Norman Lear died last week at age 101. The longtime television writer and producer revolutionized TV with “All in the Family” and the shows it spun off such as “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” and others.
I was in the eighth grade when “All in the Family” debuted on January 12, 1971. The show was “must see TV” that made going to school on Wednesdays much easier since everyone would be talking about the prior evening’s episode.
To fully understand the cultural impact of “All in the Family” it helps to remember what else was on television at that time. In the pre-cable days in Lowell, you could reliably receive eight stations: Channel 4 was NBC; Channel 5 was CBS; and Channel 7 was ABC. PBS was on Channel 2 from Boston. There were also three UHF stations that had debuted in the 1960s: Channels 38 and 56 from Boston; and Channel 27 from Worcester. And there was Channel 9 from Manchester, NH.
Here’s the Channel 4 primetime lineup on the night “All in the Family” first aired: At 7:30 pm there was the “Don Knotts Show;” at 8:30 am was “Julia;” and at 9 pm was a movie (which on this night was “Secret Ceremony” starring Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow, and Robert Mitchum).
Channel 7 started Tuesday nights with “The Mod Squad” at 7:30 pm; followed by a movie at 8:30 pm which on this night was “Assault on the Wayne,” the Movie of the Week that starred Joseph Cotten and Lloyd Haynes and which the Lowell Sun’s TV critic chose as the “Best Bet” for that evening’s viewing. At 10 pm there was a “special” program, the NBA All Star game from San Diego.
Channel 5 began its evening lineup with “The Beverly Hillbillies” at 7:30 pm; “Green Acres” at 8 pm; “Hee Haw” at 8:30 pm; then “All in the Family” at 9:30 pm. There was a special edition of the local news at 10 pm.
With lead in programs like that, no wonder “All in the Family” was such a big hit. But seriously, if you’ve ever seen “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” or “Hee Haw” you can understand why “All in the Family’s” arrival was such a cultural earthquake.
To be fair to the Sun’s critic, here is what they wrote about “All in the Family.”
“The only reason All in the Family, a new series, is not a Best Bet is because TV Scout (the name the critic was known by) has not seen it or read a script. Producer Norman Lear refuses to allow scripts out, and the film was not available at press time. But this one gets a great big plus for being different. It’s based on Till Death Do Us Part, a highly successful and equally controversial BBC series about a bigot of a father, his liberal son-in-law, and a fairly quiet wife and daughter. Carroll O’Connor, Rob Reiner (Carl’s very talented son), Jean Stapleton and Sally Struthers (in her third series after the Smothers and Tim Conway) play these rules and they are the entire case of the premiere. Producer Lear says the comedy is outrageous. “If not, the series would be tragedy.” The first show concerns the efforts of the young people to have a surprise anniversary party for mom and dad, which sounds like any situation comedy. But this one is very different and is guaranteed to outrage some people and delight others. Oh, yes, the family is decidedly lower class and they live in New York.”
Critics immediately liked “All in the Family” but it took viewers a while to catch on to the program. However, it quickly became the most popular program on TV and a major element of our popular culture. To put the show in the context of world events, on the night of its premiere, the Lowell Sun had a front-page story on the ongoing trial of US Army Lieutenant William Calley for 22 counts of murder in the My Lai massacre. The US invasion of Cambodia had occurred a year earlier, and the Watergate break in would happen a year later. In other words, the country was in a tsunami of political, social, and moral upheaval. Into this waded Norman Lear and “All in the Family.”
While I really enjoyed “All in the Family” I’m not sure the program accomplished the social mission Lear hoped that it would (although it did make him incredibly famous and wealthy). In the Archie Bunker character, Lear held a mirror up to the bigotry, racism, and sexism that permeated America. He made Archie such a comic character since encasing those negative traits with laughter was the only way the show would be watchable. But looking back, I now believe that at least half the country (1) didn’t think there was anything wrong with the things Archie was saying; and (2) resented the “liberal elite” in the character of Lear (though that term may not even have been used by that point) for ridiculing a “real American” like Archie.
My rational for saying that is that since 2016, half the country, or at least half of those who voted in the 2016 and 2020 Presidential elections and who have been polled about the 2024 election, have supported, and continue to support Donald Trump. I’ve never heard Trump’s opinion of “All in the Family” but I suspect he’d be in the “Archie was right all along” camp.
One of the supreme ironies is that Norman Lear, who people like Pat Buchanan, Dick Cheney, and Donald Trump – who all dodged the draft when their number was called – smeared as someone who hated America, was a true American hero. I say that not for his work in television, but for his service in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II, where he was a radio operator/gunner on a B-17 operating in the Italian Theater. Lear, who flew 55 combat missions and was awarded the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters (which means he received the award four times) participated in numerous missions with shockingly high casualties including the bombing of oil refineries and aircraft factories in Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Romania. Whatever one may think of his TV programs and his politics, we all owe Norman Lear and those like him immense credit for their service to the country.