BORN: July 27, 1922 • New Haven, Connecticut
American television producer
Norman Lear is one of the most successful producers in television history. Every year from 1972 to 1983, at least two shows that he created ranked among the top twenty in the annual TV ratings (a measure of the number of viewers who watched various programs). During this period, Lear changed American television by introducing situation comedies that dealt with real social issues, from racial prejudice to abortion. "These were not new subjects to the American people," Lear told People. "They just happened to be subjects that television had not touched." Some of his most influential programs were All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and One Day at a Time.
"By changing the way television looked, All in the Family changed forever the way we look at television."
—Vince Waldron, Classic Sitcoms.
An early talent for comedy
Norman Milton Lear was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on July 27, 1922. His mother, Jeanette (Scicol) Lear, was a homemaker. His father, Herman Lear, was a securities broker who served as a model for one of Lear's most enduring characters, Archie Bunker of All in the Family. Throughout his youth, Lear and his father would engage in heated discussions about the issues of the day. "I'd accuse him of making racial slurs [referring to people of other races in negative terms]," Lear recounted in Classic Sitcoms, "and we'd get into real … shouting matches. And we were a nice Jewish family."
TV Writer and Producer Sherwood Schwartz
Sherwood Schwartz created two of the most beloved television comedy series of all time, Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch. Although both shows failed to impress TV critics, they were popular during their initial runs in the 1970s and they attracted even larger audiences in reruns (repeat showings of programs that aired earlier).
Sherwood Charles Schwartz was born on November 14, 1916, in Passaic, New Jersey. He started his career in 1939 as a professional writer, by working on a radio show hosted by the comedian Bob Hope. During World War II (1939–45) he wrote comedy programs for the Armed Forces Radio Service. After the war ended, he worked on the popular radio comedy series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
In the early 1950s Schwartz turned his attention to television. Over the next fifty years, he wrote, produced, or contributed to more than seven hundred television shows. One of his first successful programs was My Favorite Martian, a comedy about a family that must come to terms with a very strange uncle who turns out to be a visitor from another planet.
In 1963 Schwartz created Gilligan's Island, which ran on CBS from 1964 through 1967. This situation comedy (sitcom) follows the wacky adventures of a group of people shipwrecked on a deserted island. The seven castaways, who come from a variety of backgrounds, struggle to find a way to live together. New generations of fans discovered the appeal of Gilligan's Island in the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond. In fact, it has been rerun more than any other series in TV history.
Another Schwartz creation that has enjoyed lasting popularity is The Brady Bunch, which originally ran on ABC from 1969 to 1974. The Brady Bunch tells the story of a family that is formed when a widower (a husband whose wife has died) with three sons marries a widow (a wife whose husband has died) with three daughters.
The Brady Bunch appealed to a broad range of kids—both boys and girls, of various ages—by giving them six different young characters with whom they could identify. At a time when a growing number of young people had to deal with divorce and the creation of new families, the Bradys provided a model of a highly functional blended family. The show also appealed to kids of the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond who enjoyed its portrayal of family life during a pleasant, innocent time.
Schwartz co-wrote the theme songs for Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch, both of which are often mentioned among the favorite TV theme songs of all time. The lyrics of the songs provide viewers with background about the characters and their situations. Schwartz said that he used this approach in order to avoid having to explain the story during each weekly episode.
Schwartz used his two most popular TV series as the basis for books, cartoons, movies, and plays. In 1988, for example, he published the book Inside Gilligan's Island, which describes the creation of the show and also provides an inside look at the television industry. In 1994 he produced the comedy film The Brady Bunch Movie. Using a new cast of actors to portray the familiar characters, the movie poked gentle fun at the TV series by moving the Bradys into the fast-paced world of the 1990s.
Lear studied communications at Emerson College in Boston, but he left school to join the U.S. Air Force during World War II. As a Jew, Lear felt compelled to help the Allied war effort against Nazi Germany, which was responsible for systematically murdering millions of Jews in Europe. After returning from his military service, Lear married his first wife and took a job in public relations in New York City.
In 1949, Lear moved to Los Angeles, where he sought work as a writer in the new medium of television. By 1951, he was writing comedy sketches for the NBC variety program Ford Star Revue. His work impressed comedian Jerry Lewis (1926–), who hired Lear to write material for The Colgate Comedy Hour, which featured Lewis and his partner Dean Martin (1917–1995). During the early 1950s, Lear also directed and wrote for TV variety shows starring comedians such as George Gobel, Don Rickles, and Martha Raye.
After a decade of working in television, though, Lear became dissatisfied with the medium. He felt that the commercial and political pressures facing the television industry made it difficult for producers to take risks and develop artistically. In 1959, Lear joined forces with Bud Yorkin to form Tandem Productions, a company that developed and produced movies. Over the next twelve years, Lear wrote and produced a series of light comedy films, including Come Blow Your Horn (1963); Divorce, American Style (1967); The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968); and Cold Turkey (1971), which he also directed.
Creating All in the Family
In 1968, Lear read about a hit television comedy show in England called Till Death Us Do Part. The show focused on a bigoted dockworker and his family. Tandem Productions quickly bought the legal rights to do a version of the show for American television. After watching a few episodes of Till Death Us Do Part, however, Lear found it too abrasive. He then decided to model the lead character of the American version, originally named Archie Justice, after his father. He also drew from his own experience in writing about Archie's family and their frequent arguments about politics, race, and gender roles.
Lear initially called the new show Those Were the Days. He set the family in Queens, New York, and cast Carroll O'Connor (1924–2001) as Archie and Jean Stapleton (1923–) as his kind-hearted wife, Edith. The ABC network agreed to finance the production of a pilot (initial test) episode. In the pilot, Lear made it clear that Archie was a prejudiced man who distrusted blacks, Jews, feminists, hippies, and others who did not share his working-class values. Archie also engaged in loud arguments and name-calling with his family. ABC found the subject matter too controversial and decided to pass on turning the pilot into a series.
Those Were the Days languished for the next two years. Even though the 1960s saw a great deal of social upheaval in the United States—with the civil rights movement, the women's liberation movement, and protests over the Vietnam War—most prime-time TV series did not address the various changes taking place in American society. Fearful of offending the audience with social commentary, the major television networks instead offered viewers an assortment of goofy comedies and light-hearted adventures. By the 1970s, however, some bold network executives began to think that the American people might be ready to watch more realistic shows that dealt openly with current events and social issues.
In 1970, CBS president Robert Wood canceled several unsophisticated, escapist comedies, such as The Beverly Hillbillies, and began searching for shows that would appeal to a more mature audience. Wood heard about Lear's show, and CBS ordered thirteen episodes. The network suggested changing the name of the series from Those Were the Days to All in the Family. Lear agreed, and he also changed the last name of the family from Justice to Bunker.
A new kind of TV comedy
All in the Family made its debut on January 12, 1971. CBS executives knew that some viewers might be shocked by the program, since it was so different from most shows of that era. Immediately before the series premiere, according to Joe Garner in Stay Tuned, the network aired a message explaining that the show "seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show—in a mature fashion—just how absurd they are." CBS also set up a special telephone switchboard to respond to calls from viewers who found the program upsetting. As it turned out, though, the few people who called in offered mostly positive comments.
As the first TV series to deal with the daily struggles of a working-class family, All in the Family received a great deal of attention from TV critics. It was not an immediate hit with viewers, but Lear felt confident that the show would soon find an audience. In May 1971, only five months after it premiered, All in the Family collected Emmy Awards as Outstanding New Series and Outstanding Comedy Series. Jean Stapleton was also honored as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy for her portrayal of Edith Bunker.
From that point on, All in the Family enjoyed tremendous success. Each week, millions of Americans tuned in to see how the groundbreaking situation comedy (sitcom) would deal with issues of race, religion, sexuality, politics, and family. It aired on CBS for a dozen years and was the top-rated show on television for five consecutive seasons. It also claimed nineteen Emmy Awards, including three more selections as Outstanding Comedy Series.
Influencing development of the sitcom format
All in the Family influenced the development of TV comedy in a number of ways. For instance, it started a trend toward more realistic sitcoms that tackled a broader range of social concerns. All in the Family also focused on wordplay and verbal sparring more than previous sitcoms. Many later TV shows adopted this approach, from sitcoms such as Seinfeld to news programs such as Crossfire.
In addition, All in the Family was the first major American TV series to be videotaped in front of a live studio audience. Before it aired, most sitcoms were either shot on film in front of an audience, or filmed without an audience but using a recorded laugh track (a recording of an audience laughing) to reproduce an audience response. With the success of All in the Family, the crisp appearance of videotape and spontaneous live response from a studio audience became the standard for situation comedies.
Finally, All in the Family was one of the first programs to generate successful spin-off series, or new programs featuring members of the original program's cast. Lear built several new shows around characters from All in the Family, including Maude and The Jeffersons. Analysts of popular culture claim that spin-offs help viewers forge a closer connection to television, because they are able to watch familiar characters adjust to new situations and grow.
Vince Waldron summed up the show's lasting influence in Classic Sitcoms: "By breaking down every established notion of how TV comedy should be written, performed, edited, and scored, the series almost single-handedly revolutionized the creative community's attitude toward the medium. By changing the way television looked, All in the Family changed forever the way we look at television."
Continuing success with other new programs
Lear followed the success of All in the Family by introducing two new series in 1972, Maude and Sanford and Son. The character of Maude, played by Bea Arthur, had appeared on All in the Family as Edith's cousin. She was a successful, liberal, divorced woman in her forties who had some memorable clashes with Archie. In the spin-off series Maude, Lear and his staff of writers addressed such topical issues as women's rights, alcholism, and abortion. Sanford and Son was a more straightforward comedy that starred African American comedian Redd Foxx as a junk dealer named Fred Sanford who lived with his son in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Both series were top-ten hits in the 1970s.
With his next two series, Good Times and The Jeffersons, Lear introduced a new format known as the black situation comedy. Good Times revolved around an African American woman, Florida Evans, who had appeared as a maid on Maude. Evans and her family lived in a public housing project in Chicago. Lear used the series to address such issues as poverty, unemployment, and crime. The Jeffersons centered on George and Louise Jefferson, who were the Bunkers' African American neighbors on All in the Family. In the spin-off series, George's successful business allows the family to move into a luxury high-rise apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. These shows were some of the earliest to make black families the focus of a weekly TV series.
Not every television show Lear touched in the seventies turned into a hit. In fact, he helped develop more than twenty series during the 1970s, and most of them lasted one season or less. Lear did find success with One Day at a Time, a sitcom about a divorced mother struggling to raise two teenaged daughters. The show premiered in 1975 and lasted eight years. In the late 1970s, Lear created two new comedies that received a great deal of critical attention and remained popular in reruns into the early 2000s: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which provided a humorous take on soap operas; and Fernwood 2-Nite, which provided a funny view of talk shows.
Although Lear continued to dabble in television in the 1980s and 1990s, his work focused less on creating new shows and more on arranging behind-the-scenes business deals. After ending his partnership with Bud Yorkin, Lear founded TAT Communications with another partner, Jerry Perenchio. This company, which later became Embassy Communications, produced such popular 1980s shows as Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life. In 1986, Lear and his partner sold Embassy to the Coca-Cola Company for $485 million.
With his share of the proceeds, Lear started a new company, Act III, which formed the basis of a communications business consisting of magazines, television stations, and movie theaters. Lear's company also invested in several hit motion pictures, including Stand By Me and The Princess Bride, both directed by former All in the Family star Rob Reiner. In 2005, Lear announced a $115 million investment in Village Roadshow Pictures, a film production and distribution company.
Over the years, Lear has also emerged as an active supporter of liberal social and political causes. In the 1980s, he founded People for the American Way, an organization dedicated to defending civil liberties and promoting tolerance in American media and culture. Lear has also supported various organizations that promote free speech and encourage young people to vote. As part of this mission, he sponsored a nationwide tour of one of the original signed copies of the Declaration of Independence.
For More Information
Garner, Joe. Stay Tuned: Television's Unforgettable Moments. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2002.
Marc, David, and Robert Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995.
McCrohan, Donna. Archie and Edith, Mike and Gloria. New York: Workman, 1987.
McNeil, Alex. Total Television: The Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present. New York: Penguin, 1996.
Newcomb, Horace, and Robert S. Alley. The Producer's Medium: Conversations with Creators of American TV. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Waldron, Vince. Classic Sitcoms: A Celebration of the Best in Prime-Time Comedy. Los Angeles: Silman James Press, 1997.
Bellafante, Gina. "The Inventor of Bad TV: What Would the '70s Have Been without Sherwood Schwartz?" Time, March 13, 1995.
"King Lear: Witty and Brave, Norman Lear Toppled Taboos by Getting Us to Laugh at Our Foibles." People Weekly, March 15, 1999.
"Norman Lear." Museum of Broadcast Communications. http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/L/htmlL/learnorman/learnorman.htm (accessed on May 22, 2006).
Schwartz, Sherwood. "How It All Began," 1998. BradyWorld.com. http://www.bradyworld.com/cover/begin.htm (accessed on June 19, 2006).
Schwartz, Sherwood. "Professional Biography," 1998. BradyWorld.com. http://www.bradyworld.com/cover/schwartz.htm (accessed on June 19, 2006).