Norman Lear’s first job in Los Angeles was selling home furnishings door to door in the suburbs. He would ring the bell bearing his wares, either a large lamp or a ship clock, a decorative earthenware boat with a timepiece or space for family photos. It was 1949, just four years removed from World War II, during which Lear flew 52 missions. Serving in Europe, he worked as a radio operator and turret gunner on B-17 Flying Fortress missions, including the bombing of Berlin. Life was good for the young, married veteran, but he had a yearning to get into show business, first as a publicist, then as a comedy writer with his cousin’s husband, Ed Simmons. One evening, they wrote a song parody, got laughs singing it to their wives, went out that night, and sold it on the spot to a performer at the Bar of Music for $40. It was only ten bucks less than he made in a good week hawking fireplace mantel decorations.
“It became clear to me, and to Eddie also, that we should continue writing together,” Lear recounted in his 2014 memoir, Even This I Get to Experience. “The idea of earning a living by sitting around making each other laugh was clearly preferable to trudging about … trying to separate innocent housewives from their money.” The duo soon sold a sketch to nightclub comic and variety show host Danny Thomas, which led to a steady gig churning out material for famed comedic duo Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on the 1950s television program “The Colgate Comedy Hour.”
Lear, whose career kicked off on a live black-and-white variety show out of New York City, died on Tuesday at the age of 101 in his Los Angeles home. In 1950, when he started in television, the situation comedy format was a mere three years old, and the number of households with TV was just climbing into the millions. In 2017, seven decades later, he produced his final sitcom, a reinvention of his 1975 CBS divorced-mom-with-two-teenagers show, “One Day at a Time,” this version featuring a primarily Latino cast. It debuted on Netflix when the streaming service had 110 million subscribers. That might seem like an astounding number, but Netflix’s reach fell short of the audience Lear’s collective programming had at its peak. He was such a force in television that at one point he was responsible for six of the top ten shows in the nation and some 120 million Americans, more than half the population at the time, tuned in weekly.
To put it bluntly, Lear changed the face of American television.
Pop culture has the power to change hearts and minds. Norman Lear took that power seriously, though he often used humor to personalize the political. "All in the Family" broke ground in the 1970s, exploring issues of race, gender, war, poverty, and what it means to be American. pic.twitter.com/YDVtV2kQND— Lonnie G. Bunch III (@SmithsonianSec) December 6, 2023
In a 2016 “American Masters” documentary “Just Another Version of You,” Phil Rosenthal, the brains behind “Everybody Loves Raymond,” pronounced two epochs in television history: Before Norman and After Norman.. In addition to writing the aforementioned bits for Martin and Lewis, Lear’s early gigs included crafting monologues for the “Tennessee Ernie Ford Show,” producing “The Martha Raye Show” and, in 1959, creating his first television show, “The Deputy,” a western starring Henry Fonda. In the 1960s, he wrote feature films such as Come Blow Your Horn with Frank Sinatra and Divorce American Style with Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds, for which he received an Oscar nomination.
The first two decades of Lear’s Hollywood career were certainly productive as he moved up the food chain, but Rosenthal’s line of demarcation wouldn’t be drawn until January 12, 1971. On that life-altering Tuesday, a blue-collar couple from Queens returned from church to their modest Astoria row house and found their daughter and son-in-law had prepared a special brunch to celebrate their 22nd wedding anniversary. The wonderful spread of eggs with ketchup, toast, coffee and orange juice quickly devolved into a loud, generational Nixon-era argument touching on “socialist propaganda,” “breakdown in law-and-order,” “bleeding hearts and weeping nellies,” “college subversives,” the existence of God, and a heavy dose of racial epithets and antisemitic slurs delivered by the cigar-chomping man of the house.
“All in the Family” would become one of the most influential shows in television history, but its debut was far from promising. The first episode drew a scant audience, barely causing a ripple as it finished 55th in the Nielsen ratings. For the first few weeks, it seemed likely the Bunkers—played by Carroll O’Connor as semi-lovable bigoted patriarch Archie; Jean Stapleton as his daffy, loving, loyal wife Edith; Sally Struthers as good-natured but stubborn daughter Gloria; and Rob Reiner as her hothead hippie husband Mike “Meathead” Stivic—would be resigned to the dustbin of sitcom history.
“‘All in the Family’ was so cutting edge, our first show came with a big disclaimer that was basically CBS saying, ‘We don’t know how the hell this got on.’ We thought it was too hip for the room and probably wouldn’t last long,” says Reiner. “We also knew what we were creating was great and groundbreaking because Norman Lear is such an incredible producer. Beyond casting, writing, developing characters and all that, Norman had a way of pushing people to get the best out of them. A word I use to describe him is kochleffl, which is a Yiddish word for a cooking spoon, because he loved to stir the pot. Keep mixing it up, never settle for what we have and keep reaching for something even better.”
Norman Lear’s recipe for sitcom success is unmatched. His litany of hits includes “Maude,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and “Sanford and Son,” as well as cult classics like “Fernwood 2 Night” and forgotten trailblazing efforts like “All That Glitters,” which featured the first transgender regular character on television. Lear wasn’t immune to flops; “A.k.a. Pablo” lasted only six episodes and made a 2004 TV Guide list of “50 Worst Shows of All Time.”
Lear was well liked in Hollywood, but he, too, dealt with high-profile workplace drama. He and “Good Times” star John Amos had a falling out over creative differences about the show’s direction. Amos made it known he felt the show strayed from the day-to-day struggles and triumphs of the working-class Evans family to more of a showcase for Jimmie “J.J.” Walker’s broad “Dyn-o-mite!” antics. Lear fired Amos after the third season, and his character was killed off in a car accident. But on the whole, Lear lived a charmed professional life, represented by his 1999 National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton and his 2017 Kennedy Center Honors.
“Lear has lived such a long, full life, even by the standards of people who live long, full lives. A giant who came in and shook the medium by its roots as one of the most innovative minds in television history,” says Ryan Lintelman, curator of entertainment at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “The Smithsonian didn’t start curating sports and entertainment until the  Bicentennial, so we acquired furniture from ‘All in the Family’ before we even really had dedicated space.”
When the museum reopened its entertainment exhibition last fall, Archie and Edith’s chairs, as well as an end table with an ashtray and beer can, took a prominent spot. According to Lintelman, they are among the “most requested objects” in the museum’s collections.
By the time the first 13 episodes of “All in the Family” were in summer reruns, the show was atop the Nielsen ratings, beginning a five-year run at No. 1, a record unmatched at the time. There simply hadn’t been a show with family members verbally sparring over the same issues on the nightly news like the Vietnam War, poverty, feminism, racism, rape, the burgeoning gay rights movement and live births in malfunctioning New York City elevators. (That one may be Archie-specific.)
What is sometimes overlooked in the tributes to how Lear revolutionized television is that audiences fell in love with the characters, not the causes. Consider the two-part watershed 1972 episode of Lear’s “Maude,” in which the main character,played by Bea Arthur, finds out that at 47, she’s pregnant. She contemplates terminating the pregnancy—legal in New York in the year prior to Roe v. Wade. After frank, tender conversations with her adult daughter, Carol, and husband, Walter,who comforts Maude by saying, “in the privacy of our own lives, you're doing the right thing,” Maude gets an abortion, a sitcom first. CBS estimated 65 million viewers watched at least one of the episodes, followed by thousands of angry letters, phone calls, picketers and protesters. Some 40 affiliates refused to air the reruns, which only happened because the impact of watching a loving, married couple’s wrenching decision resonated with so many Americans.
“There is an interesting thing that happens when people look at the Bunkers’ furniture, a mirroring effect of people seeing themselves having difficult talks in their living rooms,” says Lintelman. “Lear’s characters let their guard down and had conversations that could be loud and difficult as society underwent great change. Family arguments, generational differences, those aren’t of a certain time—they’re universal. The hope is that seeing those common living-room experiences reflected back can open up different perspectives or at least allow people to laugh at something painful or upsetting in their own lives.”
Lear’s perspectives on life were first shaped through childhood trauma. The year he turned 9, his father, Herman, was arrested for selling phony bonds in a get-rich-quick scheme and spent the next three years in jail. After Herman’s photo appeared on the front page of the newspaper, Norman’s mother left their home in Chelsea, Massachusetts. She took Norman’s sister with her and left Norman with relatives until the family reunited in Brooklyn. Before his mother and sister left, someone in their home looked into Norman’s teary eyes and said he was now the man of the house. In his memoir, Lear writes, “This had to be the moment when my awareness of the foolishness of the human condition was born.”
As it turns out, those years were when Lear’s most famous characters were first conceived, even if they didn’t come to life until he was 50. Archie Bunker was based on Herman, and the liberal-conservative generational dichotomy was one Lear knew firsthand. Archie’s lingo was even a Herman Lear trait, as he called his son a “meathead, dead from the neck up” (according to the man who would end up wearing that unfortunate nickname for life) and telling his wife to “stifle!” when he wanted her to shut up. Edith, too, bore some resemblance to Norman’s mother, although she was angrier than Edith—a “sour soul” in Lear’s words—and the marriage more volatile. Lear borrowed a friend’s description, saying his parents “lived at the end of their nerves and the top of their lungs.”
Another defining event of young Norman’s existence came shortly before Herman went to prison, when he gave his son a radio. Alone in bed fiddling with the wires, Lear first heard the antisemitic rantings of Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest out of Detroit with a radio broadcast reaching tens of millions of listeners. Lear couldn’t forget Father Coughlin’s rants of sympathy for the Nazi Party in Germany, which included a justification of Kristallnacht. In the fall of 1940, he enrolled at Emerson College in Boston, an indifferent student who spent most of his school time in the theater department and his after dark hours catching the bawdy burlesque shows, “delighting in the bump-and-grind grand dames of strip,” he wrote. Youthful collegiate follies ended in his third semester when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Nine months later, against his mother’s wishes, Lear gave up an academic deferment, dropped out, and enlisted in the military. His goal, as he said in “Just Another Version of You,” was to be a “Jew who served … to battle, to bomb … to kill.”
Decades on, Father Coughlin night terrors would play out in “Archie Is Branded,” which begins with a swastika mistakenly painted on the Bunker’s front door and ends with the murder of a Jewish radical in a car bombing down the street. Dealing with real-life issues on a fictional show had real-world consequences. “All in the Family” landed Lear on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” (Tapes released in 2008 caught the former president saying the show was “glorifying homosexuality” and that Meathead “apparently goes both ways.”)
The “Maude” abortion episodes, meanwhile, would be seized upon by Baptist minister Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority, who labeled Lear the “No. 1 enemy of the American family.” Lear had long supported left-wing causes financially, but the rise of the Moral Majority during President Ronald Reagan’s first term in the White House led him to step away from producing television and turn to political activism. In 1981, he founded the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, even though Lear describes himself as a “bleeding-heart conservative” who loves the Constitution. Throughout his life, he cited his admiration for its equal protection laws, the very ones that offered solace to the scared Jewish child forever haunted by the bloodlust of an antisemitic propagandist.
In 2000, his belief in the core values of the United States led him to buy an $8 million original 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence. He took the “people’s document” on a national road trip across America, which included a stop at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, where he also carried the Olympic torch.
Reiner says Lear was a second father to him. (Lear’s longtime friend Carl Reiner was, of course, the first.) He cites “All in the Family” as providing him a “graduate degree” in filmmaking, having gotten a bachelor’s as a teenager watching his father put together “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Reiner honed his filmmaking chops, hanging out in the writers’ room, penning scripts, sitting in the broadcast booth, observing the camera blocking and staging in front of the audience—whatever he could soak up for his directorial ambitions. When Reiner finally began work on his first feature film, the fake true story of a ridiculous British rock band, Lear stepped up financially when nobody else would. Lear bankrolled Reiner’s remarkable 1980s run of This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand by Me and The Princess Bride. However, Reiner, who visited Lear regularly until his death, says it was his friend and mentor’s life beyond show business that mattered the most.
“I’ve known Norman since I was a little kid when the Lear, Reiner and [Mel] Brooks families got houses together at Fire Island, so I was around titans of comedy my whole life. Where Norman had a uniquely tremendous influence on me was as an advocate for what he believed in,” says Reiner, referencing his own advocacy for progressive causes like early childhood education and marriage equality. “All these various important causes that have made people’s lives better, Norman Lear was the guiding light.”
Lear’s life wasn’t always as bright white as his signature boating hat, which he started wearing in his sitcom heyday to stop picking at his bald pate. His first two marriages ended in divorce. Prior to being shipped out to Foggia, Italy, Lear married Charlotte Rosen, but it collapsed a decade later in part because, as he wrote, they “had nothing in common, really.” His second marriage to Frances Loeb—the inspiration for Arthur’s Maude lasted 28 years, but dissolved into a $112 million divorce settlement, among the largest of its time. A sexual abuse survivor, Frances suffered from biopolar disorder, depression and alcoholism, and attempted suicide multiple times; Lear is frank in his memoir about their toxic years together. Later on, Lear also had financial issues, and Even This I get to Experience is so titled because he thought he was going to lose the family home after a slew of bad investments.
Lear’s personal good times far outweighed the bad, though. His 1987 marriage to Lyn Davis lasted 36 years until his death. He leaves behind six children from three wives ranging in age from to 76 to 29-year-old twins, and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He may have stepped back in the early People for the American Way years, but he never really stopped creating.
This member of the Greatest Generation, who became rich and famous with primetime Baby Boomer shows, became a cultural icon to the latchkey Gen X kids who watched after-school reruns. In the 21st century, Lear wrote for “Chappelle’s Show,” voiced Benjamin Franklin on “South Park” and played an animated version of himself threatening legal action against Homer and Marge on “The Simpsons.” As he embarked on his 11th decade on Earth, Lear’s career arc came full circle when he teamed up with late-night host Jimmy Kimmel for “Live in Front of A Studio Audience”: recreations, this time in color, of past shows. “All in the Family” episodes starred Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei as Archie and Edith, and “Good Times” saw the return of John Amos as Alderman Fred Davis.
“Being Latino in America today is political whether you want it to be or not.,” says Gloria Calderón Kellett, producer and showrunner of the reimagined 2017-2020 “One Day at a Time.”. “I love shows with heart and humor intermixed with hot topics of the day, a mirror to society, which is best understood when described as ‘à la Norman Lear.’ He was a powerful advocate for us. Norman told me to always fight for the undiluted story I want to tell.” ”
Lear, a man who was born six years before the first television program aired, spent his last days surrounded by people who could watch any of his countless hours of programming on a device in their pocket. It’s a testament to his long life and career, but he made clear in a 2016 interview with Smithsonian, there was always a new day to seize.
“I won’t wake up in the morning without hope. Whatever preceded it is in the past. This right here, right now. This is the f—ing moment, and it took every split second of our lives to get here, to whatever comes next. It better be worthwhile,” he said.
To the very end, Norman Lear was never stifled.