Bud Yorkin: Hall of Fame Tribute
Bud Yorkin was a television pioneer during the 1950s and a revolutionary in the 1970s. That's when he and producing partner Norman Lear turned the sitcom genre upside down by creating trailblazing shows like All in the Family and Sanford and Son. During a remarkably varied career spanning over a half century, Yorkin has produced, written and directed an array of television variety shows, specials and sitcoms in addition to directing and producing a number of feature films.
Not bad for a fellow whose field of study was electrical engineering at Carnegie Tech and whose interest in a career in entertainment wasn't sparked until he wrote comedy sketches in the navy during World War II. A year after graduating from college in 1948, the then 23-year-old landed a job at NBC in New York City as a junior executive in the engineering department.
But Yorkin had his sights set on the production department from the get-go. He would send critiques of NBC shows to the company's program manager, who never responded to the young man's written opinions. Fortuitously, Yorkin was elected to help negotiate a contract for his union with NBC in 1950.
"After we had done about three weeks of negotiating, NBC asked if there were other [grievances]," recalls Yorkin. "I told them that employees can't transfer from one department to another. When they said that wasn't true, I brought in copies of about a year's worth of my [unanswered] critiques. That's when they transferred me to production."
The rest is television history. Yorkin started out as a stage manager on Philco Television Playhouse and the popular The Colgate Comedy Hour, where Lear was a writer, and later became a full-fledged director on such NBC series as The Dinah Shore Show, The Tony Martin Show, The George Gobel Show and The Ford Show. In 1958, he received three Emmy Awards for An Evening with Fred Astaire.
The following year, Lear and Yorkin formed their own production company, Tandem Productions.
"By that time, Norman and I were very good friends and we still are," remarks Yorkin. "I got to the point where I had done enough television series. We both wanted to do films ... Then we went for about 10 years where we did nothing but motion pictures and television specials."
The dynamic duo produced numerous feature films such as Come Blow Your Horn (1963), Divorce American Style (1967) and Start the Revolution Without Me (1970). During that time, Yorkin directed television specials including Duke Ellington ... We Love You Madly (1961) and An Evening With Carol Channing (1965).
In 1968, Yorkin and Lear stumbled upon a British sitcom about a bigoted dockworker called Till Death Do Us Part. The pair adapted the show for American television with ABC agreeing to finance first one, and then a second pilot. Both tested poorly and ABC dropped the program, which featured a prejudiced and outspoken main character named Archie Bunker who was critical of just about every minority group. The series was later rejected by both CBS and NBC.
But in 1970, CBS had a change of heart after its president Robert D. Wood decided the network needed a serious facelift. The Lear-Yorkin series, renamed All in the Family, found life as a mid-season replacement in 1971.
"The networks were terrified to put it on," remembers Yorkin. “The reason CBS put it on was they had too many [rural] shows like Petticoat Junction and The Beverly Hillbillies. They wanted to get out of that. They were falling to number three [in a three team ratings race]. That's why they took the chance with All in the Family.”
After a slow ratings start, All in the Family became a breakaway hit and provided a vehicle for sharp-witted social-political arguments between the bigoted Archie character and characters with more liberal views. The show brought a new sense of stark realism to a sitcom format that had never been this hard-hitting and socially incisive. Tandem Productions followed with a similarly topical All in the Family spinoff series entitled Maude, this time focusing on a liberal, which tackled a slew of controversial issues from abortion to gender roles to plastic surgery.
Yorkin oversaw another classic sitcom, Sanford and Son, beginning in 1972. Again, Yorkin and Lear took a significant chance by casting it as a black show. CBS rejected the series and while NBC was hesitant, it eventually agreed to air the series, which became a huge hit.
Daring to be controversial and breaking down social barriers wasn't the primary objective of Tandem Productions, Yorkin insists.
"Norman always says this, and I think it's correct — the first obligation was to be funny," says Yorkin, the recipient of the Television Academy's "Man of the Year" award in 1973. “We never did anything just to make a statement about an issue like abortion or homosexuality. It was, ‘Let's make this funny and at the same time say something interesting.’ Some of these characters like the Archie Bunker character had such distinct political and social views. They almost demanded a certain type of comedy.”
Sexual double entendres may abound in contemporary shows like Friends, but Yorkin finds most of today's sitcoms to be fairly conservative compared to their '70s counterparts like All in the Family and Maude.
“We never touched the kinds of sexual jokes [one finds in some of today's sitcoms]," he notes. "But a [socially controversial show like] All in the Family would be much more difficult to air today because we're living in a more conservative world.
Yorkin and Lear created other '70s sitcoms such as The Jeffersons and Good Times. In 1974, Yorkin created Bud Yorkin Productions with the intent of producing more feature film projects, though his new company also produced television series like the Sanford and Son spin-off, Grady. Subsequent film projects included Blade Runner (1981), which Yorkin executive produced, and Love Hurts (1990), which he directed and produced.
At the age of 76, Yorkin no longer has the accelerator pressed to the floor.
"I haven't killed myself [working] in the last few years," he says with a laugh. "I've killed myself trying to break a hundred in golf! That seems to be more difficult than getting a television show done ... But I haven't retired."
Yorkin is currently in the beginning stages of developing a sequel to Blade Runner and collaborating with producer-director Blake Edwards on a possible Pink Panther Broadway show.
Life is sweet for Yorkin. He has two grown children and two children ages seven and nine by his second wife, actress Cynthia Sikes. (Daughter Nicole Yorkin is a television writer and show runner who cocreated The Education of Max Bickford, and son David is a television writer as well.)
Nevertheless, he does feel a wistful sense of nostalgia for his earliest days in television, when he and his cohorts helped build an exciting new medium from the ground up. Back then a hit television show may have represented a shared national experience of sorts. Today, a hit TV show is just part of an ever-expanding entertainment universe teeming with options.
"Believe me, I miss those early days,” recalls Yorkin. “There was such an esprit de corps among those of us who worked on those shows. When we finished a live show like Philco Television Playhouse, every writer, every star, and every director would go down to this little bar in New York called Hurley’s. We would all be there thinking the world had just seen our show. It was a wonderful era. It was one of my happiest days; maybe my happiest days.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Bud Yorkin's induction in 2002.
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