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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Norman Lear, whose comedies changed the face of TV, is dead at 101

The television writer and producer Norman Lear in Beverly Hills, Calif. on April 29, 2010.

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 Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 101.

A spokesperson for the family, Lara Bergthold, confirmed the death.

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; a 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,” 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.”

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.

“All in the Family” sent a shock through the sleepy world of the sitcom with one tart, topical episode after another from the moment it premiered 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.

But 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.

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.”

“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.”

“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.

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 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) 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.

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

The show made its debut in 1976, Lasser left the next year, and 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 hardworking Black woman (Esther Rolle) struggling to raise a family in a Chicago housing project.

Norman Milton Lear was born on July 27, 1922, in New Haven, Connecticut, to Herman and Jeanette (Seicol) Lear. His father was a salesman of various products 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 would with Edith, and more than once 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 52 missions as a radioman. He received the Air Medal with four oak-leaf clusters.

After the war, Lear got a job with the publicity firm of George and Dorothy Ross, who had many clients in the theater.

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 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. Thomas appreciated the boldness of the ploy. He also liked the routine the two men wrote for him, and purchased it.

Lear and 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 Lear directed as well), after which they went their separate ways. Lear wrote and produced “The George Gobel Show.”

In 1958, Lear and his fellow writer Bud Yorkin formed Tandem Productions. The company produced the singer Andy Williams’ long-running variety show, as well as many television specials and several movies.

Lear might have remained a reasonably successful but relatively obscure screenwriter and occasional director had he and Yorkin not learned about a BBC series called “Till Death Us Do Part.”

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

Lear wrote a script modeled on “Till Death Us Do Part,” and he and Yorkin shot two pilot episodes for ABC, which rejected the show. 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, named “All in the Family,” on the air.

“All in the Family” and its various cast members, writers and directors won 22 Emmy Awards, including three for Lear. In 1972, when the show won seven, Johnny Carson, that year’s host, called the Emmy telecast “the Norman Lear show.” 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 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 were on the air for only a few weeks; others never got off the ground.

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.)

Still working into his 90s, 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 May 2019, Lear and Jimmy Kimmel hosted a TV special on which episodes of “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” were re-created live by an all-star cast, including Woody Harrelson as Archie Bunker and Jamie Foxx as George Jefferson. A second special, re-creating episodes of “All in the Family” and “Good Times,” aired that December; a third, re-creating episodes of two other series 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 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.’”

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.

In 1985, after almost 30 years of marriage, Lear and his second wife, Frances, reached a divorce settlement estimated at $100 million or more. He later married Lyn Davis, a psychologist, who survives him. Lear is also survived by 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.

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