Norman Lear, boundary-breaking TV master behind ‘All in the Family’ and progressive activist, dies at 101

Norman Lear, the influential television impresario who dominated the American prime-time comedy lineup in the 1970s and smashed barriers with topical sitcoms that wrung humor out of the country’s fierce culture wars, has died, his family said Wednesday.

He was 101.

In an astonishingly prolific career that spanned more than six decades, Lear created or developed some of the most seminal comedies in television history, including “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons” and “One Day at a Time,” as well as its 2017 reboot anchored by a Latino cast.

Norman Lear speaks about his legacy
Lear’s hugely popular shows tackled hot-button issues that network executives and some viewers had long considered taboo, such as racism, sexism, the women’s liberation movement, antisemitism, abortion, homophobia, the Vietnam War and class conflict. In his off-screen life, Lear was a committed progressive and outspoken champion of civic responsibility.

Lear’s most lasting creation might be Archie Bunker, the irascible antihero at the center of “All in the Family” (1971-79). Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, was a cantankerous yet tender family patriarch who endeared himself to millions of viewers despite his regressive views — or perhaps because of them. Lear based the character on his own father.

“For all his faults, Archie loved his country and he loved his family, even when they called him out on his ignorance and bigotries. If Archie had been around 50 years later, he probably would have watched Fox News. He probably would have been a Trump voter.

“But I think that the sight of the American flag being used to attack Capitol Police would have sickened him,” Lear wrote in an editorial published in The New York Times in July 2022, referring to the Jan. 6 riot.

In the course of his celebrated career, Lear received an array of honors, including induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame; six Emmy Awards; a Peabody Lifetime Achievement Award; a National Medal of Arts; and, most recently, the Carol Burnett Award for lifetime achievement at the virtual Golden Globes in February 2021.

Lear was revered by generations of showrunners, writers, producers and performers, who saw him as a gifted master of small-screen entertainment and a revolutionary who made television more politically vital, morally urgent and socially relevant. Lear’s imprint can be found on innumerable contemporary series that confront the American status quo.
He was born Norman Milton Lear on July 27, 1922, in New Haven, Connecticut, to Jeanette and Hyman “Herman” Lear. When Lear was 9 years old, his father — a man he later characterized as a “rascal” — was arrested and imprisoned for selling fake bonds. Lear described it as one of the defining episodes of his life.

“The night that he was taken away, there were a ton of people at the house, and somebody puts their hand on my shoulder, and says, ‘You’re the man of the house now, Norman,’” Lear said in a 2017 interview with PBS NewsHour. “What a fool that person was. But somehow I got it. You know, a sense of the foolishness of the human condition.”

Lear said his political conscience was awakened around the same time when he first heard the Rev. Charles Coughlin, a demagogic antisemitic Catholic priest, on the radio. Lear, who was raised in a Jewish household and received a bar mitzvah, was deeply troubled by Coughlin’s racist propaganda and screeds against the Jewish people.

Lear graduated from Weaver High School in Hartford in 1940 and then enrolled at Emerson College in Boston. But he dropped out in 1942 to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Forces, serving as a radio operator and gunner. When World War II ended, he found work in public relations.

He got his first break in entertainment in the early 1950s, teaming up with comedy writer Ed Simmons and collaborating on sketches for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, and other major comics of the Eisenhower era.

Lear eventually found work as a TV writer and producer on short-lived sitcoms, and in 1959 he created his first series: “The Deputy,” a Western starring Henry Fonda. He then turned to writing and producing movies such as “Come Blow Your Horn” (1963); the Oscar-nominated “Divorce American Style” (1967); and the satire “Cold Turkey” (1971), which he directed.

He returned to the small screen in the early 1970s to create and produce “All in the Family.” The show was loosely inspired by the British series “Till Death Us Do Part” (1965-75), but Lear invested his version with a thoroughly American spirit.

The show often revolved around the bitter but frequently hilarious clashes between Bunker and his liberal son-in-law, Michael “Meathead” Stivic, played by the future filmmaker and activist Rob Reiner. They argued about the most contentious subjects of the era with an intensity rarely seen on American narrative television, let alone a prime-time network sitcom.

“All in the Family” flailed in its first season, but it went on to become one of the most popular and critically adored shows of the 1970s. Lear received four Emmys and a Peabody for the series, which reached younger viewers over the years through cable reruns. O’Connor reprised the role of a lifetime in the moderately popular series “Archie Bunker’s Place” (1979-83).

In the wake of “All in the Family,” Lear (along with his producing partner Bud Yorkin) went on to create a streak of well-known and similarly topical shows, including the “All in the Family” spin-off “Maude” (1972-78), starring Bea Arthur, and the family sitcom “One Day at a Time” (1975-84), which was remade in 2017 with a Latino cast and Trump-era themes.

Three of Lear’s best-known shows — “Sanford and Son” (1972-77); “Good Times” (1974-79); and “The Jeffersons” (1975-85), also a spin-off of “All in the Family”— were all norm-breaking depictions of Black family life on TV.

“Sanford and Son” addressed racism frankly. “The Jeffersons,” a comedy about a wealthy Black couple that moves to a “deluxe apartment in the sky,” was notable for portraying upscale Black leads as well as an interracial couple as their neighbors. “Good Times” has been called the first show to portray a two-parent Black household. However, all three series drew scrutiny for relying on what critics described as stereotypical character traits.

Lear also developed “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” (1976-77), a parody of daytime soap operas with a boldly surrealistic streak that was well ahead of its time. The brief-lived satirical show, featuring a character who drowns in a bowl of chicken soup, later became a cult favorite and helped lay the groundwork for dreamlike series such as David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.”

Lear then turned his attention to progressive activism. In the early 1980s, at the dawn of the Reagan era, he founded the People for the American Way, a nonprofit advocacy group that was meant to counterbalance the nascent Christian right movement, particularly Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.

Lear strongly opposed the growing influence of organized religion in American politics and rallied for liberal causes over the decades. He was especially passionate about the First Amendment and civic awareness; in the early 2000s, he purchased a copy of the Declaration of Independence for a national tour of the document.

In the late 1980s, Lear produced several popular films — including three titles directed by Reiner: “The Sure Thing” (1985), “Stand by Me” (1986) and “The Princess Bride” (1987). In the early 1990s, he attempted a network TV comeback, but his shows from that period failed to attract wide audiences.

In his later years, Lear remained active in various entertainment projects, political initiatives, business endeavors and educational programs. He was the subject of the insightful 2016 documentary “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” which surveyed his path-breaking career and emotional journey as a human being.

When he accepted his lifetime achievement prize at the virtual Golden Globes in February 2021, Lear said his family had been deeply important all through his life. He paid tribute to his wife of three decades, Lyn Davis Lear; five daughters and a son, who at the time ranged “in age from 25 to 74”; and four grandchildren.

“At close to 99,” Lear said, “I can tell you that I’ve never lived alone, I’ve never laughed alone, and that has as much to do with my being here today as anything else I know.”

Rate this post