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Legendary TV Creator Norman Lear Dies at Age 101

His groundbreaking sitcoms ‘All in the Family,’ ‘Maude’ and ‘The Jeffersons’ tackled once-taboo topics


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Growing up Jewish in 1930s America, writer-producer-director Norman Lear felt like an outsider. Struggling with the anti-Semitism he saw all around him in New Haven, Connecticut, and heard on his crystal radio set in the broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin, he identified with marginalized people, especially African Americans. And, at 9, he chafed at living with cousins when his father, a man he called “a rascal,” went to prison for selling fake bonds. ​

When Lear, who died Tuesday of natural causes at age 101, was creating several groundbreaking television sitcoms of the ’70s that tackled social issues such as racism, bigotry, abortion, rape, homophobia and the Vietnam War, he drew in part on his dysfunctional home life, especially for All in the Family and the seminal role of Archie Bunker, the working-class and eternally prejudiced patriarch, played by Carroll O’Connor. ​

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“Well, that’s where it all came from, you know? We all scrape the barrels of our own experience,” Lear said on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

Lear’s family released a statement on his death to Variety: “Norman lived a life of creativity, tenacity, and empathy. He deeply loved our country and spent a lifetime helping to preserve its founding ideals of justice and equality for all. Knowing and loving him has been the greatest of gifts. We ask for your understanding as we mourn privately in celebration of this remarkable human being.”

Video: Norman Lear Reflects on His TV Legacy

All in the Family barged into television history in 1971, inspiring political and social discourse in the American living room as no show before it had. “It was able to deal with controversial subjects and potentially offensive language by putting them in the mouths of characters who engendered empathy even in the face of disagreement or disapproval,” observed David R. Shumway, a professor of literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University, to the Hollwood Reporter.​

The show became the first to hug the top spot in the Nielsen ratings for five straight years. Over its nine seasons, it won 22 of its 57 Emmy nominations.​

Yet predictably, there were critics. Religious leader Jerry Falwell saw the show as bringing “filth and sexual perversion” into the home. ​

But even as Lear made TV executives and some viewers nervous, he was suddenly the medium’s most sought-after producer, with nine series on the air at once, including The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and Good Times, which created more roles and visibility for Black actors. His other shows included Maude (like The Jeffersons, a spinoff of All in the Family), One Day at a Time and the cult favorite Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.​

Not only was All in the Family the first show to feature the sound of a toilet flush, Lear’s characters also embraced a litany of subjects “grabbed from the headlines on a daily basis,” as Lear’s producing partner, Brent Miller, put it, but seldom discussed in nighttime television entertainment — sexism, swinging, anti-Semitism and menopause. ​

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“I think it just came out of being grownup. We dealt with the subjects that were most on people’s minds in their real lives,” Lear told AARP, which in 2018 acknowledged Lear as its first TV for Grownups award honoree.

“I never thought of the shows as groundbreaking, because every American understood so easily what they were all about,” he explained to the Harvard Business Review. “The language was in their schoolyards. It was nothing new. 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. America had no racial problems, no economic problems. Women didn’t get breast cancer, men didn’t get hypertension.”​

Lear said that a number of his characters voiced how he felt about real-life concerns. “Closest to me, though she was absurd a lot of the time, was Maude,” he offered to HBR of the character allegedly based on his second wife, Frances Loeb, later publisher of Lear’s magazine. “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. We deal from our feelings more than from the information and the facts.”​

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Jean Stapleton and Carroll O'Connor speaking to 'All in the Family' creator Norman Lear.
CBS via Getty Images

Dealing from feelings was something he struggled with as a child, since his imprisoned father “disappointed himself deeply and left the rest of us high and dry ... The only role model I had as a boy was this uncle who was a press agent. He flicked me a quarter every time he saw me, and I wanted to be an uncle who could flick a quarter, so I wanted to be a press agent.”​

Lear dropped out of Emerson College to serve in the Army Air Corps in World War II, bringing home an Air Medal for flying 52 missions out of Italy. After that, he landed a press agent job in New York, earning $40 a week. But with a wife and infant daughter (Lear would eventually be married three times, and have six children), he moved west, where he again worked in publicity and sold home furnishings and family photos door-to-door.​

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What he really wanted to do, he found, was write comedy. Breaking into the business by wangling Danny Thomas’ phone number and personally pitching him a routine, he soon teamed with Ed Simmons, his cousin’s husband, to turn out lucrative TV comedy sketches for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and Rowan and Martin. After producing The Martha Raye Show in the early ’50s, Lear created The Deputy, starring Henry Fonda, before moving into motion pictures as a writer-producer-director, most notably with Divorce American Style (1967).​

At the end of the ’60s, he taped several television pilots that went nowhere, including one titled Those Were the Days, in 1969. But one pilot, All in the Family, did the trick. Though the CBS series was slow to catch on, it grabbed several Emmy Awards that year and went on to become the most-watched show in the nation, if not the most culturally relevant comedy ever. ​

After retirement, he used his time and money well. In 2000, the Norman Lear Center at the Annenberg School of Communications opened at the University of Southern California. That same year, Lear, who had founded People for the American Way with Rep. Barbara Jordan in 1981, bought a signed copy of the Declaration of Independence and traveled with it to all 50 states. And in 2020, at age 98, he beat his own previous record and became the oldest Emmy winner in history for a win in the Outstanding Variety Special (Live) category for Live In Front of A Studio Audience: "All In The Family" and "Good Times.​"

As a nonagenarian, he wrote a memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, and was asked by HBR if he saw himself as a mentor to contemporary producers such as Seth MacFarlane, who partly based his irreverent cartoon series Family Guy on All in the Family. ​

“At 92, it’s easy,” Lear cracked. “I’ve got so many years on these guys. … Since turning 90, I just get up and walk and get applause.”​

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