Wednesday, December 6, 2023

The Late Great Norman Lear

Norman Lear, the legendary television producer who developed the classic sitcom All in the Family and created the sitcoms Maude, The Jeffersons, and One Day at a Time, died yesterday at the age of 101.

Norman Lear was born on July 27 1922 in New Haven Connecticut. His family later lived in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Brooklyn, New York, and Hartford, Connecticut. He attended Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn, and then Weaver High School in Harford, from which he graduated. He won a scholarship to Emerson College through a speech he had written, "The Constitution and Me." He dropped out of college to enlist in the United States Army Air Forces. He flew 52 missions over Europe in a B-17 bomber.

After being discharged from the service in 1946, he got a job with a Broadway publicity firm. After being fired from that job, he worked for his father, after which he moved to Los Angeles to try to find another job in publicity. It was after stumbling upon a performance of George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara at the Circle Theatre on his first night in Los Angeles that he and his cousin Ed Simmons began writing comedy bits. They sold Danny Thomas a routine for $500, after which they became part of the writing staff for Jack Haley, who as launching a variety show on NBC.

Norman Lear and Ed Simmons found work on The Colgate Comedy Hour, and later worked on The Martha Raye Show. The partnership between Norman Lear and Ed Simmons ended when Bud Yorkin asked them to work on The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show. Norman Lear accepted the offer, but Ed Simmons refused it. Afterwards Norman Lear worked on The George Gobel Show.

It was in the early Sixties that Norman Lear created his first show with Roland Kibbee, the Western The Deputy. It debuted in 1961 and ran for two seasons. He worked on television specials, including The Danny Kaye Special, Henry Fonda and the Family, and The Andy Williams Special. He wrote or co-wrote the movies Come Blow Your Horn (1963), Divorce American Style (1967), and The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968).

It was in the late Sixties that Norman Lear began developing an American version of the British television show Till Death Do Us Part. The original pilot, titled Justice for All, was developed for ABC and taped in 1968. ABC decided to have a second pilot filmed. The second pilot, Those Were the Days, was completed in 1969. Unfortunately, the controversy over the sketch comedy show Turn-On, which was so great that it only aired once in February 1969, made ABC nervous about airing a show whose main character was a racist. It was afterwards that CBS picked the show up and retitled it All in the Family. All in the Family was revolutionary in tackling serious subjects that had been rarely addressed on American television, and never before on a situation comedy. Over the years All in the Family tacked such subjects as antisemitism, abortion, homosexuality, rape, racism, the Vietnam War, and yet other subjects. Receiving modest ratings in its first season, it became the no. 1 show on American television in its second season.

With the success of All in the Family, Norman Lear was able to develop or create several other socially relevant sitcoms, including such hits as Sanford and Son, Maude, and One Day at a Time. He also created the soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and its spinoff Fernwood 2 Night. Other shows which Norman Lear either created or developed in the Seventies included The Dumplings, Hot L Baltimore, All's Fair, All That Glitters, and Sanford Arms. While the classic sitcom Good Times was created by Eric Monte and Mike Evans, Norman Lear was involved in its development. The Jeffersons was created by Don Nicholl, Michael Ross, and Bernie West, but Norman Lear was also involved in its development. He also wrote the feature film Cold Turkey (1971).

In the Eighties Norman Lear created the short-lived sitcom a.k.a. Pablo with Rick Mitz. He also served as an executive producer on such shows as Palmerstown U.S.A. and Square Pegs. He was also an executive on the movie The Princess Bride (1987). In the Nineties he created the shows Sunday Dinner and 709 Hauser. He was an executive producer on the show The Powers That Be. He was also an executive producer on the movie Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). In the Naughts he was one of the writers on Chapelle's Show. In the Teens, he served as an executive producer on a reimagining of One Day at a Time with a Cuban American family.

There can be no doubt that Norman Lear revolutionized American television, Prior to All in the Family, such subjects as abortion, homosexuality, politics, racism and so on might be addressed in such dramas as The Defenders or East Side/West Side, but they were never, ever addressed on situation comedies. All in the Family ushered in an era of socially relevant comedies, many of which would be developed, created, or produced by Norman Lear himself. Norman Lear's willingness to push the envelope as to the subject matter of American television sitcoms also made him very successful as a producer. At one point during the Seventies three out of the four top rated shows on American television were produced by Norman Lear. It is a mark of the impact that Norman Lear had on American television that he was one of the first seven inductees into the TV Hall of Fame in 1984, alongside such heavyweights as David Sarnoff, William S. Paley, Edward R. Murrow, Paddy Chayefsky, Lucille Ball, and Milton Berle. Few people ever had the impact on television history that Norman Lear did.

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