LOS ANGELES (AP) — Norman Lear, the writer, director and producer who revolutionized prime time television with "All in the Family," “The Jeffersons” and “Maude,” propelling political and social turmoil into the once-insulated world of TV sitcoms, has died. He was 101.
Lear died Tuesday night in his sleep, surrounded by family at his home in Los Angeles, said Lara Bergthold, a spokesperson for his family.
A liberal activist with an eye for mainstream entertainment, Lear fashioned bold and controversial comedies that were embraced by viewers who had to watch the evening news to find out what was going on in the world. His shows helped define prime time comedy in the 1970s, launched the careers of Rob Reiner and Valerie Bertinelli and made middle-aged superstars of Carroll O'Connor, Bea Arthur and Redd Foxx.
Lear “took television away from dopey wives and dumb fathers, from the pimps, hookers, hustlers, private eyes, junkies, cowboys and rustlers that constituted television chaos, and in their place he put the American people,” the late Paddy Chayefsky, a leading writer of television’s early “golden age,” once said.
“All in the Family” was immersed in the headlines of the day, while also drawing upon Lear's childhood memories of his tempestuous father. Racism, feminism, and the Vietnam War were flashpoints as blue collar conservative Archie Bunker, played by O'Connor, clashed with liberal son-in-law Mike Stivic (Reiner). Jean Stapleton co-starred as Archie’s befuddled but good-hearted wife, Edith, and Sally Struthers played the Bunkers' daughter, Gloria, who defended her husband in arguments with Archie.
By the end of 1971, “All In the Family” was atop the ratings and Archie Bunker was a pop culture fixture, with President Richard Nixon among his fans. Some of his putdowns became catchphrases. He called his son-in-law “Meathead” and his wife “Dingbat,” and would snap at anyone who dared occupy his faded orange-yellow wing chair. It was the centerpiece of the Bunkers' rowhouse in Queens, and eventually went on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Hits continued for Lear and then-partner Bud Yorkin, including “Maude” and “The Jeffersons,” both spinoffs from “All in the Family,” with the same winning combination of one-liners and social conflict. In a 1972 two-part episode of “Maude,” the title character (played by Arthur) became the first on television to have an abortion, drawing a surge of protests along with high ratings. And when a close friend of Archie's turned out to be gay, Nixon privately fumed to White House aides that the show “glorified” same-sex relationships.
“Controversy suggests people are thinking about something. But there’d better be laughing first and foremost or it’s a dog,” Lear said in a 1994 interview with The Associated Press.
Lear and Yorkin also created “Good Times,” about a working class Black family in Chicago; “Sanford & Son,” a showcase for Foxx as junkyard dealer Fred Sanford; and “One Day at a Time,” starring Bonnie Franklin as a single mother and Bertinelli and Mackenzie Phillips as her daughters. In the 1974-75 season, Lear and Yorkin produced five of the top 10 shows.
All along, he was an active donor to Democratic candidates and founded the nonprofit liberal advocacy group People for the American Way in 1980, he said, because people such as evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were “abusing religion.”
"I started to say, ‘This is not my America. You don’t mix politics and religion this way,’” Lear said in a 1992 interview with Commonweal magazine.
The nonprofit's president, Svante Myrick, said “we are heartbroken” by Lear's death. “We extend our deepest sympathies to Norman’s wife Lyn and their entire family, and to the many people who, like us, loved Norman.”
With his wry smile and impish boat hat, the youthful Lear created television well into his 90s, rebooting “One Day at a Time” for Netflix in 2017 and exploring income inequality for the documentary series “America Divided” in 2016. Documentarians featured him in 2016's “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” and 2017's “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” a look at active nonagenarians such as Lear and Rob Reiner’s father, Carl Reiner.
Lear’s business moves, meanwhile, were almost consistently fruitful. By 1986, Lear was on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest people in America, with an estimated net worth of $225 million. He didn’t make the cut the next year after a $112 million divorce settlement for his second wife, Frances. They had been married 29 years and had two daughters.
He married his third wife, psychologist Lyn Davis, in 1987 and the couple had three children.
Lear was born in New Haven, Conn. on July 27, 1922, to Herman Lear, a securities broker who served time in prison for selling fake bonds, and Jeanette, a homemaker who helped inspire Edith Bunker. Like a sitcom, his family life was full of quirks and grudges, “a group of people living at the ends of their nerves and the tops of their lungs,” he explained during a 2004 appearance at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.
Lear began writing in the early 1950s on shows including “The Colgate Comedy Hour” and for such comedians as Martha Raye and George Gobel. In 1959, he and Yorkin founded Tandem Productions, which produced films including “Come Blow Your Horn,” “Start the Revolution Without Me” and “Divorce American Style.” Lear also directed the 1971 satire “Cold Turkey,” starring Dick Van Dyke about a small town that takes on a tobacco company’s offer of $25 million to quit smoking for 30 days.
In his later years, Lear joined with Warren Buffett and James E. Burke to establish The Business Enterprise Trust, honoring businesses that take a long-term view of their effect on the country. He also founded the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, exploring entertainment, commerce and society and also spent time at his home in Vermont. In 2014, he published the memoir “Even This I Get to Experience.”
Longtime AP Television Writer Lynn Elber retired from The Associated Press in 2022. Contributors include Alicia Rancilio in Detroit and Hillel Italie in New York.
Lynn Elber, The Associated Press