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Norman Lear, TV Legend, Dies at 101

Writer-producer-developer Norman Lear, who revolutionized American comedy with such daring, immensely popular early-‘70s sitcoms as “All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son,” died on Tuesday. He was 101.

Lear’s publicist confirmed to Variety that he died at his home in Los Angeles of natural causes. A private service for immediate family will be held in the coming days.

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“Thank you for the moving outpouring of love and support in honor of our wonderful husband, father, and grandfather,” Lear’s family said in a statement. “Norman lived a life of creativity, tenacity, and empathy. He deeply loved our country and spent a lifetime helping to preserve its founding ideals of justice and equality for all. Knowing and loving him has been the greatest of gifts. We ask for your understanding as we mourn privately in celebration of this remarkable human being.”

Lear had already established himself as a top comedy writer and captured a 1968 Oscar nomination for his screenplay for “Divorce American Style” when he concocted the idea for a new sitcom, based on a popular British show, about a conservative, outspokenly bigoted working-class man and his fractious Queens family. “All in the Family” became an immediate hit, seemingly with viewers of all political persuasions.

Lear’s shows were the first to address the serious political, cultural and social flashpoints of the day – racism, abortion, homosexuality, the Vietnam war — by working pointed new wrinkles into the standard domestic comedy formula. No subject was taboo: Two 1977 episodes of “All in the Family” revolved around the attempted rape of lead character Archie Bunker’s wife Edith.

Their fresh outrageousness turned them into huge ratings successes: For a time, “Family” and “Sanford,” based around a Los Angeles Black family, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the country. “All in the Family” itself accounted for no less than six spin-offs. “Family” was also honored with four Emmys in 1971-73 and a 1977 Peabody Award for Lear, “for giving us comedy with a social conscience.” (He received a second Peabody in 2016 for his career achievements.)

Some of Lear’s other creations played with TV conventions. “One Day at a Time” (1975-84) featured a single mother of two young girls as its protagonist, a new concept for a sitcom. Similarly, “Diff’rent Strokes” (1978-86) followed the growing pains of two Black kids adopted by a wealthy white businessman.

Other series developed by Lear were meta before the term ever existed. “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” (1976-77) spoofed the contorted drama of daytime soaps; while the show couldn’t land a network slot, it became a beloved off-the-wall entry in syndication. “Hartman” had its own oddball spinoff, “Fernwood 2 Night,” a parody talk show set in a small Ohio town; the show was later retooled as “America 2-Night,” with its setting relocated to Los Angeles.

Lear always maintained that the basic formula for his comedies always boiled down to the essential: Keep ‘em laughing.

He said in a 2005 Onion A.V. Club interview, “Originally, with all the shows, we went looking for belly laughs. It crossed our minds early on that the more an audience cared – we were working before, on average, 240 live people – if you could get them caring, the more they cared, the harder they laughed.”

Lear’s big-screen credits included the scripts for “Come Blow Your Horn” (1963); “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” (1968); “The Thief Who Came to Dinner” (1971); “Stand by Me” (1986) and “The Princess Bride” (1987), both of which were directed by former “All in the Family” co-star Rob Reiner; and “Fried Green Tomatoes” (1991). He wrote and directed the tart 1971 comedy about the tobacco industry “Cold Turkey.”

In the ‘80s, Lear purchased Avco Embassy Pictures with partner Jerry Perenchio; they later sold the company to Columbia Pictures for $250 million. He became a major player in the music business with the 1999 purchase, with former Embassy exec Hal Gaba, of Concord Music Group, one of the largest independent label operations in the world, with holdings including the catalogs of such indie labels as Concord Jazz, Fantasy, Stax, Riverside, Milestone, Rounder and Vanguard.

One of Hollywood’s most outspoken liberals and progressive philanthropists, Lear founded the advocacy group People for the American Way in 1981 to counteract the activities of the conservative Moral Majority.

Lear, who was honored with a place in the Television Academy’s Hall of Fame, a lifetime achievement award from the Producers Guild of America and multiple awards from the Writers Guild of America, was the recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 1999 and feted at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2017. In the case of the latter honor, Lear threatened to boycott a reception in protest of President Donald Trump’s policies. Trump ultimately chose not to attend the event, and Lear told Variety, “I’m happy not to go to the White House.”

Lear was born in New Haven, Conn., on July 27, 1922. Both his parents were Jews of Russian origin; he claimed in interviews that his father and mother were the inspirations for the characters of Archie and Edith Bunker. He dropped out of Boston’s Emerson College to enlist in the U.S. Air Force in 1942, and served as a radio operator and gunner on B-17 bombers in the European theater, flying 52 missions.

After the war, Lear pursued a career as a press agent, and moved to Los Angeles to set up shop. But he moved into comedy writing after partnering with Ed Simmons, his cousin’s husband. The pair’s first major break came writing for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, then the country’s hottest comedy act, during a run of 1952-53 appearances on “The Colgate Comedy Hour.” Teaming with Bud Yorkin, he became an in-demand scribe for the variety shows of Martha Raye, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Celeste Holm and George Gobel.

In the ‘60s, Lear rang up credits writing and (with Yorkin, his partner in Tandem Productions) producing specials starring Bobby Darin, Danny Kaye, Andy Williams and Henry Fonda (star of a Western series, “The Deputy,” which was created by Lear).

Though Lear had scattered credits on theatrical films in the late ‘60s, he vaulted to the top rank of TV producers with Tandem’s development of “All in the Family,” which was inspired by a similarly acerbic, long-running British series, “Till Death Do Us Part.” Originally picked up by ABC, which grew skittish about its content and dropped it, the show was acquired by CBS, where it became the first U.S. sitcom to be filmed in front of a live audience.

The vibrant new series became an instant smash, riding the terrific chemistry of its four stars: Carroll O’Connor as the conservative, bigoted, foul-mouthed Archie, Jean Stapleton as his dizzy, warm-hearted wife Edith; Sally Struthers as their hard-headed daughter Gloria; and Rob Reiner as Gloria’s hippie hubby Michael “Meathead” Stivic. The show reeled in 22 Emmys over the course of its run; O’Connor collected four Emmys for his work on the show, Stapleton three, Reiner two and Struthers one. (An ABC special about the series and its spinoff “The Jeffersons,” executive produced by Lear, won a 2019 Emmy.)

The show became a cottage industry, spinning off one series after another: “Maude,” with Bea Arthur as Edith’s feisty, acid-tongued cousin (purportedly based on Lear’s second wife Frances); “The Jeffersons,” starring Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford as the Bunkers’ African American former next-door neighbors; “Gloria,” with Struthers reprising her role (following the character’s divorce); “Checking In,” with Marla Gibbs as Florence Johnston, the Jeffersons’ onetime maid; and, in the ‘90s, “704 Hauser,” a poorly-received show that was set in the Bunkers’ old house. “Archie Bunker’s Place,” a sort of spinoff of itself set in the titular character’s Queens bar, ran from 1979-83.

Bud Yorkin served as the point man on another Tandem show, based on a U.K. TV show, “Steptoe and Son,” which he had adapted into a TV movie in 1965. “Sanford and Son” pitted irascible, eruptive L.A. junkman Fred Sanford (veteran Black comic Redd Foxx) against his long-suffering son Lamont (Demond Wilson). Foxx’s salty reading of Bunker-style bigotry struck a chord, and the show had a healthy six-season run.

After the Tandem partnership split in 1975, Lear moved on to develop another innovative project, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” Designed as a daily show with a continuing narrative through-line, in the manner of daytime network soaps, it starred Louise Lasser as the pivotal title character, who served as the center of Fernwood’s darkly funny small-town dramas. “Hartman” and its successor show “Forever Fernwood” ran for more than 400 episodes and spawned the faux talk show “Fernwood 2 Night,” starring “Hartman” vet Martin Mull as host Barth Gimble and Fred Willard as sidekick Jerry Hubbard.

Though “All in the Family” and its successors changed TV forever with their sharp political edge and theretofore unseen frankness, Lear later took a cool look back on what the show ultimately achieved.

He averred, “I didn’t see it changing television at all. We had a Judeo-Christian ethic hanging around a couple thousand years that didn’t help erase racism at all. So the notion of the little half-hour comedy changing things is something I think is silly.”

Lear’s last two creations, the sitcoms “Sunday Dinner” and “704 Hauser,” both saw brief runs in the early ‘90s. While he had nothing to do with its production, he had an executive producer credit on the reboot of “One Day at a Time,” set in L.A.’s Echo Park and focusing on a Latino family, which ran from 2017-2020.

Lear’s latter-day productions included the features “Way Past Cool” (2000) and “El Superstar: The Unlikely Rise of Juan Frances” (2008). His documentary productions included “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song” (2007).

Beyond his activities in the non-profit People for the American Way, which monitored judicial appointments, challenges to the First Amendment and the activities of right-wing groups, Lear in 2004 founded Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan non-profit organization to encourage the youth vote.

He is survived by his third wife Lyn Davis, six children and four grandchildren.

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