The End of an Era: Reflecting on the Impact of Norman Lear, Creator of All in the Family and The Jeffersons

At the age of 101, Norman Lear, the renowned television producer and philanthropist who transformed situation comedy in the 1970s with shows like The Jeffersons and All in the Family, passed away on Tuesday at his Los Angeles home from natural causes, a spokesman told EW.

In a lengthy statement posted on Lear’s website, the family of the Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated pop culture icon revealed the news and discussed his “life of curiosity, tenacity, and empathy” as he worked to reflect “justice and equality for all” through his significant contributions to the entertainment industry.

“Norman was constantly in wonder at the world around him. He was always in awe of his morning cup of coffee, the form of the tree outside his window, and the sounds of exquisite music. The family’s letter stated, “But it was people, both those he recently met and those he knew for years, who kept his mind and heart forever young.” He held the greatest philosophers and thinkers of his day in high regard, and he loved working on creative projects with them as well as the performers he collaborated with. Hundreds of boxes containing his letters to persons whose plays he saw, whose articles he read, and whose movies he watched are kept in a storage closet in Los Angeles. He wrote to them all, and they replied. Norman’s life thus grew in concentric circles, encompassing countless numbers of pals. His life was impacted by his “Over, Next” mentality, which allowed him to move forward while being receptive to new concepts, encounters, and relationships.

Lear’s family also emphasized his military service, noting that he flew 52 missions during World War II, and how his early career was devoted to activism and philanthropy, including the establishment of his People for the American Way organization in 1981, which defends constitutional rights, because he was afraid of antisemitic remarks.

“Norman had an appreciative existence. “Aren’t I the luckiest dude?” he would frequently ask. He felt thankful for all that had led him to this point. He was utterly loyal as a husband, parent, and grandpa. The statement concluded, “He was always open and honest about how much he loved and admired each of us. He adored us, and we reciprocated the affection. The best gift of all has been getting to know and love him.

Lear had a greater impact on television than most other individuals, and thus on American culture. Television programs such as NYPD Blue, Will & Grace, and Sex and the City owe a part of their continued existence to Lear’s pioneering work in expanding the definition of appropriate television programming. Lear, who fought in World War II and came home to work as a press agent, was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1922. Before long, he was writing comedic scripts for Danny Thomas, Martin & Lewis, Martha Raye, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and other performers to play in nightclubs and subsequently on television with his cousin Ed Simmons. However, it was in their collaboration with director Bud Yorkin that Lear began to find his footing. They alternated between television and film, contributing to shows like The Andy Williams Show and films such as Divorce: American Style (for which Lear was nominated for an Oscar in 1968 for his script), The Night They Raided Minsky’s, and Cold Turkey (his first feature film).

But when he came across a TV Guide article on a British series called Till Death Do Us Part—which followed a middle-aged dad and his son-in-law as they battled over all the current social and political issues—his life took a whole different course. After purchasing the rights, Yorkin and Lear created All in the Family. They produced one of the most vibrant characters to ever grace a screen in the process. Bigoted without shame, boisterous, unsophisticated, and completely new was Archie Bunker. Never has a blue-collar hero been on television since The Honeymooners, nor has the lead character in a show been so unbearable, or so many contentious subjects been thrust into a sitcom. Abortion, birth control, mate-swapping, homosexuality, religion, menopause, and—most persistently—racial and ethnic prejudices were discussed. Terms like “spic,” “heeb,” and “spade” were frequently used. In preparation for a barrage of complaints, CBS hired extra phone operators to handle switchboards around the nation when the show debuted in 1971. As it happened, a large number of calls were made, most of them positive. After winning three Emmys for Best Comedy Series, All in the Family would go on to become the highest-rated show in the nation for the following five years, and it would go on to run for 12 years in various iterations.

Lear quickly started to take advantage of his success. He soon produced Sanford and Son, featuring the legendary Redd Foxx, and Maude, starring the imperious Bea Arthur as Edith Bunker’s feminist cousin (who was obviously heavily modeled on Lear’s wife Frances). One Day at a Time, a comedy about a single mother, and The Jeffersons, a sitcom about middle-class Blacks that dared to illustrate that discrimination wasn’t just a white problem, came next. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a spoof soap opera that went further than any of its stablemates, was Lear’s last great hit. (Mary shouts, “What kind of madman would kill two goats and eight chickens?” after learning that a madman has just slain her neighbors’ three children, two goats, and eight hens.) All three networks rejected the show, but it found success in syndication.

Despite the fact that a Lear production was known for tackling contentious subjects, he denied that this gave him any particular power. In an interview with Playboy, he asked, “Are people less bigoted than they were before All in the Family or Sanford and Son?””And even if they are, is it my fault? Bullshit.” Nevertheless, when Lear stopped participating in his shows on a daily basis in 1978, they appeared to lose their inventiveness, and what Meathead from All in the Family Rob Reiner referred to as “the Norman Lear oasis in his the history of television” came to an end.

In the years that followed, Lear occasionally worked on entertainment-related ventures, but his primary pursuit was philanthropy. He established People for the American Way, a politically liberal organization that upholds the Bill of Rights and constitutional liberties, in 1981. He spent $8.2 million purchasing an original copy of the Declaration of Independence in 2001, and he then toured the country with it. He said, “I like living in a country where I can speak out,” to Bill Moyers. “The First Amendment is nice. Pluralism appeals to me. I enjoy variety. Furthermore, I agree with the flag; it is not just the far right’s property. Call me liberal, moderate, progressive, or even a bleeding-heart conservative; yet, it’s also my flag. It represents more than just the power of America. It represents the people of America.”

Throughout his latter years, Lear kept up his career, producing the documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It and working on the One Day at a Time revival starring Justina Machado.



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