TV Legend Norman Lear Died at 101, Creating Awesome TV Until the Very End
The word “legend” gets thrown around a lot, but is rarely warranted. This week, we lost an honest-to-goodness TV legend. Norman Lear, writer-producer of such iconic shows as All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and One Day at a Time (both of them!) died at the age of 101.
Lear was born in Connecticut on July 27, 1922, and for just over a century he’s spent his life trying to make the world better through his work and his life. Though he briefly attended Emerson College, he dropped out to enlist in the U.S. Air Force during World War II and ended up flying 52 missions as a radio operator and gunner on B-17 bombers.
When he first decided to move to Los Angeles after the war, it was to become an entertainment publicist, but writing found him through his cousin’s husband, Ed Simmons, and together they wrote for the likes of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. He ascended the comedy ranks in TV and film throughout the 1960s, but it was his first show, All in the Family in 1971, which launched him into the stratosphere of TV producers.
All in the Family was based on a successful, long-running British sitcom Till Death Do Us Part. However, Lear’s ideas for All in the Family made networks skittish, as he wanted to deal with topics like racism and sexism in a way they’d never been dealt with on television before. ABC dropped the show because of its content, but it was picked up by CBS, becoming the first sitcom to be videotaped in front of a live studio audience.
The show ended up winning 22 Emmys over the course of its nine-season run, made household names of its stars, and made Norman Lear an industry. It’s hard to quantify the impact that Lear had on television as we know it. All in the Family ended up creating much of TV comedy history all on its own, spawning a slew of successful spin-offs like The Jeffersons, Maude, Gloria, and Archie Bunker’s Place.
With shows like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Sanford and Son, Good Times, and One Day at a Time, Lear tackled issues of social justice that were previously unthinkable for television, through characters that dealt with things like navigating their own prejudices and biases, making decisions about abortion, issues around class, and issues of identity both outside of and within one’s own community.
His desire to fight for social justice wasn’t limited to television. Lear was always an outspoken progressive, and in 1981 founded the advocacy group People for the American Way to counteract the conservative Moral Majority by monitoring judicial appointments, First Amendment challenges, and the activities of right-wing groups. More recently, Lear founded Declare Yourself in 2004, a non-partisan campaign that encouraged young people to register and vote.
The amazing thing about Lear is that he could’ve easily taken it easy at any time and had a nice long rest in his old age. But producers are gonna produce, and he continued creating television into this decade. While he wasn’t involved in the day-to-day producing on it, he was an Executive Producer on the excellent One Day at a Time reboot, which ran from 2017–2020. He co-produced Live in Front of a Studio Audience with Jimmy Kimmel in 2019, which staged live, televised performances of classic sitcoms, including All in the Family and The Jeffersons. He also executive produced the 2021 documentary Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided to Go For It, among others.
And if continued producing and political advocacy weren’t enough, Lear also began using social media to post really sweet (and profound, and progressive) reels often hashtagged #breakfastthoughts. His final one is above, and you can still go through his entire feed to glean the nuggets of wisdom he recorded over the years.
Goodbye, Mr. Lear. As one of my TV industry heroes, I wish I would’ve had the opportunity to meet you before you left this earth, but I’m grateful for the hilarious, thought-provoking, and important stories you left behind.
Zikhrono livrakha. May his memory be a blessing.
(featured image: screencap/@thenormanlear on Instagram)
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