Writer, Producer, Activist, Icon…
This past Wednesday night, May 22 at 8pm, ABC aired “Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All In the Family and The Jeffersons.” With an all-star cast of names much recognized by audiences young and older. While no replacement for the actors who originally played the parts when the sitcoms first hit the small screen, and though they didn’t (couldn’t) nail delivering the dialogue, Norman Lear’s script is sadly still relevant despite the decades that have passed and the supposed social advancements we’ve made since the 1970’s.
The soon to be 97-year old Lear opened the program saying:
“Hi, I’m Norman Lear. When we introduced Americans to the Bunkers and the Jeffersons, people weren’t used to TV shows dealing with issues like racism and sexism, but we thought humor was a way into peoples hearts and it did get millions of people talking. The language and themes from almost 50 years ago can still be jarring today and we are still grappling with many of these same issues. We hope tonight will make you laugh, provoke discussion, and encourage action. There is so much more work we must do in this country we love so much.”
To hear him say these words was sad because Lear has spent so much of his career speaking against injustices through his satirical TV shows, movies and open debates with his opponents from the far right, exposing the social constructs of racism, sexism, and inequality in our white-centric patriarchy.
In 1980 Lear founded the non-profit People For the American Way in opposition to the far right christian organization the Moral Majority which had been founded in 1979 by the late Jerry Falwell. Falwell and his associates were hell bent on making sure Ronald Reagan was elected president and that Lear and others in Hollywood were prevented from disrupting the ultra conservative way of life through their TV shows and movies.
Lear started writing for television in 1950 and quickly made a name for himself. By 1975 he was a household name. 1969 marked the beginning of his rapid assent breaking all sorts of social norms when inspired by BBC comedy Till Death Us Do Part, he introduced America to All in the Family (AITF)…
And its characters – bigoted, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, always grumpy Archie Bunker (played by Carroll O’Connor), his ‘Dingbat” wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), their sometimes wacky feminist ‘Lit’le Gerl’ Gloria (Sally Struthers), and her husband ‘Meathead’Michael (Rob Reiner), along with a string of family (Maude), neighbors (The Jeffersons) and multiple acquaintances.
AITF set a broadcasting precedence for the many controversial issues it tackled, from criticism of the Nixon administration to adultery, being in favor and against the Viet Nam war to those that dodged fighting in it, racism to inter-racial marriages, cohabitation outside of marriage (shacking up) to abortion, and everything else we weren’t talking about as a country. AITF ran from January 12, 1971 to April 8, 1979. It was almost as hated as it was loved, it opened previously sealed conversations among us, and opened the way for Lear’s next six shows.
In 1972 Lear continued crossing the social lines of race with Sanford and Son, inspired by BBC comedy Steptoe and Son, about Fred Sanford (played by Redd Foxx) a 65-year-old cantankerous, ethically and culturally insensitive junk dealer, the black version of Archie Bunker, that’s been widowed for 20 years and lives in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Helping him is his loyal, enlightened, yet ambitious son Lamont (Demond Wilson) restless 34-year-old son, a black version of Archie’s son-in-law Michael ‘Meathead” Stivic. This pair’s interactions center around the racial, inter-racial and socioeconomic issues of the black community.
In rapid fire succession Lear introduced four other shows:
Maude – September 12, 1972, until April 22, 1978. A spin-off of All in the Family, Maude (played by Beatrice/Bea Arthur) was one of Edith Bunker’s cousins, an outspoken, middle-aged, politically liberal suburbanite, living in Tuckahoe, Westchester County, New York, with her fourth husband, household appliance store owner Walter Findlay (Bill Macy), Maude’s equally outspoken feminist daughter Carol Traynor (Adrienne Barbeau), their stuffy, sardonic Republican neighbor Dr. Arthur Harmon (Conrad Bain) and his wife Vivian (Rue McClanahan who co-started with Bea Arthur in The Golden Girls).
Maude outspokenly embraced women’s liberation, Democratic Party candidates, and was a staunch advocate of civil rights and racial and gender equality whose strong personality often put her into conflicts that a man her equal would never have opposed, an inequality which she always managed to point out.
Good Times (GT) – February 8, 1974, to August 1, 1979. Originally to be the Maude spin-off of her Tuckahoe, NY housekeeper who was married to a NY City fireman, GT turned out to be centered on the poor Evens family, mom Florida a domestic worker (played by Esther Rolle), jack of all trades chauvinistic dad James (John Amos), oldest son artist J.J. (Jimmie Walker), high schooler daughter Thelma (Bern Nadette Stanis) and youngest son Michael “the militant midget” activist (Ralph Carter) The family lived in the tenements of inner-city Chicago, and keeping true to Lear’s had a lot to say about the controversies concerning their daily lives, racism, and the issues surrounding their socioeconomic status.
The Jeffersons – January 18, 1975, to July 2, 1985 and was All in the Family’s second spin-off. George (played by Sherman Hemsley), Louise (Isabel Sanford), Lionel (Mike Evans, also Meathead & Gloria’s friend) Jefferson and their maid Florence (Marla Gibbs who cameos in “Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All In the Family and The Jeffersons.”). They were the Bunker’s black neighbors whose dry cleaning business had flourished, making it possible for them to move from Queens to Manhattan. The sitcom dealt with such issues as alcoholism, racism, suicide, gun control, being transgender, and adult illiteracy. Much to the shock of viewers “nigger” and “honky” were often heard unbleeped.
One Day at a Time – December 16, 1975, until May 28, 1984. The sitcom focused on the struggles of single mother Ann Romano (played by Bonnie Franklin) who after her divorce moves her daughters Julie (Mackenzie Phillips) and Barbara (Valerie Bertinelli) to Indianapolis. We see Ann’s dilemmas as a single mother and career woman trying to hold on to her role as mother while trying to give her daughters the freedom she never had as a young woman, along with the family’s growing relationship with their apartment building’s superintendent Dwayne Schneider (Pat Harrington). In Lear fashion, the program covered a multitude of controversial parenting teenagers, gender inequality, and important teen issues of the ’70’s and ’80’s, including birth control.
These six programs set the standard for programs to dive into the issues that required our attention and were catalysts of change in our country. Much credit is owed to the courage of Norm Lear for creating, developing and producing them. Turing 97-years old this July 27th, he’s still advocating for change by helping draw our attention to how far we have yet to go in resolving the persistent issues of racism, gender and race inequality, and the many injustices that stem from them.
To further your understanding of this iconic figure and what makes him tick, watch:
I’m outta here! ~ Zadie G