Television in its infancy had to follow a lot of rules similar to the Hays Code that affected movies. You couldn’t show a toilet on screen. Married couples couldn’t even be seen in bed. And when Lucille Ball got pregnant during I Love Lucy, how the hell would they actually tell millions of viewers she was pregnant. It was all taboo.
Then as the 1960s changed in cinema with movies like Blow-Up, Midnight Cowboy and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf pushing the boundaries, it was only a matter of time before TV reflected the same. While there was still a lot that couldn’t be discussed on the big networks, it didn’t mean plots to sitcoms had to be foolish and goofy. While everyone probably loves The Brady Bunch, Leave it to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show, they weren’t showing a reality.
Today, July 27 is the 100th birthday of Norman Lear. And he forever changed TV with one show. All in the Family premiered in January 1971. Based on the BBC show Till Death Us Do Part, the show introduced the world to Archie Bunker (Carrol O’ Connor), a mostly conservative leaning patriach who wasn’t afraid of speaking his mind about some things. His wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton) loved him but she was his partner, not his mother. Their daughter, Gloria Stivic (Sally Struthers), has married Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner) a more liberal-leaning academic who was part of the hippie counterculture movement.
Many of the episodes revolved around Archie and Michael, or “Meathead” as he was called, sparring over their different opinions. Yet, it never really settled who was right and who was wrong. Sometimes, they were both wrong. The show touched on many issues involving race and gender. In one notable episode, Edith finds herself almost being sexually assaulted by a serial rapist played by the later character actor David Dukes. It was an edgy episode.
And with all these topics on race, soical issues, poltics, gender roles, the show was extremely popular. So popular that it produced a successful spin-offs, one which was The Jeffersons. Isabell Stanford, who would play Louise “Wheezy” Jefferson, said she had the show All in the Family on in the background while talking on a phone and couldn’t believe what they were talking about. She got interested in the show and found it hilarious. Eventually, she would be cast on Family as one of Archie and Edith’s neighbors. Her husband, George, would be played by Sherman Hemsley.
George and Archie seemed to be the best of enemies as they both had very narrow-minded and somewhat bigoted views on people. George didn’t think too highly of white people, often calling them “honky” to their face. George was particular upset that his son, Lionel (played by Mike Evans and later Damon Evans, but no relations) was marrying Jenny (Belinda Tolbert) who had a white father, Thomas Willis (Franklin Cover) and black mother, Helen (Roxie Roker). Many of the early episodes dealt with how George couldn’t handle their interracial relationship while Weezy was more tolerant and acceptable.
The Jeffersons dealt with a black family “moving on up” to a more upscale neighborhood as George’s dry cleaning business has made him richer. They had originally lived in a working-class neighborhood in the Queens borough of New York City before moving to Manhattan. They even had their own maid, Florence Johnston (Marla Gibbs) who was quick to dish it out just as much as George was. Many episodes also dealth with how George and Florench butted heads.
The Jeffersons premiered in January of 1975. It portrayal of a black family living in an upscale neighborhood was something rarely seen. Also, the way, George would talk down to white people who he felt he was above or had insulted him was rarely seen at the time. But as the series went on into later seasons in the 1980s, Hemsley asked for George to be toned down some. He didn’t think after being around Thomas so much, George should still be calling him a “honky.”
All in the Family also gave us Maude, its first spin-off premiering in September of 1972 with Bea Arthur as Maude Findlay, a woman who is supposed to be in her mid to late 40s, and has married Watler Findlay (Bill Macy) just a few years earlier after meeting at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Both Maude and Walter were more liberal-leaning with Maude, a cousin of Edith, being more outspoken with her views on civil rights and women’s rights.
Maude and Walter had more Republican neighbors, Dr. Arthur Harmon (Conrad Bain) and his second wife, Vivian (Rue McLanahan). Maude, herself, was a widow and twice divorcee. In a very controversial episode at the time, Maude gets pregnant but must make the difficult choice to have an abortion. This aired in November 1972 shortly before Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court. Not even Family Guy could run an episode on abortion but Maude did it before Seth MacFarlane was even conceived.
About a year and a half after Maude premiered, Florida Evans (Esther Rolle) who had played Maude and Walter’s maid, was the main character on Good Times, another spin-off. Even though Maude was mostly set in the NYC suburbs, Good Times was set in Chicago in the inner city with some speculation that they were living in the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project. Florida is married to James (John Amos) a Korean War veteran who worked odd jobs to help support his family, which also consisted of three kids, J.J. (Jimmie Walker), Thelma (Bern Nadette Stanis) and Michael (Ralph Carter).
Most of the earlier episodes, like other Lear works, dealth with social, racial and political issues. Unfortunately, Amos and Rolle felt that Walker was getting too much attention for his more racial stereotypical portrayl of J.J., whose catchphrase “Dy-no-mite!” became popular mong viewers that it was used in almost every episode. Amos left resulting in James being killed off. This also gave Rolle the great episode where she tries to hold it together dealing with his death but suddenly loses it when she’s trying to put food away and slams a punch bowl on the ground screaming, “Damn! Damn! Damn!!”
Despite what some people felt about J.J., the show presented a family that was struggling but didn’t give up. They didn’t have time to have a potato sack race like the Bradys. But despite their hardships, it didn’t ever portray them as lower class of people. Being poor and living paycheck to paycheck didn’t mean they were dumb. It just showed America that some people aren’t living the nuclear family American dream. Even though money was always an issue, James and Florida still encouraged J.J. to pursue his love of art work. And Michael, despite having to sleep on the couch, was very intelligent and performed well in his school work.
But it wasn’t just all social commentary with his sitcoms. Lear often worked with Bud Yorkin, another filmmaker and TV producer. Together, they produced Sanford and Son with Yorkin mainly focusing on it while Lear remained uncredited. Based on the British show Steptoe and Son, it focused on Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) a widower who ran a salvage and junk dealer business with his son, Lamont (Demond Wilson) in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The show was more lighter in tone and notable for a running gag where Fred would clutch his chest when something bad or unexpected happened screaming, “This is the big one!” And then he would talk to his late wife, Elizabeth, as he was coming to see her shortly as he was about to die.
Lear also had a hand in developing Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a late-night daily TV show that was a parody of soap operas with Louise Lasser as the titular character. This spawned the parody talk show Fernwood 2 Night featuring Martin Mull and Fred Willard during the summer of 1977.
In November 1978, Diff’rent Strokes would premiere with Bain playing millionaire businessman Phillip Drummond who adopts the two orphan black sons of his late housekeeper. The two sons, Willis and Arnold Jackson (Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman) had a hard time adjusting and earlier episodes dealt with the cultural shift of two young boys moving from Harlem to Park Avenue.
But as the 1970s were ending, trends were changing. Audiences were no longer interested in political, racial and social commentary in their TV viewing. Happy Days with its 1950s and pre-Civil Rights nostaglia attracted audiences. People weren’t as interesting in social commentary, at least in sitcoms as the TV dramas seemed to focus on these issues more in the 1980s.
The Cosby Show presented lighter toned family sitcoms, with such plots involving Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) showcasing all the Father’s Day gifts he had received over the years. And the 1980s seemed to focus more on these types of sitcoms. Diff’rent Strokes was toned down as episodes would focus on Kimberly Drummond (Dana Plato) having her hair turn green from acid rain. And then there was the “Very Special Episodes” that became very popular among a lot of 1980s and 1990s sitcoms.
And Diff’rent Strokes had a lot of them. Who can forget the infamous “Bicycle Man” episode where Gordon Whip plays a bicycle businees proprietor who is a child molestor. Then, Phillip gets married to a health and fitness talk show host, Maggie (Dixie Carter and then Mary Ann Mobley) and her red-headed son, Sam McKinney (Danny Cookson). This was part of the Cousin Oliver syndrome of shows adding new and younger characters.
In 1985, The Jeffersons was abruptly canceled with many cast members such as Gibbs saying they were never given a reason. Times change. Audiences’ likes change. In 1994, Lear created 704 Hauser featuring Amos as a middle-aged middle-class Democrat butting heads with his conservative son played by T.E. Russell who’s married to a white, Jewish woman, played by Maura Tierney. The premises was the series was set in the house once owned by Archie and Edith. It lasted five episodes with a sixth being produced but unaired.
But people could see the effects of Lear in the 1980s with Married…With Children which showcased a working class family that didn’t always end with the “Big Hug” and moral plot story. Seinfeld pushed back against this premise as well. And even though the earlier seasons showcased the family’s dynamic, conservatives rallied against The Simpsons for its more blue-collar focuses.
By the end of the 1980s, most family sitcoms focused on upper-middle class suburbanites who liked the Cleavers or the Bradys lived in a different world. Roseanne, in its earlier seasons, showcased more of the realism that Lear portrayed. While it remained a family sitcom, One Day at a Time showcased a single mom played by Bonnie Franklin starting over following a divorce. The opening title sequence has her jumping for joy as she’s leaving. The series was telling audiences in the 1970s that it was okay to leave a marriage that wasn’t working. Single parents raising their kids were still families.
Lear’s birthday comes one day after false reports that Tony Dow, of Leave it to Beaver, had passed. While Dow is in hospice care, he is still alive as of this posting. And while we don’t know how many more days, weeks, months or years Lear has, things would’ve been a lot different if he had kept churning out the same TV shows the networks wanted. While most of his shows are still in syndication, at one time, he ruled the medium as a king.
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