Norman Lear is a World War II veteran, actor, writer, producer, director, and creator of such legendary sitcoms that defined and revolutionized American television.
Norman Milton Lear was born in New Haven, Connecticut, to Enie/Jeanette (Sokolovsky) and Hyman “Herman” Lear, a traveling salesman. His grandparents were all Russian Jewish immigrants. Jeanette was the inspiration for the character Edith Bunker, and Herman was the all-time inspiration to Norman creating the character Archie Bunker. Lear has often described his father as a “bigot” and someone who was into “get rich quick schemes.” Norman was a victim of the depression and saw his family, as he has described it, go “belly-up”. Norman was inspired by his press agent uncle Jack, who visited the family and always flipped Norman a quarter. Norman wanted to be the person who could flip someone a quarter.
Lear at this time never really thought of becoming a big Hollywood writer. He won a one year-scholarship to Emerson College in a national high-school writing contest, and went off there with all tuition paid by the government for one year. Norman figured he had struck a gold-mine, and during the depression this was the only way he could get into college. Norman attended Emerson College but dropped out when news struck that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. At that point, Norman has stated, all chaos broke lose, and along with many others he decided to enroll in the United States Army. He was nineteen. In the army, Norman was a radio operator. He was discharged in 1945.
Norman eventually landed a press agent job, paying forty dollars a week. Due to hard times, he was not being paid well and decided to pursue another career. In 1954, he was a writer for the CBS sitcom, Honestly, Celeste! This series was canceled after eight episodes. Lear then became the producer of NBC’s The Martha Raye Show, after director Nat Hiken left the series. In 1959, Lear created his first television series, The Deputy, on the NBC network and starring Henry Fonda. Lear created this series alongside Roland Kibbee. The show ran for two successful seasons and ended in 1961.
Lear then started his comedic writing career in 1967. He wrote and produced the 1967 film, Divorce American Style, and directed the film, Cold Turkey, starring Dick Van Dyke. All In The Family came about when Norman read a British column on a show called “Til Death Do Us Part”, about a father and a son-in-law who fought constantly about everything politically. As soon as he read that, he immediately knew it was just like him and his father’s relationship. Lear tried to sell a “blue” collar sitcom to the ABC network, and two pilots were filmed and rejected. A third pilot was filmed, and CBS picked up the show. It premiered on January 12,1971 to disappointing ratings. Each pilot being shot by different entertainers than the original. Only Caroll O’ Connor and Jean Stapleton remained as the original cast, as different people played the brother-in-law and daughter. Lear put Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner in the sitcom only after being accepted by CBS.
When it was aired on television for the first time, a big warning appeared on the screen stating none of the content being presented should be taken seriously and should only be seen for the purpose of hilarity. Norman stated that the sitcom became successful later on, because people knew Archie Bunker: to many people Archie Bunker was their own father. What came next for Norman was the successful sitcom Sanford And Son, along with creator Bud Yorkin, in 1972. This sitcom was inspired by British sitcom Steptoe and Son. Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson played the main roles. In All In The Family, a guest-star named Bea Arthur appeared in an episode and the first spin-off was formed from All In The Family called Maude in 1972, starring Arthur. Ratings soared through the roof, and much more quickly than All In The Family. A memorable episode from Maude which struck a degree of controversy was the abortion episode. A spin-off came from Maude called Good Times with the maid character played by Esther Rolle (Florida Evans). Good Times premiered in 1974, and dealt with controversial issues such as poverty, crime, and welfare, but most of all depicted life in a low-income housing area for African-Americans. It was created by Eric Monte and Mike Evans. This series featured entertainers John Amos, Ester Rolle, Bern Nadette Stanis, Jimmie Walker, Ralph Carter, Ja’net Dubois, and many others. It wasn’t the only sitcom to depict life for African-Americans: what later followed in 1975 was The Jeffersons, another spin-off from All In The Family. Many people hadn’t realized that African Americans could actually move away from the ghetto and become successful like George and Louise did. To many people across America it was seen as hilarious comedic genius; no other show ever called someone a “honky” or slammed doors in people’s faces and still showed controversial issues to a large degree. In several episodes the show dealt with drugs, violence, and racism. The characters George and Louise Jefferson were created by Eric Monte.
All In The Family received multiple Emmy awards. Good Times ran for five successful season and ended in 1979, with multiple Golden Globe nominations. Maude ran for six seasons, ending in 1978 and receiving multiple Emmy and Golden Globe wins and nominations. Sanford and Son ended in 1977 with a Golden Globe win and several Emmy nominations. All In The Family ended its long run in 1979, with nine successful seasons. What came next for Norman was a spin-off of the show called Archie Bunker’s Place, with Caroll O’Connor and Danielle Brisebois. The show was especially memorable as Edith Bunker was killed off, due to Jean Stapleton wanting to leave the show to pursue her acting career further. Norman stated that killing off Edith Bunker was one of the toughest decisions he had to make throughout his entertainment career. Archie Bunker’s Place ended in 1983, and was his last successful television show.
Norman attempted to make a comeback in 1990 with several short-lived shows, including Sunday Dinner and 704 Hauser, which featured former co-star of Good Times, John Amos.
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