Norman Lear, Legendary TV Producer, Dies At Age 101

Norman Lear, the legendary television producer who created groundbreaking series such as "All in the Family," "Maude," "The Jeffersons" and "One Day at a Time," has died, CBS News has confirmed. He was 101.

Wednesday, December 6th 2023, 9:12 am

By: CBS News


Norman Lear, the legendary television producer who created groundbreaking series such as "All in the Family," "Maude," "The Jeffersons" and "One Day at a Time," has died, CBS News has confirmed. He was 101.

Lear, who got his start as a writer for radio and TV in the post-war years, was responsible for a string of hit series in the 1970s that broke taboos on broadcast entertainment and helped define a generation. His shows routinely tackled serious social issues, some rarely seen on TV before, from racism, rape and abortion to menopause, homosexuality and religion. 

The show that put Lear on the map was "All in the Family," which premiered on CBS in 1971. It starred Carroll O'Connor as the working-class loudmouth Archie Bunker, who spouted narrow-minded opinions and raged against social change. He often butted heads against his liberal son-in-law, Michael (played by Rob Reiner), while Archie's kind-hearted wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton), tried to keep the peace. 

In a 2021 interview on "CBS Sunday Morning," Lear said people on both ends of the political spectrum found something to connect with in the show. 

"I like to think what they saw was the foolishness of the human condition," he told CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook, who is married to Lear's daughter, Kate.

And even if the subject matter was divisive, the audience would be bonded by humor. "To be able to laugh in a rehearsal at something you hadn't expected, and then to stand to the side or behind an audience laughing, and watch them, their bodies – a couple of hundred people as one – when something makes them laugh, I don't think I've ever seen a more spiritual moment than an audience in a belly laugh!" Lear said.

"The soundtrack of my life has been laughter."

The show ran for nine seasons, won 22 Emmy Awards, and was No. 1 in the ratings for five consecutive years. Beginning in 1979, a sequel series, "Archie Bunker's Place," ran for four more seasons.

"All in the Family" was followed by the popular and provocative spin-offs "Maude" (starring Bea Arthur), and "The Jeffersons" (starring Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley). Along with laughter, both shows brought storylines about women's liberation and race into millions of living rooms across the country. Another sitcom, "One Day at a Time," starred Bonnie Franklin as a divorced woman struggling against sexism, chauvinistic bosses and cheating boyfriends, while raising two teenage daughters.

Lear's string of hit TV series also included "Sanford and Son" (with comedian Redd Foxx), and "Good Times," which broke ground with mostly Black casts but also faced accusations of promoting racial stereotypes.

He was also creator of the syndicated "Mary Hartman, Marty Hartman," a parody of soap operas that starred Louise Lasser; and executive producer of "Hot l Baltimore," based on the Lanford Wilson stage comedy set in a run-down hotel. Its characters included prostitutes, undocumented immigrants, and a gay couple.

Norman Lear was born on July 27, 1922, in Hartford, Connecticut, and his childhood wasn't all laughs. When he was 9 years old, his father went to prison for fraud for selling fake bonds, and his mother sent him to live with his grandparents.

He later said his father served as an inspiration for Archie Bunker.

"The intention was to show there's humor in everything. And I never thought of him as a hater so much as a fearful man of progress," Lear told "CBS This Morning" co-host Gayle King in 2017.

As a young man, he attended Emerson College in Boston on a scholarship before leaving school to serve in World War II. He joined the U.S. Army Air Forces and flew on 52 combat missions over Germany and Italy. 

After the war, he moved to Hollywood, and his career in the entertainment industry grew. By the early 1970s, he'd reached a level of success and widespread influence few others could equal.

On the big screen, Lear's production company was behind popular movies like "Stand By Me," "The Princess Bride" and "Fried Green Tomatoes." He shared an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of the 1968 comedy "Divorce American Style." 

The political and social issues he explored on screen also inspired his own activism in liberal circles. In 1981, he co-founded the nonprofit group People For the American Way to advocate for progressive causes and counter the divisiveness and discord straining the nation.

In 2022, Lear wrote in a New York Times op-ed of his optimism in America: "I often feel disheartened by the direction that our politics, courts and culture are taking. But I do not lose faith in our country or its future. I remind myself how far we have come." 

Over his long career, Lear racked up a multitude of awards, including six Emmys, a Golden Globe and the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors. He was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1984.

His website vowed, "Norman Lear has no plans to retire," and he kept that promise, working on new projects well into his 90s. In 2017 he launched a "One Day at a Time" reboot on Netflix, starring Rita Moreno, and in 2019 and 2020 he teamed up with Jimmy Kimmel to broadcast star-studded live reenactments of classic episodes of "All in the Family," "The Jeffersons" and "Good Times." Both won Emmys for Outstanding Variety Special.

But as he shone a light on discrimination, he often butted up against discrimination himself. In 2016 he talked with "Sunday Morning" about how older characters (like himself) had been relegated to marginal roles on TV, playing eccentric neighbors or wise-cracking grandparents. "Where are people my age?" he said. "There were no shows about us, about our lives, about our attitudes, about our problems."

He developed a series, "Guess Who Died?," set in a senior living community. But after filming a pilot, zero network executives expressed interest.

As he explained In a 2019 interview for the "CBS This Morning" podcast, wisdom and inspiration can be found in every walk of life: "Somebody doesn't have to be a professor. Somebody can be just knocking on your door, or somebody can be selling you something on the street … and you have a reasonable conversation, and suddenly you heard something you hadn't heard before or something the person you feel is about suggests just something you haven't thought before."

He often said he was guided throughout his life by the saying, "Each man is my superior in that I may learn from him." 

On the occasion of his 100th birthday in July 2022, Lear said "love and laughter" were the secret to his longevity. He also spoke of the impact of love: "The people I've loved, and loved me in return. I couldn't emphasize that more. I have been cared for, and I have cared, and I think it's mattered a lot."

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