By Bill Trott
(Reuters) -Producer-writer Norman Lear, whose groundbreaking hit comedies such as “All in the Family” and “Maude” addressed race, abortion and other social issues rarely seen before on U.S. television, died on Tuesday, at the age of 101, his family said.
Lear, one of the most influential people in television, died at his Los Angeles home of natural causes, “surrounded by his family as we told stories and sang songs until the very end,” the family said on Facebook on Wednesday.
Lear, who won six Emmy Awards for his work in television, was known for his campaigning for liberal causes, including voting rights, and worked well into his 90s.
In addition to “All in the Family” and “Maude,” Lear dominated American TV screens in the 1970s and ’80s with the situation comedies “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons,” and the soap-opera spoof “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” At one point in the 1970s, Lear had eight shows on the air with an estimated 120 million viewers, Time magazine said.
By drawing material from social themes of the time, Lear’s shows made network executives nervous because they had depth and an air of controversy.
“For him to say that he didn’t have an impact on not only television but society is … a little too humble,” said Rob Reiner, who had a co-starring role on “All in the Family” before becoming a film director.
“I loved Norman Lear with all my heart,” Reiner said on the X social media platform after news of his death. “He was my second father.”
President Joe Biden hailed Lear as a “transformational force in American culture.”
“Norman loved America and told our stories with heart, facing the good, the bad, and the truth of who we are as a nation striving to form a more perfect union,” he said in a statement.
Lear and production partner Bud Yorkin put “All in the Family” on the air in January 1971, and the show would go on to win four Emmys for best comedy in its nine seasons. It was based on a British show, “Til Death Do Us Part,” and gave U.S. television one of its most memorable and controversial characters: Archie Bunker.
Veteran actor Carroll O’Connor portrayed Archie as a crude, loud, blue-collar New Yorker who spouted racist, homophobic and antisemitic comments. He was cast against a scatterbrained wife he called “Dingbat,” a liberal daughter and an even more liberal son-in-law he referred to as “Meathead,” played by Reiner.
“All in the Family” was the top-rated show on U.S. television for five straight years, according to CBS, and TV Guide ranked it fourth on its list of television’s all-time greatest shows.
Born on July 27, 1922 in New Haven, Connecticut, Norman Milton Lear’s most lasting creation was partly based on fact. Many of the harsh words that came out of Archie’s mouth had first been spoken by Lear’s own father, Herman Lear, who went to prison for selling fake bonds, and frequently told his wife to “stifle” herself and called his son “the laziest white kid I ever saw.”
“I grew up in a family that lived at the top of its lungs and the ends of its nerves,” Lear told Esquire magazine.
Some critics said the Archie Bunker character put a laughing face on bigotry, but Lear said it only pointed to the complexity of humanity.
A year after “All in the Family” started, Lear aired “Maude,” a spin-off that starred Bea Arthur as Archie’s acerbic sister-in-law and political opposite.
As with Bunker, the character was like none previously seen on American television. Maude was on her fourth husband, protested marijuana laws and had an abortion before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized the procedure nationwide. Her husband battled alcoholism, had two nervous breakdowns and attempted suicide.
Black characters in U.S. television in the ’70s were mostly limited to minor roles until Lear made them the focus of some of his shows.
“Good Times” centered on a working-class Black family living in a public housing project in Chicago. Many of the show’s episodes deal with the family’s efforts to pull their way out of the circumstances through hard work and study.
“The Jeffersons,” another “All in the Family” spin-off, featured an upwardly mobile Black couple who moved to Manhattan’s upscale Upper East Side, where most of their neighbors were white. The show’s lead character George was brash, ambitious and unapologetic.
Lear’s other hits included “Sanford and Son,” a sitcom about a Black junkyard owner in a Los Angeles neighborhood.
While Lear was celebrated for his inclusion, some critics also said many of his depictions of Black characters tended to perpetuate stereotypes.
Lear produced a string of other hit shows, including “Diff’rent Strokes,” “Fernwood 2 Night,” and the “All in the Family” spin-off “Archie Bunker’s Place.” But Lear also had flops such as “All That Glitters,” “Sunday Dinner” and another “All in the Family” spin-off, “Gloria.”
Lear dropped out of college during World War Two to join the Army and flew 52 combat missions in B-17 bombers. He went to Los Angeles in 1950 with the intention of being a publicist but began writing for TV stars such as Danny Thomas, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and Andy Williams.
Lear shifted focus in 1981 and founded the liberal activist group People for the American Way to boost voting rights and fight right-wing extremism. He also established the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication.
In 2001, he and a partner purchased an original copy of the American Declaration of Independence and sent it on a three-year tour of U.S. schools, libraries and events.
He rebooted his 1970s TV series “One Day at a Time” to focus on a Cuban American family in 2017, and three years later he earned his sixth Emmy for a live special broadcast of “All in the Family” and “Good Times.”
In February 2021, Lear received the Carol Burnett Award, a lifetime achievement award, at the Golden Globe Awards ceremony, for his contributions to television.
Lear, who was convinced that laughter had lengthened his own life, used humor to enrich the lives of others, his online obituary said.
“I’ve never been in a situation in my life, however tragic, where I didn’t see comedy,” Lear said in the 2016 documentary, “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.”
Lear is survived by his third wife, Lyn, and his six children. A private service for his immediate family will be held.
(Writing and reporting by Bill Trott; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Costas Pitas; Editing by Diane Craft, Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)