Influential US TV producer Norman Lear dies aged 101

6 December 2023, 15:14

Norman Lear
Obit Norman Lear. Picture: PA

Lear made All In The Family, the hit US version of classic British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.

Norman Lear, the writer, director and producer who revolutionised US prime time television with shows such as All In The Family and Maude, has died aged 101.

Lear died on Tuesday night in his sleep, surrounded by family at his home in Los Angeles, said Lara Bergthold, a spokesperson for his family.

A liberal activist, Lear fashioned bold and controversial comedies that were embraced by viewers who had to watch the evening news to find out what was going on in the world.

His shows helped define prime time comedy in the 1970s, launched the careers of Rob Reiner and Valerie Bertinelli and made middle-aged superstars of Carroll O’Connor, Bea Arthur and Redd Foxx.

All In The Family was based on the classic British TV comedy Till Death Us Do Part, which gave the world Alf Garnett. The US version of Johnny Speight’s creation, developed by Lear, was immersed in the headlines of the day, while also drawing upon Lear’s childhood memories of his tempestuous father.

All In The Family
All In The Family’s cast (AP)

Racism, feminism, and the Vietnam War were flashpoints as blue collar conservative Archie Bunker – Warren Mitchell’s character Alf Garnett, retooled for American audiences and played by O’Connor – clashed with liberal son-in-law Mike Stivic (Reiner).

Jean Stapleton co-starred as Archie’s befuddled but good-hearted wife, Edith, and Sally Struthers played the Bunkers’ daughter, Gloria, who defended her husband in arguments with Archie.

By the end of 1971, All In The Family was number one in the ratings and Archie Bunker was a pop culture fixture, with then-US president Richard Nixon among his fans.

Some of his putdowns became catchphrases. He called his son-in-law “Meathead” and his wife “Dingbat”, and would also snap at anyone who dared occupy his faded orange-yellow wing chair.

It was the centrepiece of the Bunkers rowhouse in the New York City borough of Queens and eventually became an artefact in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Hits continued for Lear and then-partner Bud Yorkin, including Maude and The Jeffersons, both spin-offs from All In The Family, and both the same winning combination of one-liners and social conflict.

Norman Lear
Lear worked well into his 90s (AP)

In a 1972 two-part episode of Maude, the title character (played by Arthur) became the first on television to have an abortion, drawing a surge of protests along with the show’s high ratings.

Nixon himself objected to an All In The Family episode about a close friend of Archie’s who turns out to be gay, privately fuming to White House aides that the show “glorified” same-sex relationships.

“Controversy suggests people are thinking about something. But there’d better be laughing first and foremost, or it’s a dog,” Lear said in a 1994 interview with The Associated Press.

Lear’s business success enabled him to express his ardent political beliefs beyond the small screen. In 2000, he and a partner bought a copy of the Declaration of Independence for 8.14 million US dollars (£6.45 million) and sent it on a cross-country tour.

He was an active donor to Democratic candidates and founded the non-profit liberal advocacy group People for the American Way in 1980, he said, because people such as evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were “abusing religion”.

“I started to say, This is not my America. You don’t mix politics and religion this way,” Lear said in a 1992 interview with Commonweal magazine.

The youthful Lear created television well into his 90s, rebooting One Day At A Time for Netflix in 2017 and exploring income inequality for the documentary series America Divided in 2016.

Known for his shrewd and fruitful business dealings in movies, home video, pay TV and cable ownership, by 1986, Lear was on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest people in America, with an estimated net worth of 225 million dollars (£178 million).

He did not make the cut the next year after a 112 million dollar (£88.7 million) divorce settlement for his second wife, Frances. They had been married 29 years and had two daughters.

He married his third wife, psychologist Lyn Davis, in 1987 and the couple had three children. Frances Lear, who went on to found the now-defunct Lear’s magazine with her settlement, died in 1996 at age 73.

By Press Association

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