July 27, 1922, is the birthdate of Norman Lear, the TV producer and writer who brought the world “All in the Family.” He is also behind the half-dozen spinoff series that used humor to introduce what were then edgy themes like racism, sexism and class differences to a little screen accustomed to wholesome if boring shows about well-behaved rural and suburban white people.
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CBS was taking a big risk when it began broadcasting “All in the Family,” in January 1971, and initially, ratings were low and critical response tepid. By season’s end, however, the show, about two generations of a working-class white family living together in Queens, New York, dominated by an ignorant and prejudiced patriarch, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), was the country’s top-rated show, and it remained there most of the decade.
At least somebody got him
Norman Lear was born in New Haven, Connecticut. His father, Hyman “Herman” Lear, was the U.S.-born son of immigrant Jews from Russia. His mother, the former Jeannette Sokolovsky, had been born in Elizabethgrad, Ukraine, and came to the U.S. when she was six. Lear has said that his parents both served as inspiration, in part, for the characters of Archie and Edith, his wife, respectively.
The pivotal event of Lear’s childhood was surely the arrest of his father, when Norman was 9, for attempting to sell counterfeit bonds.
During Herman’s three years in prison, his son was shifted around from one relation to another, while his younger sister remained with their mother. One of the few gratifying parts of the experience was the time he spent with his Yiddish-speaking maternal grandparents; in particular, Lear recounted in his 2014 memoir, “Even This I Get to Experience,” that his bubbe was the only person in his family with a sense of humor, the “only one who got me.”
After the family was reunited, they lived for some time in Brooklyn, where Norman celebrated his bar mitzvah, and then returned to Connecticut, where he graduated from Weaver High School, in Hartford, in 1940.
A burning desire
Lear won an essay contest that earned him a scholarship to Emerson College, in Boston, However, he soon dropped out, in September 1942, in order to join the Army Air Force. Serving as a radio operator and gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, Lear flew more than 50 combat missions in the Mediterranean theater, before returning home in October 1945 with a burning desire – to be a press agent, like his Uncle Jack.
After landing a job and moving to Los Angeles, Lear, together with a cousin-in-law, began writing jokes for comedians. That gig turned into writing sketches and full-length screenplays for television shows, and eventually writing and producing movies, such as the 1967 comedy “Divorce American Style.”
But it was “All in the Family,” with its lovable bigot Archie -- who, according to Lear, is motivated by fear, not hatred -- that changed everything.
Based loosely on the 1960s BBC-TV comedy “Till Death Us Do Part,” when CBS aired the first episode, on January 12, 1971, it preceded it with a disclaimer.
“All in the Family” spawned “The Jeffersons” and “Maude” (with Bea Arthur playing a sharp-tongued liberal counterpoint to Archie), the latter of which begat “Good Times,” and during the same period, roughly, Lear also created “Sanford and Son,” about a black family in Los Angeles, and “One Day at a Time.” At his peak, Lear had five shows among the country’s top 10, with an overall audience estimated at 120 million.
In addition to his creative work, Lear has functioned in an executive role, owning production companies that went through various incarnations, and making and losing hundreds of millions of dollars. In 1981, to combat what he saw as the growing influence of the conservative Christian right, Lear founded People for the American Way, to advocate against the involvement of religion in politics.
Today, Norman Lear turns 94, and he remains active. In addition to his memoir of 2014, he was the subject of an adulatory documentary film, “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” opening this summer in U.S. theaters. Lear is also producing the forthcoming remake, currently in production, of the series “One Day at a Time,” with an all-Latino cast.