Norman Lear created some of the most iconic and important television in the history of American entertainment, including "Sanford and Son," "The Jeffersons" and, of course, "All in the Family." His work tackled issues like race, homosexuality and religion at a time when all were considered taboo topics for American television. His innovative spirit and lovable, memorable characters paved the way for all the great shows that came after.
Without pioneers of the airwaves like Archie Bunker, Maude Findlay or James Evans, the shows and characters we love today might not have been possible. From Bart Simpson to Tony Soprano to "Sex and the City," Norman Lear blazed the trail.
But before he set about changing American culture, he defended the American way of life. Born in Connecticut on July 27, 1922, he was 19 years old when the Japanese Naval Air Forces bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.
"I couldn't wait to enlist," Lear told the Wexler Oral History Project in 2021.
Lear dropped out of Boston's Emerson College to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Forces the next year. Originally assigned to pilot training, he couldn't pass the math sections, so he became a radio operator on a B-17 Flying Fortress (named "Umbriago") with the 772nd Bombardment Squadron, 463rd Bombardment (Heavy) Group, Fifteenth Air Force.
As a radioman, he was also responsible for manning one of the plane's 13 machine guns. He would fly 52 missions over Nazi-occupied territory before the war's end, at a time when surviving to fly 25 missions was considered next to impossible. He survived the war and was discharged as a technical sergeant, having received five Air Medals.
After his 1945 discharge, Lear tried to begin a career as a press agent in Los Angeles. It was a short-lived career. He soon began writing comedy with Ed Simmons, his cousin's husband, and by 1952, the duo were writing for Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. In the 1960s, his repertoire grew from writing to directing and producing. His collaborators also grew to include Dick Van Dyke, Danny Kaye and Henry Fonda.
Finally, in 1971, Lear sold a sitcom about a blue-collar American family to ABC, one based on the British television series "Till Death Us Do Part." Like its British counterpart, Lear's pilot was about a conservative, aging bigot and his wife raising a daughter married to a left-wing son-in-law. Lear made two pilots for ABC, but the network picked up neither.
Finally, after making a third pilot starring Carroll O'Connor, CBS bought Lear's show. "All in the Family," the first show filmed in front of a live audience, ran for 205 episodes between 1971 and 1979, and its cast members, writers and directors won 22 Emmy Awards (Lear received four himself). Almost equally substantial shows "Maude" and "The Jeffersons" were both spun off from "All in the Family."
After 1979, "All in the Family" continued with a different format and a different name. It became "Archie Bunker's Place," named for the bar he purchased during the original show's run. It would air for another four seasons on CBS. While Archie Bunker was going strong, Lear also created "Sanford and Son," based on another show from the UK, "Steptoe and Son," and the daytime soap opera-style dark comedy "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."
Norman Lear died on Dec. 5, 2023, at his home in Los Angeles of natural causes. He was 101 years old.
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