Norman Lear: A Man of His Times

Wow. It is a testament to a life well lived that when I googled Norman Lear just now to find an image for this post, all the top images are from THIS YEAR. The guy just turned 96 years old, and he is still producing television programs and still making headlines. Last year he launched a reboot of One Day at a Time on Netflix, and this year he sold a new pilot for an animated kid’s series to Nickelodeon. And a few months ago, he boycotted his Kennedy Center award ceremony because he didn’t want to accept it from Donald Trump, which is precisely what you would expect.

Let’s get one thing straight. Norman Lear is a great American. Without qualification. He’s a conscientious artist, businessman and citizen and all three of those facets merge in him. He loves this country deeply, and he has improved it immensely. And he has served it, in a manner far more profound than 99% of his loudmouth, blowhard critics could ever claim on their own behalf. Literally served it, as a tail gunner and radio operator aboard a B-17 in World War Two, flying 52 combat missions in the Mediterranean theater.  Anyone who knocks this, or doubts it, makes common cause with the Nazis and Fascists whom Americans fought in that war and needs to go slither back to their beer cellar.

After the war Lear, a Connecticut native, worked for a time in p.r. and sales. Towards the late ’40s he formed a writing team with his cousin’s husband Ed Simmons. The pair broke into the business writing material for Martin and Lewis for their appearances on the Colgate Comedy Hour (1950-53). Along with Larry Gelbart, Lear wrote for Celeste Holm’s short-lived sitcom Hello, Celeste in 1954. Then he wrote for and produced The Martha Raye Show (1954-55), worked on The George Gobel Show (1958-59), and wrote and produced tv specials for Bobby Darin (1961), Danny Kaye (1961), Henry Fonda (1962), and Andy Williams (1962). Surprisingly the first TV show he created from scratch was a western, The Deputy (1961) starring Henry Fonda.

Next came a period of writing and producing features: an adaptation of Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn (1963), Divorce American Style (1967), The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), and the all-star hit TV movie Cold Turkey (1971), which he also directed. He also produced the TV movie Never Too Late (1965) with Paul Ford and Maureen O’Sullivan, and executive produced the cult classic Start the Revolution Without Me (1970). Both of these were directed by Bud Yorkin, who would become Lear’s producing partner on his early TV sitcom hits.

The success of these high profile projects gave Lear the juice to launch two sitcoms he’d been developing for a number of years.

In 1965, he produced a pilot for an American version of the British sitcom Steptoe and Son, starring Lee Tracy and Aldo Ray. This went nowhere, but later made a hit in an all-black version in 1972 called Sanford and Son, co-produced by Yorkin. Starring chitlin’ circuit comedian Redd Foxx, the show was set in a junkyard in the L.A. neighborhood of Watts, and featured Demond Wilson, Lawanda Page, Whitman Mayo, and others. A smash-hit, it ran until 1977, with sequels through 1981.

But while Sanford and Son was the first original Lear hit to begin development, it was the second to air in its final form. The first one, and really the template for most of what came later, began life as Justice for All in 1968. This too was adapted from a British sitcom, called Til Death Do Us Part. After several failed pilots and many different casts it finally emerged in 1971 as the revolutionary series All in the Family. This topical sitcom starred Carroll O’Connor as Queens bigot Archie Bunker, Jean Stapleton as his browbeaten wife Edith, Sally Struthers as their feminist daughter and Rob Reiner as their righteously liberal son-in-law.  The popular show ran until 1979, and then morphed into Archie Bunker’s Place, which ran from 1979 to 1983. With All in the Family, Lear become a rarity: a television producer who was a name above the title. Whoever knew the name of any TV sitcom producer BUT Norman Lear? Now we knew one.

At this stage, Lear became something of a sitcom factory. There was Maude (1972-78), an All in the Family spin-off starring Bea Arthur as Edith’s liberal upper middle class cousin; Good Times (1974-79), a Maude spin-off, in which Esther Rolle played Maude’s former maid Florida, who lived in the Chicago projects with her family; and The Jeffersons (1975-85), an All in the Family spin-off about Archie’s former next door neighbor, well-heeled African American entrepreneur George Jefferson, played by Sherman Hemsley.

The foregoing may be thought of as Lear’s “first wave” shows, all of them essentially incremental branches off the All in the Family tree. Even Sanford and Son; in the early days Fred Sanford was spun as a “black Archie Bunker”.

In the next phase, Lear got more edgy, and experimental, but he was still pretty much minting gold.

His first show to last only a single season was his sitcom adaptation of Lanford Wilson’s Hot L Baltimore (1975), about the denizens of a seedy hotel. It pushed the envelope on content, and the public did not warm up to it. But then his next show One Day at a Time (1975-84) proved to be his next smash. Like most of his programming, this one was topical and groundbreaking, about a single mother (Bonnie Franklin) raising teenaged daughters. Alone among all the Norman Lear shows of the period, I was not a fan of this one, although most of my female peers were. But his next show Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-77) may be my favorite Norman Lear show of all. The innovative soap opera parody lasted only two seasons, but then became Forever Fernwood (1977-78), and then spawned the spin-offs Fernwood 2 Night (1977) and America 2-Night (1978).

Then we enter a third phase, characterized by more experimentation, much volume, and no hits. While Lear had successful shows on the networks through the mid 1980s, none of the ones he premiered after 1976 (not including the Fernwood franchises, which were successors to Mary Hartman) lasted more than a few episodes. Most of the shows we wrote about above have entire posts of their own (just follow the links) or soon will in the coming weeks and months. The ones we mention below for the most part don’t rate their own posts, and for that reason, many of them will provide some of the most interesting portions of this article, as this stuff that got swallowed up by time and few people know about. Get a load of some of this!

Lear executive produced The Nancy Walker Show in 1976. After being a highlight of Rhoda, McMillan and Wife and Bounty paper towel commercials it was thought a show starring the diminutive wisecracker would be a no brainer, but it didn’t click, and lasted only one season.

Also in 1976 his company TAT Communications produced The Dumplings, a sitcom starring Geraldine Brooks and James Coco as an overweight couple who own a New York deli. Also cancelled after one season.

TAT Communications produced yet a third one season show in 1976, All’s Fair, a sitcom about a conservative political columnist (Richard Crenna) and his romance with a liberal photographer (Bernadette Peters).

Then a truly interesting one:  All That Glitters (1977) This one is an apple off the Mary Hartman tree. Like that show, it was a daily comedic soap opera, this one set in an alternate universe where females were the dominant sex. The cast included Barbara Baxley (Nashville), Eileen Brennan, Jessica Walter, Chuck McCann, and Gary Sandy (just prior to making a hit on WKRP in Cincinnati). Produced at a local LA TV station and syndicated, it ran only two months, but being a daily show, there were no fewer than 65 episodes made. I’m curious, aren’t you?

In 1977 he produced a Little Rascals reboot, which featured a pre-Diff’rent Strokes Gary Coleman in the role of Stymie!

Also in 1977 Lear produced Sanford Arms, a Sanford and Son spin-off featuring Teddy Wilson and Lawanda Page. It lasted 8 episodes.

Also that year he executive produced A Year at the Top, featuring Greg Evigan (who’d been in All That Glitters), Paul Schaffer, and former Bowery Boy Gabe Dell.  Evigan and Schaffer play a couple of rock musicians, and Dell played their agent, the literal son of Satan. It lasted 6 episodes.

Then came In the Beginning (1978), one of McLean Stevenson’s many attempts to regain the sitcom glory he squandered when he left M*A*S*H. In this one he played a conservative priest; Priscilla Lopez played a liberal nun. And oh how the sparks flew! But only for one month.

Apple Pie (1978) came next. In this one Rue McLanahan (who first came to prominence in a guest shot on All in the Family and as a regular on Maude), played a Depression era lady who starts her own family by placing a personal ad in the newspaper, attracting the likes of Dabney Coleman, Jack Gilford, etc. This show lasted only TWO episodes.

Next The Baxters (1979). This one was playful in form. Half of each show was a sitcom episode; for the second half, it turned into a Donahue style talk show, where the story was discussed. The show had actually begun as a local program in Boston in 1977. Lear took it over and syndicated it nationally for one season starring Larry Keith and Anita Gillette (who had been in All That Glitters). After this one season, a Canadian version was produced by another company for a second season through 1981.

Mr. Dugan (1979) was another Maude spinoff. At the end of Maude’s run, Beatrice Arthur’s character was elected to Congress, and the last two episodes were set in Washington DC.  Then Arthur dropped out. Lear decided to keep the Congressional setting but decided now to make it about an African American football played who goes to Congress. The part was originally played by Good Times’  John Amos, but he then quit due to creative differences, so then Cleavon Little stepped in. After a special screening for African American community leaders (and ensuing criticism therefrom), the series was dropped, becoming an expensive failure for Lear. But then he retooled the concept yet again! And it became Hanging In (1979) which starred Maude’s Bill Macy as an ex football player who becomes the President of a University. It only lasted four episodes.

In 1980 he executive produced a drama called Palmerstown USA, which was about a Depression era friendship between two families. The show was created by Alex Haley of Roots fame and featured a pre-Family Ties Michael J. Fox. It lasted only one season.

In 1980, Lear pivoted in a major way once again, and we’re into a whole new phase. Concerned by the rise of the Moral Majority and the country’s swing to the right which culminated with Ronald Reagan’s election to the Presidency that year, Lear founded People for the American Way, the advocacy group whose many activities include the website Right Wing Watch, which fulfills a vital function to this day. In 1982 he produced a Patriotic national TV special called I Love Liberty, an all star salute America’s ideals celebrating George Washington’s 250th birthday.

In 1984, the last of his new sitcoms for a while, a.k.a. Pablo, starring stand-up comedian Paul Rodriguez, Hector Elizondo, Joe Santos, et al. This one only lasted for six episodes, and I find that particularly sad. This is Lear’s first show with an all-Latino cast, and stand-up was very hot at the moment. It had been eight years since Freddy Prinze had passed, thus ending Chico and the Man, so one might be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t “too soon”. But maybe it was, and as I’m sure Rodriguez would be the first to admit, Prinze’s are some mighty big shoes to fill. The irony is, Chico and the Man, good as it was, had totally appropriated Lear’s formula. In fact, back in the day, I’m sure I assumed it was a Lear show. But it wasn’t. (Lear has very recently returned to Latin themes. His One Day a Time reboot is about a Cuban-American family; and his new Nickelodeon show Man of the House (working title) is about a Latino boy helping support his family. At any rate, for whatever reason, a.k.a Pablo didn’t last beyond six weeks in 1984.

1984 was a busy year for Lear, as he also executive produced three TV movies: Good Evening, He Lied, with Charles Durning; P.O.P. (which he co-wrote and Bud Yorkin directed), with Durning, Bea Arthur, Fran Drescher, Antonio Fargas et al; and Heartsounds, with James Garner and Mary Tyler Moore.

In the mid 1980s the last of Lear’s long running hits (Archie Bunker’s Place, The Jeffersons, One Day a Time) ended. But from one perspective he was about to reach his peak in terms of prestige, for he executive produced the theatrically released hit films The Princess Bride (1987) and Fried Green Tomatoes (1991).

At this stage, he decided to give launching new sitcoms yet another shot. By now, I’ve lost count of what phase we’re on. Four, five, six? Something like that. He tried three more sitcoms.

He created Sunday Dinner (1991), in which Robert Loggia and Teri Hatcher played a Long Island couple with an enormous age difference. It only ran six episodes.

He was the executive producer of The Powers That Be (1992-93). Like Mr. Dugan it was  a satirical show show with a Washington setting. John Forsythe played a liberal Senator, with Holland Taylor as his ambitious, striving wife. Peter McNicol and David Hyde-Pierce were also in the cast. This one ran almost a year, making it his biggest success as a sitcom producer in some time.

Then in 1994, he created 704 Hauser (1994), an All in the Family spin-off in which a black family led by patriarch John Amos moves into Archie Bunker’s old house. It was cancelled after five episodes. On the one hand, the concept represents  “a return to form” but on the other hand, it’s a form that must have seemed a tired formula from the perspective of two decades after Lear’s hot streak and hey day.  And as we begin to realize, even well-meaning old, white liberals (I’m looking at you, Bernie Sanders) are not the be-all and end-all for African American audiences, in fact, more often than not they shoot wide of the mark. You know what was on the air in 1994? In Living Color. The wheel of history had moved past Lear at that stage.

So there are ways in which Lear’s “ground-breaking” shows were not so ground-breaking. But we’ll deal with them in upcoming posts. Today we salute a guy who made a lot of good TV happen, and who was, and is, eminently a man of his times.

I’m tired of typing now, but Lear has continued to produce shows (mostly TV movies and specials) over the last two decades. Catch up with ’em here.