WASHINGTON — Today is often dubbed the Golden Age of Television, but before “Game of Thrones,” TV’s crown belonged to King Lear, as in Norman Lear, the man behind “All in the Family” (1971-79), “Sanford and Son” (1972-77), “Good Times” (1974-79) and “The Jeffersons” (1975-85).
Now, Lear reflects on his career in the new book “Even This I Get to Experience,” a life that included flying 52 missions over Europe in World War II, producing more than 100 TV shows and more than 20 movies, and becoming one of the first seven inductees into the Television Academy’s Hall of Fame.
“When we were doing our shows, we were dealing with the problems that we were clearly, knowingly facing in our families, our neighborhoods, our cities, our country,” Lear tells WTOP. “We made up the characters … but the subject matter, whether it was divorce or menopause or abortion or the economy or politics, it was the stuff of life — and it was altogether familiar. … That would be true today. What families are going through today is the stuff of drama and comedy. One needn’t reach beyond the living room and the bedroom to know the topic for an episode of any television show.”
Reaching into the living room wasn’t hard for Lear. His sitcom career was born out of two life events.
The first involved the divorce of his ex-wife, who sparked his quest for syndication after early success writing comedy sketches for Martin & Lewis, Rowan & Martin and “The Martha Raye Show.”
“I was being divorced and had a child. A fellow friend by the name of Phil Sharp visited us in New York and he had just been through a divorce and he had four kids. … I said, ‘Well how did it go so easily with four kids?’ And he said, ‘All she wanted was my Joan Davis reruns.’ … I thought to myself, as difficult as what I was going through, I’ve got to do a situation comedy. I had been doing live television where we were well-paid, but didn’t own anything. With a situation comedy on film, you own something and there were reruns and such. So that was on my mind.”
The other personal influence was his relationship with his own father.
“I learned of a British show called ‘Till Death Us Do Part’ about the father and son arguing over everything politically, which was my father. My father used to call me ‘the laziest white kid he ever met,’ and I would say, ‘Why do you have to put down an entire race of people just to call me lazy?’ … He called me ‘Meathead.’ That’s where it came from. ‘You’re a meathead, dead from the neck up.'”
Thus, Archie Bunker was born out of Lear’s own father-son bickering and a divorce-fueled quest for sitcom syndication rights. While Lear pulled inspiration from such personal places, the rest of the nation was eternally grateful for the creative expression that came as a result.
Each week, millions of Americans tuned in to see Archie (Carroll O’Connor), wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), son Meathead (Rob Reiner) and daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) debate society’s ills.
“I don’t know how many times I heard, ‘He was my father, Archie Bunker,'” Lear says. “‘Or my uncle.'”
“All in the Family” ran for nine seasons and left a lasting legacy of spinoffs, which spawned their own continued spinoffs. The first was “Maude” (1972-78), following Edith’s outspoken liberal cousin Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur, later of “Golden Girls” fame), who hated Archie from the start.
“All of what are known as spinoffs came from the fact that we had great players in smaller roles. Bea Arthur had made one appearance as the Maude character on ‘All in the Family.’ The reason she was there, in my family experience, there was no one who could hand it to you like a relative with an old grudge. … We brought her into an episode because she could lift, across 20 years, an old grudge and beat the hell out of him, which is exactly what happened on the episode she guest starred.”
“Maude” itself spawned a highly successful spinoff in “Good Times” (1974-79), as we dove into the family life of Maude’s maid Florida Evans (Esther Rolle), her husband James (John Amos), daughter Thelma (Bern Nadette Stanis) and sons J.J. (Jimmie Walker) and Michael (Ralph Carter).
“Florida was such a rich character that we introduced the husband in an episode of ‘Maude,’ and then we knew we had characters that could make for another show,” Lear says. “J.J. was a hilarious character, and a wonderful guy by the way. … He said, ‘Dy-no-mite’ once and it got him the kind of laugh he didn’t get otherwise, and he said it again and it became a part of his character, and of course, it annoyed other players to see him get such an easy laugh every time he said, ‘Dy-no-mite.’ They didn’t want to hear it that much, which is kind of a normal human reaction among actors.”
Aside from “Dy-no-mite,” the show’s next most famous line may be “damn, damn, damn,” delivered by a grief-stricken Florida after her husband’s death.
“John (Amos) was so unhappy that we had to kill off the character in order to relieve the tension in the cast. But we went on to do another show years later. It wasn’t successful, but I loved it.”
That show, of course, was “704 Houser” (1994), which was canned after just one season, similar to the single-season spinoff “Gloria” (1982). “Archie Bunker’s Place” (1979-83) fared slightly better.
Still, the most successful spinoff was “The Jeffersons” (1975-85), starring the Bunkers’ African-American neighbors George (Sherman Hemsley) and Louise “Weezie” Jefferson (Isabel Sanford). While the couple “moved on up” to a deluxe apartment in the sky, the smash-hit show spawned its own short-lived spinoff “Checking In” (1981), following snarky maid Florence (Marla Gibbs).
Through all the iterations, these were characters to which Americans of all stripes could relate.
“I (often) heard, ‘We used to sit and watch ‘All in the Family’ together. It was a time we knew we were together to watch the show.’ I’m not sure that’s happening anymore,” Lear says.
As the industry has blossomed to new heights, it’s also lost the widespread communal experience.
“There’s so much content, I don’t know that appointment television exists, except for the individual who may be watching it someplace on an iPad as opposed to a television set. But at that time, families were getting together to watch things. There were only three networks, and for the most part, a living room television set. It was before there was a television set in the kitchen and the bedroom.”
Along the way, Lear continually adapted to the times, jumping from the TV screen to the silver screen to executive produce more than 20 movies, including Reiner’s “This is Spinal Tap!” (1984), “Stand By Me” (1986) and “The Princess Bride” (1987). He also earned an Oscar nomination for cowriting “Divorce American Style” (1967), a comedy starring Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds.
Lear has, quite literally, done it all in show business. So why the book title?
“It took me 93 years and some months and some days to get to the moment where I’m talking to you, and it took you every bloody second of your life to get to the moment where you’re talking to me, and your viewers, it took them all their lives to get to hear us. So, even this we all get to experience.”
Listen to the full conversation with Norman Lear below:
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