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Comedy Producer Norman Lear Passes Away At 101

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Norman Lear, the writer, director and producer who revolutionized primetime television with “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “Maude,” propelling political and social turmoil into the once-insulated world of TV sitcoms, has died.

He was 101 years old.

Lear died Tuesday night in his sleep, surrounded by family at his home in Los Angeles, said Lara Bergthold, a spokesperson for his family.

A liberal activist with an eye for mainstream entertainment, Lear fashioned bold and controversial comedies that were embraced by viewers who had to watch the evening news to find out what was going on in the world. His shows helped define primetime comedy in the 1970s, launched the careers of Rob Reiner and Valerie Bertinelli and made middle-aged superstars of Carroll O’Connor, Bea Arthur and Redd Foxx.

Journey Gunderson of the National Comedy Center would give an official statement regarding Lear’s passing.

“Norman Lear revolutionized the television landscape, pushed societal boundaries and transformed our culture with groundbreaking comedies that addressed serious issues and offered sharp social commentary while being
remarkably funny — appealing to broad audiences for over five decades. He was a creative pioneer and true genius, who believed strongly in the power of laughter to unite us, and supported the non-profit mission of the National
Comedy Center. We are proud to celebrate his extraordinary work for generations to come.”
– National Comedy Center Executive Director Journey Gunderson.

Norman Lear was a founding donor of the non-profit National Comedy Center – the nation’s official cultural institution for comedy — contributing to its creation and opening in 2018

Lear “took television away from dopey wives and dumb fathers, from the pimps, hookers, hustlers, private eyes, junkies, cowboys and rustlers that constituted television chaos, and in their place he put the American people,” the late Paddy Chayefsky, a leading writer of television’s early “golden age,” once said.

Tributes poured in after his death: “I loved Norman Lear with all my heart. He was my second father. Sending my love to Lyn and the whole Lear family,” Reiner wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “More than anyone before him, Norman used situation comedy to shine a light on prejudice, intolerance, and inequality. He created families that mirrored ours,” Jimmy Kimmel said.

“All in the Family” was immersed in the headlines of the day, while also drawing upon Lear’s childhood memories of his tempestuous father. Racism, feminism, and the Vietnam War were flashpoints as blue collar conservative Archie Bunker, played by O’Connor, clashed with liberal son-in-law Mike Stivic (Reiner). Jean Stapleton co-starred as Archie’s befuddled but good-hearted wife, Edith, and Sally Struthers played the Bunkers’ daughter, Gloria, who defended her husband in arguments with Archie.

Lear’s work transformed television at a time when old-fashioned programs such as “Here’s Lucy,” “Ironside” and “Gunsmoke” still dominated. CBS, Lear’s primary network, would soon enact its “rural purge” and cancel such standbys as “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres.” The groundbreaking sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” about a single career woman in Minneapolis, debuted on CBS in September 1970, just months before “All in the Family” started.

But ABC passed on “All in the Family” twice and CBS ran a disclaimer when it finally aired the show: “The program you are about to see is ‘All in the Family.’ It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter we hope to show, in a mature fashion, just how absurd they are.”

By the end of 1971, “All In the Family” was No. 1 in the ratings and Archie Bunker was a pop culture fixture, with President Richard Nixon among his fans. Some of his putdowns became catchphrases. He called his son-in-law “Meathead” and his wife “Dingbat,” and would snap at anyone who dared occupy his faded orange-yellow wing chair. It was the centerpiece of the Bunkers’ rowhouse in Queens, and eventually went on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Even the show’s opening segment was innovative: Instead of an off-screen theme song, Archie and Edith are seated at the piano in their living room, belting out a nostalgic number, “Those Were the Days,” with Edith screeching off-key and Archie crooning such lines as “Didn’t need no welfare state” and “Girls were girls and men were men.”

“All in the Family,” based on the British sitcom, “Til Death Us Do Part,” was the No. 1-rated series for an unprecedented five years in a row and earned four Emmy Awards as best comedy series, finally eclipsed by five-time winner “Frasier” in 1998.

Hits continued for Lear and then-partner Bud Yorkin, including “Maude” and “The Jeffersons,” both spinoffs from “All in the Family,” with the same winning combination of one-liners and social conflict. In a 1972 two-part episode of “Maude,” the title character (played by Arthur) became the first on television to have an abortion, drawing a surge of protests along with high ratings. And when a close friend of Archie’s turned out to be gay, Nixon privately fumed to White House aides that the show “glorified” same-sex relationships.

“Controversy suggests people are thinking about something. But there’d better be laughing first and foremost or it’s a dog,” Lear said in a 1994 interview with The Associated Press.