Norman Lear: Hall of Fame Tribute
“I consider myself a writer who loves to show real people in real conflict with all their fears, doubts, and ambitions rubbing against their love for one another." —Norman Lear
Norman Lear has given television entertainment a new sense of pride in itself. By pioneering the mature, realistic, harsh-spoken situation comedy, the producer retrieved comedy from its bland aimlessness and shattered the homogenization that had overtaken it throughout the 1950s and '60s.
Describing Lear's remarkable achievement, Paddy Chayefsky, another television pioneer, once said:
Norman 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. ... He took the audience and he put them on the set.
The man who would one day become the premier television producer of the 1970s was born on July 27, 1922, in New Haven, Connecticut. His father, a salesman and a second-generation Russian Jew, was an intolerant man who asserted his position as head of the household by ordering his wife to "stifle" herself and by belittling his son as "the laziest white kid I ever saw," expressions later repeated by Archie Bunker. "I grew up in a family very much like those of my characters," Lear has said, "a family that lived at the top of its lungs and the end of its nerves."
After graduating from Weaver High School in Hartford in 1940, Lear attended Emerson College in Boston for a year before enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942. When the war ended, he worked as a publicist and a salesman in New York before moving to Los Angeles, where he teamed up with Ed Simmons to write comedy routines and musical parodies for local comedians.
In the 1950s, Lear and Simmons turned to the emerging medium of television, writing The Colgate Comedy Hour, starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and The Ford Star Revue. Later, the team wrote The Martha Raye Show, which Lear also directed. When they were invited by their mutual friend, Bud Yorkin, to write for Tennessee Ernie Ford's show, only Lear accepted the offer. That job led to Lear's participation in The George Gobel Show as its writer and director. In 1959, he and Yorkin formed Tandem Productions to package television specials and produce movies.
Tandem's movies during the 1960s included the Frank Sinatra vehicle Come Blow Your Horn, a box-office hit, Never Too Late, and Divorce: American Style, from Lear's original screenplay, which earned him an Oscar nomination. In 1968, without Tandem's participation, Lear produced The Night They Raided Minsky's; in 1971, he teamed up with Yorkin again to make Start the Revolution Without Me.
Because profits in the declining movie industry were relatively low, Tandem's business manager advised the partners to concentrate on the more profitable television market. After reading a trade-news item about the popular BBC-TV series Till Death Us Do Part, a satirical comedy of working-class mores that centered on a bigoted husband who constantly bickered with his liberal son-in-law, Lear obtained the American rights to the series. Lear remembered his own father and their squabbles over politics and social issues. "My father and I fought all those battles," he said in an interview with The New York Times Magazine in 1973. "I thought, 'My God, if I could only get this kind of thing on American television.'"
Turned down by ABC because its language was too frank, Lear's version of the British program eventually interested Robert D. Wood, then president of CBS. Wood approved the making of 13 episodes of the series, entitled All in the Family and starring Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton as Archie and Edith Bunker. Despite Wood's support, the network's program practices department balked at the "vulgarity" and "irreverence” of the script. Lear agreed to make a few minor changes, but resisted demands to tone down the thrust of the initial episode.
All in the Family premiered Tuesday night, January 12, 1971, with a voice-over disclaimer describing the program as "a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns." Expecting an avalanche of angry phone calls protesting the show's content, CBS hired extra operators to man the switchboards that night. The calls never came. The show was not an instant hit, but favorable viewer reaction and increasing critical support gradually boosted All in the Family to near the top of the Nielsen ratings. By the time the show went into reruns in May, it had won three Emmy awards, including one for the best comedy series.
Continuing to deal with such provocative topics as sexual impotence, menopause, racism, homosexuality, and breast cancer — subjects considered broadcasting taboos until then — All in the Family won seven Emmys at the 1972 ceremony, prompting host Johnny Carson to quip, "Welcome to an evening with Norman Lear."
With All in the Family, Lear had begun giving comedy programming a sophistication and a pungency it had never before known, forcing many network executives to reevaluate their beliefs about what the American public would accept in television. Their reevaluation led directly to the so-called new boldness that swept prime-time scheduling throughout the seventies.
A year after All in the Family premiered, Tandem's second television series, Sanford & Son — another blockbuster — made its appearance. And All in the Family began initiating a series of successful spin-offs: Maude (1972), about Edith Bunker's cousin, an outspoken liberal feminist; Good Times (1974), about Maude's black maid and her family in an urban housing development, and The Jeffersons (1975), about the Bunkers' black next-door neighbors who leave Queens to enjoy the upper-middle-class life in a high-rise apartment complex in Manhattan.
The Jeffersons was produced under the auspices of another Lear partnership, T.A.T. Productions, separate from the producer's affiliation with Yorkin. Through T.A.T., Lear also produced One Day at a Time, Hot l Baltimore, The Dumplings, Ail's Fair, The Nancy Walker Show, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
Debuting in January 1976, Mary Hartman was a sexually obsessed satire on soap operas that appeared five nights a week on independent stations throughout the country. After the three commercial networks rejected the series as "too far-out" for their viewers, Lear invited 23 presidents, owners, and station managers of independent stations to his home in Los Angeles. There, he presented Mary Hartman as a series that could be sold directly to their stations. The show went on to become a hit, thereby demonstrating that there was a market for first-run programming in syndication.
In 1978, after 16 television series in eight years, Lear left television briefly to develop movies. Unable to stay away, he came back to the medium the following year with the syndicated series The Baxters, and in 1980 he co-produced Palmerstown, USA, with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alex Haley. Palmerstown, the story of two families, one white, the other black, marked Lear's debut as a producer of a dramatic series for television.
In 1981, he began directing much of his energy toward the formation of People for the American Way, a national nonpartisan group organized to counteract the efforts of the conservative Moral Majority. In that same year, he and his partners created Embassy Communications, which produces and distributes motion pictures and television programming. Lear has returned in force to weekly television, with, at this writing, orders for six network series.
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Norman Lear's induction in 1984.
Six exceptional television programs that are impacting society through thoughtful, powerful, and innovative storytelling.
Go behind the scenes of our cover shoot with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington of Little Fires Everywhere.
From the 43rd Emmy Awards in 1991