stations through its broadcasting unit – mostly Fox affiliates acquired in the late 1980s, including WZTV Nashville and WUTV Buffalo as the group sold all of its stations in 1995. Today, most are either owned or managed by Sinclair, Inc.

Lear was on the Forbes list of richest Americans in 1986, with a net worth of $225 million. Later in life, Lear joined Warren Buffett and James Burke to establish the Business Enterprise Trust and also the Norman Lear Center at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication. Lear was also active in politics, donating to numerous liberal causes.

In recent years, Lear was still active in television. He was a writing consultant on South Park and even voiced a character on the episode titled Canceled. In 2019, Lear and his production company collaborated with Jimmy Kimmel for a series of specials titled Live In Front Of A Studio Audience for ABC, featuring all-star live re-creations of sitcom episodes either Lear or his production company produced, including All in the Family, Diff’rent Strokes, The Facts Of Life, Good Times, and The Jeffersons

Among his numerous accolades were being among the first group of people inducted into the National Association Of Television and Sciences’ Hall Of Fame; receiving a National Medal Of Arts from the Kennedy Center; and of course, lots of Emmy Awards including winning two for Live In Front Of A Studio Audience

To say Norman Lear changed television would be an understatement; he basically re-invented the medium to adapt to changing times and sensibilities by tackling important issues with humor. While the industry was understandably reluctant –  fearing more harm to a business who just lost a significant amount of revenue from the removal of cigarette advertising by Congress, All in The Family’s rise to the top changed the trajectory of network television, bringing in more younger viewers at a time when the sitcom was in decline. If there was a Mount Rushmore of television icons, you can bet Norman Lear’s face would be front and center.

[Editor’s Note: Add more context to the paragraph on Good Times, to indicate the clash Lear had with the cast and creators of the show.] 

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