Norman Lear, Jewish creator of pioneering TV comedies including All in the Family

by | Jan 18, 2024 | Obituaries

Andrew Lapin
(JTA) — Norman Lear, the Jewish TV pioneer behind iconic comedies of the 1970s and 1980s that helped bring social commentary and Black characters into the mainstream, died at 101 on Dec. 5.

The decorated creator of All In The Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Sanford and Son, and a host of other groundbreaking TV sitcoms, Lear lived and worked through just about every era of Hollywood comedy. A lifelong liberal in part, he said, because of hearing an antisemitic preacher on the radio as a child.

Beginning in the 1970s, he donated large sums to progressive causes, and in 1980 he founded People for the American Way, an organization aimed at countering the influence of the Christian religious right wing in politics.

He reached his 100-year milestone a few years ahead of peers Mel Brooks and Dick Van Dyke (both 96). But he had to say goodbye to other beloved longtime colleagues, including Carl Reiner (who died in 2020 at age 98), talent manager George Shapiro (who died in May at 91) and Betty White (who died shortly before her 100th birthday).

Lear got his own documentary in 2016 and received a Kennedy Center honor, as well as just about every other award under the sun. Yet even as he notched the century mark, he continued to work, co-hosting Live In Front Of A Studio Audience, a series of TV specials in which celebrities recreate episodes of his old sitcoms, and executive-producing the recent remake of his show One Day At A Time, as well as the documentary Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It.

Lear was born July 27, 1922, in Connecticut to Jewish parents who had Russian and Ukrainian ancestry. Lear celebrated his bar mitzvah, but later described himself to JUF News in Chicago “as culturally Jewish as I could be and proud to be Jewish, but I’m not a religionist of any kind.” He recalled that hearing antisemitic preacher Father Coughlin on the radio as a child helped fuel his interest in political activism.

When Lear was 9, his father was sent to prison for three years for his part in a fraudulent get-rich-quick scheme, and his mother sent her son to live with relatives he barely knew in Brooklyn. Lear returned to Connecticut to finish high school, and later attended Emerson College in Boston for a stint, but dropped out to join the U.S. Air Force and flew bombing missions over Europe when he wasn’t entertaining fellow airmen. He moved to Los Angeles after the war and became a comedy writer in the budding television business.
Over time, his many early projects — which also included Good Times, the first family show led by two Black parent characters — were seen as a crucial bridge to wider acceptance of Black stories in pop culture. Though Good Times was criticized for what many perceived as an over-reliance on catchphrases and stereotypes, his follow-up The Jeffersons gave American culture a robust and celebrated portrait of upwardly mobile Black middle-class life.

All in the Family, which starred the “lovable bigot” Archie Bunker character, has also been appraised as one of the earliest TV shows to deal with antisemitism in the United States — though Lear’s intention to paint Archie’s opinions as abhorrent backfired when many viewers, including U.S. President Richard Nixon, decided they agreed with him.

Lear’s support for liberal causes lasted through his later years. Shortly after turning 100 last year, Donald Trump reiterated an argument he had made as president — that American Jews endangered themselves by not supporting him.

“Today, having recently turned 100, I read Donald Trump’s appalling words about American Jews, and I am nine years old again,” he tweeted. “The phrase, a horse’s ass, was an everyday expression when I was nine and it occurs to me again now.”