Norman Lear

Born: July 27, 1922;

Died: December 5 2023

Norman Lear, who has died aged 101, was a writer and television producer, whose sitcoms broke taboos to depict warts and all portrayals of working class lives. He did this most notably with All in the Family (1971-1979), in which blue collar New Yorker Archie Bunker offloaded his assorted prejudices onto his infinitely more enlightened family.

Based on Johnny Speight’s British sitcom, Till Death Us Do Part (1965-1975), All in the Family broke more than one mould. Thematically, its depiction of previously no-go areas for TV comedy such as racism, feminism, homosexuality, religion, and the Vietnam War was a daring intervention into the mainstream. Secondly, it was one of the first sit-coms to ditch pre-recorded laughter tracks, with the show taped in front of a live audience.

This combination saw Lear’s creation become regarded as one of the greatest American TV shows of all time. Its portrayal of realistic situations opened the door for other comedies to follow suit, with several Lear-produced spin-offs doing something similar.

Lear looked again to British sit-coms when Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s Steptoe and Son crossed the pond to become Sanford and Son (1972-1977). Lear had previously co-produced an unsold pilot of an American version of Galton and Simpson’s creation in 1965. Where the original British rag and bone men were London east-enders, Sanford and Son were African Americans living in the Watts district of Los Angeles.

Lear was as socially engaged off screen as much as on. In 1980, he founded People for the American Way in response to the Moral Majority. As an advocate of civic responsibility, he bought one of the few surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence, and toured it around the country. His support for liberal causes and his advocacy of First Amendment rights attracted the ire of right-wingers. He was also a silent partner of The Nation magazine.

Lear received numerous accolades for his work, including five Emmys, and in 1984 was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. He received the Humanist Arts Award from the American Humanist Association in 1977, and in 1999 was awarded the National Medal of Arts by then U.S. president, Bill Clinton. Lear went on to play Benjamin Franklin in an episode of South Park (2013).

He received what was arguably the ultimate accolade when he voiced an animated version of himself in an episode of The Simpsons. Now regarded as the ultimate dysfunctional American family, The Simpsons are clear descendents of the Bunkers.

Norman Milton Lear was born in New Haven, Connecticut, the eldest of two children to Jeanette (nee Seicol) and Hyman ‘Herman’ Lear. When Lear was nine, his father was imprisoned for selling fake bonds, and he later based the character of Archie Bunker in part on him. After high school, he attended Emerson College in Boston before dropping out in 1942 to join the United States Army Air Force.

Lear initially moved into PR, before forming an alliance with his cousin Elaine’s husband, Ed Simmons. The pair worked as door-to-door salesmen, and throughout the 1950s became sketch writers for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on TV variety show, The Colgate Comedy Hour (1950-1955). In 1954, Lear was drafted into the writing team of short-lived sitcom, Honestly, Celeste!, alongside future writer of the long running series, M*A*S*H*, Larry Gelbart, and became producer of The Martha Raye Show.

Lear penned monologues for The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show (1956-1961), and in 1959, with Roland Kibbee, created The Deputy, a western starring Henry Fonda. Lear scripted TV specials for Fonda, Danny Kaye, Bobby Darin and others, and wrote the screenplay for Come Blow Your Horn (1963), adapted from Neil Simon’s play of the same name.

In 1966, Lear wrote Where It’s At, for anthology series, ABC Stage 67, and was Oscar nominated with Robert Kaufman for their screenplay for Divorce American Style (1967). Lear followed this with the screenplay of The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968). He also wrote a teleplay called Justice For All (1968), the first of two unaired pilots, followed by Those Were The Days (1969), which formed the basis of All in the Family.

Successful spin-offs included Maude (1972-1978), and The Jeffersons (1975-1985), with One Day at a Time (1975-1984), based around the trails of a divorcee mother, a spin-off of Maude. Other shows included Good Times (1974-1979), while he also developed Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-1977). Films executive produced by Lear included The Princess Bride (1987), and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1991).

Several reboots of his early work followed, including a Cuban-American reworking of One Day at a Time (2017), while Lear continued to be a thorn in the right-wing establishment’s side. A memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, was published in 2014.

In March 2021 he attended a virtual edition of the Golden Globe awards ceremony to accept the Carol Burnett Award in honour of his life’s achievements in television. “At close to 99,” he told those watching, “I can tell you that I’ve never lived alone. I’ve never laughed alone. And that has as much to do with my being here today as anything else I know.”

He is survived by his third wife, Lyn Davis; six children, Ellen, to his first wife, Charlotte Rosen; Kate, and Maggie, to his second wife, Frances Loeb; and Benjamin, Brianna and Madeline, to Davis. He is also survived by four grandchildren: Daniel, Noah, Griffin and Zoe.