A critically acclaimed television producer hailed as the greatest American in television and the driving force behind the first Golden Age of television has died. He was 101.
Norman Lear, a renowned television producer, writer, and philanthropist, enjoyed a long career in television and film, and in political and social activism.
At one point in the ‘70s, Lear had seven shows in the Top Ten ratings – All in the Family (1968-79), Good Times (1974-79), Maude (1972-78), The Jeffersons (1975-85), Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-77), Sanford and Son (1972-77) and One Day at a Time (1975-84). And more than 120 million people were viewing Lear’s shows each week.
“All in the Family”/Credit: CBS
And though Lear is known as the brains behind the popular shows, it was his determination to push the boundaries in television and to give voices to those parts of society he felt were underrepresented–long before it was popular to do so.
“You looked around television in those years,” Mr. Lear said in a 2012 New York Times interview, referring to the middle and late 1960s, “and the biggest problem any family faced was ‘Mother dented the car, and how do you keep Dad from finding out’ [or] ‘the boss is coming to dinner, and the roast’s ruined.’ The message that was sending out was that we didn’t have any problems.”
So, Lear was determined to shake things up so that a different message could be presented. As such, Lear has been described by some as “TV’s greatest American” because of his knack for turning sitcoms into a form of patriotic dissent. But according to those who worked with him, Lear had a sense of humility about his accomplishments.
In 2017, as Lear took the stage at the HFPA TV Game Changers panel, other forces in Hollywood, known for their creative prowess in television and film, including David E. Kelley and J.J. Abrams, gushed about the nearly 100-year-old producer and creator. But Lear reportedly attempted to downplay his achievements at the time.
“The fact of life is you work your *** off doing this, and then the rest of the world tells you what you did,” Lear said. “I am not seeking to minimize it, but there’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said about it all. Am I wrong?”
A Full Ride, the Air Force, and Danny Thomas
Born on July 27, 1922, in New Haven, Connecticut, Norman Lear grew up in a middle-class home and went to a local high school. There, he earned a full scholarship to Emerson College when he won first place in the American Legion Oratorical Contest.
The subject was the United States Constitution.
In 1942, Lear left college in order to join the U.S. Air Force as a radio operator and gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress. After three years and more than 50 missions, Lear was discharged and moved to New York City. After several failed attempts to establish himself in the public relations sector, he moved to Los Angeles with his wife and newborn daughter. When he arrived in Los Angeles, he immediately went to work forming a comedy writing team with his cousin Ed Simmons.
After getting up the courage to do so, Lear reached out to comedian and actor Danny Thomas over the phone and got his first real job in entertainment. He spent years writing and producing comedy shows, but in 1959, he created his first-ever television show, The Deputy, a Western starring Henry Fonda. Lear’s film career started when he wrote an adaptation of the Broadway hit Come Blow Your Horn, starring the legendary Frank Sinatra.
Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds in “Divorce American Style” (1967)/Credit: Columbia Pictures
In September 2022, Disney and ABC honored Lear with a special celebration of his 100th birthday. Norman Lear: 100 Years of Music and Laughter aired on September 22 on ABC, and on September 23, the special became available to stream on Hulu.
The special served as a tribute to Norman Lear, the man who brought fans some of television’s most popular and memorable series over the last 65 years, and featured a star-studded lineup of celebrity guests and musical performances.
“Norman’s illustrious career is revered by so many, and we are honored to be celebrating his legacy with this special night of entertainment,” said Craig Erwich, President of Hulu Originals and ABC Entertainment. “We have been lucky to work with Norman on a number of projects over the years, and it’s only fitting that his centennial birthday be marked by the biggest names in Hollywood raising a glass to toast, and perhaps gently roast, the television icon.”
“I’ve always believed music and laughter have added time to my life,” the centenarian said humbly. “I’ve seen a lot throughout my 100 years, but I would’ve never imagined America having a front-row seat to my birthday celebration.”
Following his 100th birthday, Lear said he had no plans of retiring or stopping the work he was doing.
Lear is also respected as an activist and a philanthropist. In 1980, he founded an organization called People for the American Way. The organization serves to defend constitutional values, including freedom of speech, religious liberty, equal justice under the law, and citizens’ rights to participate in democracy.
Credit: People for the American Way
Norman Lear passed away at his Los Angeles home on Tuesday at the age of 101, but his legacy lives on in the television shows, the characters, and the stories he created–and in the lives of those who knew him best.
Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!