Renowned for infusing humor into weighty themes, Norman Lear passed away on Tuesday in Los Angeles at 101.
Matthew Lawrence, representing the family, confirmed Lear’s peaceful passing due to natural causes. He was celebrated for creating iconic series such as All in the Family and The Jeffersons; Lear’s legacy extended beyond entertainment, encompassing a sincere dedication to political activism.
According to a post on his Facebook page, Lear spent his final moments enveloped by his loved ones, sharing tales and melodies until the end.
Lear’s sitcom families dared to engage in authentic discussions about the pressing issues of the 1970s.
Darnell Hunt, a prominent authority on TV’s portrayal of race, notes the groundbreaking nature of Lear’s narratives, contrasting them with the simpler, more idyllic television worlds that preceded them.
Before Lear’s shows, storylines often revolved around trivial dilemmas like burnt pot roasts or school talent shows, lacking the depth and social relevance Lear brought to the small screen.
Lear’s array of successful ’70s sitcoms sparked a revolution in television.
“These shows grappled with deeply-rooted societal issues,” Hunt asserts. “They delved into matters fundamental to inequality and societal strife in America. Lear fearlessly confronted everything from homophobia and sexism to racism.”
For those acquainted with All in the Family, glimpses of Lear’s family dynamics might resonate. Archie Bunker mirrored Lear’s father, while Edith drew inspiration from his mother, Jeanette. Frances, Lear’s ex-wife, found her likeness in the character Maude.
Growing up in a Jewish household in Connecticut, Lear’s childhood was shaped by the hardships of the Depression. Lear shared with NPR in 2012, reflecting on his father, “I witnessed my father and his brothers face financial ruin. My father, in particular, struggled immensely.
Labeling him accurately is tough, so I refer to him as a ‘rascal.’ He had run-ins with the law and served time, but I can’t emphasize enough how much I cared for him. I speak lightly of him because I refuse to vilify him. He was someone I deeply loved.”
Exiting college, Lear enlisted in the Air Force during World War II. Upon relocating to Los Angeles in his late twenties, he grappled with adversity, peddling furniture and photographing infants for a livelihood.
Eventually, his persuasive skills opened doors to writing for a nightclub comedy act, which paved the way for gigs in variety shows.
He had stints with Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and later Martha Raye – it’s like a roll call of television royalty from that time,” explains Marty Kaplan, the original director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California.
By 1971, approaching his 50s, Lear had amassed a repertoire of produced shows and films, poised at the brink of a transformative moment in his life.
“I stumbled upon this British series, Till Death Us Do Part, in TV Guide,” Lear recounted in The Norman Lear Collection DVD set. “The familial dynamic, the political debates, the prejudices – it all resonated with my upbringing, mirroring my relationship with my father,” Lear reflected. “It was uncanny how closely it paralleled my life.”
Driven by this realization, Lear embarked on creating his adaptation. Enlisting talents like Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton, he orchestrated a pilot.
However, bringing All in the Family to television screens was an uphill battle that spanned several years.
As it finally hit the airwaves, viewers were greeted with a preliminary disclaimer: “You’re about to watch All in the Family. It aims to illuminate our vulnerabilities, biases, and worries humorously. We aim to highlight their absurdity maturely by turning them into laughter.”
Anticipating a flood of objections regarding Archie Bunker’s overt racism, the network braced itself. Surprisingly, audiences grasped the show’s intent. All in the Family soared into the top 10 ratings for eight out of its nine seasons.
“My goal was to evoke genuine laughter,” Lear explained. “Yet, we took it seriously. Our writers delved into multiple newspapers daily, keenly observed their families and surroundings, and discussed everyday issues affecting us. That’s where our material stemmed from.
All in the Family marked the onset of Lear’s sitcom dominance. Maude, Edith’s cousin, ventured into her show. Subsequently, Maude’s housekeeper, Florida, and her family transitioned into Good Times, depicting the struggles of a black family facing poverty.
Following this, The Jeffersons emerged, portraying the journey of an upwardly mobile black family.
“The Jeffersons embraced their black identity unreservedly,” remarks Darnell Hunt. “It grappled with race, class, and gender dynamics simultaneously. I recall watching The Jeffersons in my youth and feeling its uniqueness on TV, compelling me to tune in.”
Hunt acknowledges that depicting a black family was imperfect, but it resonated authentically with black audiences. The Jeffersons enjoyed an impressive 11-season run, solidifying its place as one of the longest-running sitcoms on television and adding another success to Lear’s repertoire.
Kaplan noted that Lear commanded a staggering presence with three of the top five shows when just three networks ruled television. Viewership soared, often reaching 50 to 60 million people per show, connecting directly with households nationwide.
Lear recognized the gravity of this influence, consistently pushing against network executives to infuse storylines with the societal shifts of the ”70s—embracing themes like the black power movement and women’s liberation.
Reflecting on his approach, Lear shared with NPR in 2008, ‘We realized that by engaging people emotionally, even through humor, we could deepen their connection and engagement.’
As the 1980s approached, Lear pivoted from sitcoms to active political involvement. He candidly admitted, ‘The combination of politics and religion was daunting.’ This led him to create a pivotal 60-second TV spot targeting the religious right.
In this poignant message, aimed squarely at challenging the notion of defining Christianity by political affiliation, Lear emphasized, ‘It’s troubling when individuals, even religious leaders, dictate one’s faith based on their political stance. That’s not what America stands for.
He insists that his intention was never to initiate an organization, yet People for the American Way seemingly ‘sprang up around it,’ as he puts it.
Lear’s acquisition of an original copy of the Declaration of Independence led to a nationwide tour, birthing a nonprofit initiative known as We Declare. This campaign proudly claimed to have registered nearly four million young voters in anticipation of the 2008 election.
His enthusiasm for causes and activism inadvertently made him a magnet for controversy. Reflecting on this, he revealed to NPR in 2012, ‘I’ve faced numerous death threats. Being a lightning rod was never my aim.
When asked what bumper sticker I’d have, I responded, ‘Just another version of you.’ I believe that is what we all represent—variations of one another.
Recently, Hollywood witnessed Norman Lear’s resurgence. His involvement in reviving the series ‘One Day At A Time’ is a prime example. Despite crossing the centennial mark, Lear remained active, pitching pilots, hosting political fundraisers, and sharing candid Twitter videos from his front porch.
According to Kaplan, Lear navigated his endeavors with humor and empathy.
“Norman had this way of categorizing people as either ‘wet’ or ‘dry,'” Kaplan elaborates. “The ‘dry’ ones remained composed, collected, unflustered. On the other hand, the ‘wet’ individuals were driven by emotion, acting impulsively, allowing things to affect them profoundly.
Lear identified as a ‘wet’ person—someone who quickly shed tears, passionately engaged in causes, and acted upon his convictions. His life embodied anything but dryness.