Public Media for Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Legendary television producer Norman Lear has died at 101

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have news that Norman Lear died yesterday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 101. Norman Lear produced television shows including "All In The Family" and "The Jeffersons," both of which were about ordinary people but had very political content in a time of social change. He later became a political activist. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin reports.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: You might not be able to picture what Norman Lear looks like, but you probably already know his family. His father on TV as Archie Bunker.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")

CARROLL O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) What the hell is it nowadays? Will you tell me? Girls with skirts up to here, guys with hair down to there.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Edith, based on Lear's mother, Jeanette.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")

JEAN STAPLETON: (As Edith Bunker) Actually, something interesting did happen today. Oh, no. That was yesterday.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And Lear's ex-wife, Frances, who America knows as Maude.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAUDE")

BILL MACY: (As Walter Findlay) Dinner with a chicken that's still frozen.

BEA ARTHUR: (As Maude Findlay) Walter, if you think that's a frozen chicken, wait'll you see what you find in bed tonight.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: These were real families who had conversations about the real things that were going on in the 1970s.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")

O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) If your sp**s and your spades want their rightful share of the American dream, let them get out there and hustle for it, just like I did.

ROB REINER: (As Michael Stivic) Now I suppose you're going to tell me that the Black man has had the same opportunity in this country as you?

O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) More. He's had more. I didn't have no million people out there marching and protesting to get me my job.

STAPLETON: (As Edith Bunker) No. His uncle got it for him.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Before these shows, television worlds were simpler, nicer places, says Darnell Hunt, professor of sociology at UCLA. They had plot lines like...

DARNELL HUNT: I burnt the pot roast. What are we going to do? We don't have anything for dinner. Or I have a talent show at school, and I don't know how to dance.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Then Lear's roster of '70s sitcoms revolutionized television.

HUNT: Those shows took on issues that couldn't be resolved. They were issues that were at the heart of inequality and struggle in American society. He tackled everything from homophobia to sexism, racism, you name it.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Norman Lear grew up in a Jewish family in Connecticut. He dropped out of college and enlisted in the Air Force to fight in World War II. In his late 20s, he moved to Los Angeles. He struggled for several years, selling furniture door to door, taking baby pictures. Eventually, he scammed his way into writing for a nightclub comedy act, which led to variety show gigs.

MARTY KAPLAN: He worked for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and then Martha Raye. This is a kind of a who's who of television in that era.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's Marty Kaplan, who has the distinction of being the Norman Lear professor at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and running the Norman Lear Center. By 1971, Norman Lear was almost 50. He had produced and directed some shows and movies, and his life was about to change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORMAN LEAR: I'd read in TV Guide about this British show "Till Death Us Do Part."

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's Lear reflecting for the DVD set "The Norman Lear Collection."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEAR: And that dynamic of the father and the son and the political arguments and the bigotry and so forth. That was my dad. I grew up with that. I couldn't believe it, it hadn't been my idea. It was so clearly a show.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He cast stars like Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton. He got a pilot filmed, but then he had to fight for years to get "All In The Family" on the air. When it finally did, viewers heard this first.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Warning - the program you are about to see is "All In The Family." It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The studios were prepped for lots of complaints, but mostly, people liked it, and it made it to the top 10 for eight of its nine seasons. This was the beginning of Lear's sitcom reign. Edith's cousin Maude spun off her own show. Maude's housekeeper, Florida, and her family became "Good Times," about a Black family struggling with poverty. Then came "The Jeffersons"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVIN’ ON UP")

JA'NET DUBOIS: (Singing) Well, we're moving on up.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: ...About a Black family on its way up.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JEFFERSONS")

DAMON EVANS: (As Lionel Jefferson) Pop, what's happening?

SHERMAN HEMSLEY: (As George Jefferson) Nothing's happening. I'm just enjoying life lately.

EVANS: (As Lionel Jefferson) Oh, yeah. Well, it is kind of nice around here, ain't it?

HEMSLEY: (As George Jefferson) Kind of nice? This is it - the cream, the top.

HUNT: The Jeffersons were unabashedly Black.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Darnell Hunt runs the Bunche Center for African American Studies.

HUNT: It tried to engage race and class dynamics and gender dynamics at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JEFFERSONS")

HEMSLEY: (As George Jefferson) She is where a domestic belongs - in the kitchen.

ISABEL SANFORD: (As Louise Jefferson) And you are going to be where you belong - in the doghouse.

HEMSLEY: (As George Jefferson) I wear the pants in this family.

SANFORD: (As Louise Jefferson) And when you zip them up, include your mouth.

HUNT: I remember the Jeffersons growing up. I remember feeling like, there really isn't anything else like this on TV, so I have to watch this.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Hunt says the portrayal of a Black family was far from perfect, but it had a level of realness that Black audiences could relate to. "The Jeffersons," one of the longest running sitcoms on television, became another Lear success story.

KAPLAN: He had at one point, I think, three out of the top five shows on television, and this was a time when there were only three networks.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Again, Marty Kaplan.

KAPLAN: So routinely, a show might get 50 or 60 million viewers. He was in direct contact with the living rooms and families of the country.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Lear took that reach seriously. He routinely fought with executives to get on storylines that reflected the social upheaval of the '70s, with the Black Power movement and women's liberation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")

O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) I suppose next, you'll have you prancing around in hot pants and burning your brassieres.

STAPLETON: (As Edith Bunker) Oh, no, Archie. I'm afraid of fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEAR: It didn't escape our notice also that the more you get people to care when they laugh, they will laugh more.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's Norman Lear speaking to NPR in 2008. By 1980, Lear was moving away from sitcoms towards political activism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEAR: The mixture of politics and religion scared the hell out of me. And I went out and made a 60-second television spot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEAR: So maybe there's something wrong when people, even preachers, suggest that other people are good Christians or bad Christians depending on their political views. That's not the American way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEAR: So an organization I never intended, People For the American Way, just sprung up around it.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He ended up buying an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and toured the country with it, inspiring hundreds of thousands of people to register to vote. Although he never had another big hit show after the '70s, even in the last few years he was pitching pilots in Hollywood and holding political fundraisers. He's received dozens of awards, including the National Medal of Arts. Marty Kaplan says Lear did all he did with humor and compassion.

KAPLAN: Norman divided people into wet and dry. Dry people were calm, cool, unruffled. Wet people were emotional and impulsive, and things get to them.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Norman Lear considered himself a wet person. He teared up. He joined causes. He acted on what he believed, and his life was anything but dry.

Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVIN’ ON UP")

DUBOIS: (Singing) We finally got a piece of the pie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Selena Simmons-Duffin
Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.