Norman Lear and friends share memories of TV's golden days
By Bill Keveney
The first seasons of seven seminal series of the ‘70’s—“All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons,” “One Day at a Time,” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”— are featured in The Norman Lear Collection, a new DVD box set (Sony, $159.95), along with two previously unreleased “All in the Family” pilots and interviews. Lear, cast members and writers share their thoughts and memories of their hit comedies with USA TODAY.
“All in the Family” (CBS, 1971-79)
Lear’s first big series hit was based on a British show, “Till Death Us Do Part,” but he had his own model for the cantankerous Archie Bunker: his father, Herman. “My father called me the laziest white kid he ever met, and I would scream at him that he didn’t have to put down a race of people to call me lazy. Then I was the stupidest white kid.”
“All in the Family” merged such difficult fare as the Vietnam War, deep political divisions, and race and gender with comedy. The show became part of the societal discussion, but Lear scoffs when asked whether it helped improve race relations. “If 2,000 years of the Judeo-Christian ethic hasn't seemed to help, I would be some kind of fool if I thought my little half-hour sitcom was having that kind of effect,” Lear says. “What I do know is people talked. That’s always good.”
Sally Struthers, who played Archie’s daughter, Gloria, says no one knew how the public would react to a new kind of TV family, one that argued politics and also could be heard flushing toilets. Before the premiere, extra operators were on hand to handle the angry phone calls, she says.
“When we came to work the next day, we were told affiliates all over the country got a lot of calls, but they weren’t angry,” she says. “They were, ‘What was that? Is it coming back?’ People were awestruck.”
Could a “Family”-type show be done on broadcast TV today? “In this time of political correctness, no,” Struthers says. “It hasn't been done since. I think we've politically corrected ourselves into the turlet.”
“Sanford and Son” (NBC, 1972-77)
As with “All in the Family,” “Sanford” was based on a British comedy, “Steptoe and Son.” And comedian Redd Foxx was just the guy to play Fred Sanford, the cranky, conniving hypochondriac who ran a junkyard with his son, Lamont (Demond Wilson). (Lear's partner, Bud Yorkin, had the larger role in “Sanford.”)
“We had gone up to Las Vegas and we fell in love with Redd Foxx, who was too filthy for television, working there — my God — but he was funny, funny, funny,” Lear says. “I always think of Redd Foxx as a clown. You get a couple of those in a century. His ear lobes were funny. His toes were funny. He was just funny.”
“Sanford” was more straight comedy than some of the other shows: Fred often feigned a heart attack as he called out to his late wife, Elizabeth. “You had a single father who didn’t want his son to leave him,” writer Saul Turteltaub says. “This funny old man made up every story in the world and every sickness in the world to keep his son home.”
“Maude” (CBS, 1972-78)
And then there’s “Maude,” or more specifically the actress who played her, Bea Arthur, who died in April at age 86. “Nobody made me laugh like her. Carroll O’Connor made me laugh, but Bea made me laugh in places in the body that I didn’t know existed,” Lear says. “There was a degree of madness in her comedy that got to me.”
In a famous two-parter, Maude decided to have an abortion. Few shows then or now would touch that topic. “I hear from writers all the time who wanted to go near that and haven’t been allowed.”
Adrienne Barbeau, who played Maude’s daughter, Carol, marvels at Lear's comic gift. “It was my first experience of being in the presence of a genius. We got a script once a week. We’d read it, and Norman just knew what it needed to be fixed. It was an incredible talent. He understood from the moment he heard the words why this wasn’t funny or how to make that more funny.”
“Maude,” a liberal counterpoint to Archie’s world, “was always balanced,” Barbeau says. Episodes “were never so slanted that they weren’t entertaining or that you wanted to stop watching if you didn’t agree with them.”
“Good Times” (CBS, 1974-79)
Lear took a “Maude” supporting character, housekeeper Florida (Esther Rolle), and made her the lead in “Good Times.” “Esther was so great, and there wasn’t a black family on television, so it occurred to us that she would be a great center for one.”
As for the breakout character, son J.J. (Jimmie Walker), the original plan was to have him be an artist.
“We wanted to show how an ordinary kid could be a genius of some kind. I think over time, his comedy overwhelmed what we wanted to do character-wise,” Lear says. J.J.’s popular catchphrase, dy-no-mite, “was just one of those things.”
Walker credits Lear with opening the door for black writers. “He was the first guy to hire black writers. He took heat for not hiring enough, but it wasn’t his fault. At the time, a lot of black people didn't know they could make a living writing.”
“The Jeffersons” (CBS, 1975-85)
“All in the Family” begat “The Jeffersons,” a movin’-on-upscale family that was a counterpoint to the downscale Evans clan of “Good Times.”
They already had the Bunkers’ neighbors, Louise “Weezy” Jefferson (Isabel Sanford) and son Lionel (Mike Evans); Lear cast husband George from the New York theater. “I remembered Purlie, the show that brought Sherman Hemsley,” he says. Hemsley made George Jefferson an icon as a short, strutting, self-made man. “I don’t know that that’s what I was looking for. That’s what he brought. With great casting, you get more than you bargained for.”
Writer John Baskin recalls Hemsley as “a very humble, meek man in person. You put a script in front of him and he became George Jefferson, that cocky, bantamweight guy. It was miraculous.” “The Jeffersons” also was an early show to feature an interracial couple, neighbors Helen and Tom Willis.
“One Day at a Time” (CBS, 1975-84)
With divorced Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin) as the central character, “One Day” did what a classic hit couldn’t five years earlier. “When Jimmy Brooks and Allan Burns did “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” they had written her as a divorcee and the network wouldn't have it. So they redid it.” But for Lear's single mother with daughters, “the time was right.”
Unhappy with some early scripts, Franklin got a lesson about speaking up from O’Connor. “I went to Carroll crying one day. I said, ‘Carroll, your show is so wonderful.’ He was a writer and a guy; I’m this girl in a man's world. I said, ‘I can't do that.’ He said, ‘You have to. That’s your responsibility. Period.’”
She told Lear she felt the show was dealing with minor topics, not about actual divorce. He hired some new writers, who introduced the father and dealt with the kids’ unhappiness. Franklin says: “It was the meat of what the show was supposed to be about. And then we were on the right track.”
“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” (Syndicated, 1976-78)
The central idea was “the effect of media on a simple, middle-American housewife (Louise Lasser). That’s why, in the very opening episode, a family of five around the corner, (with their) two chickens and eight goats, are slaughtered and she's talking about waxy yellow buildup,” Lear says.
Later in the series, he says, Hartman “is sitting on ‘The David Susskind Show’ and there are three media types — unctuous, each a specialist in their own art — who are grilling her. And from this happy Mary Hartman that’s pleased to be there, in 20 minutes she goes insane. It’s the most brilliant piece of acting I think I’ve seen on television.”
Lasser says it took a while to figure out her character and the show. “You had this consumer housewife living her life through television. There were a lot of very funny things. But the more I got to know her, the more I realized how lonely she was.”