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How All in the Family Changed the TV Landscape

All in the Family is roundly considered a touchstone for television achievement now, but when it debuted 50 years ago, even the network carrying it hoped it would fizzle quickly and unnoticed. CBS put an army of operators at phone lines expecting a barrage of complaints from offended middle Americans demanding its cancellation. Those calls didn’t come. What came was a deluge of support from people hoping this mid-season replacement was a permanent addition to the network’s lineup. The premiere episode contained a considerable list of “television firsts.” One of these rarities continues to remain scarce on network TV: creator Norman Lear trusted the intelligence of the viewing audience. To celebrate All in the Family’s 50th anniversary, we look back at its journey from conception to broadcast, and how it continues to influence and inform entertainment and society today.

Actor Carroll O’Connor, who was a large part of the creative process of the series, consistently maintains he took the now-iconic role of Archie Bunker because All in the Family was a satire, not a sitcom. It was funny, but it wasn’t a lampoon. It was grounded in the most serious of realities, more than the generation gap which it openly showcased, but in the schism between progressive and conservative thinking. The divide goes beyond party, and is not delineated by age, wealth, or even class. The Bunkers were working class. The middle-aged bigot chomping on the cigar was played by an outspoken liberal who took the art of acting very seriously. The audience cared deeply, and laughed loudly, because they were never pandered to. They were as respected as the authenticity of the series characters’ parodies.

Even the laughs were genuine. All in the Family was the first major American series to be videotaped in front of a live audience. There was never a canned laugh added, even in the last season when reactions were captured by an audience viewing pre-taped episodes. Up to this time, sitcoms were taped without audiences in single-camera format and the laugh track was added later. Mary Tyler Moore shot live on film, but videotape helped give All in the Family the look of early live television, like the original live broadcasts of The Honeymooners. Lear wanted to shoot the series in black and white, the same as the British series, Till Death Us Do Part, it was based on. He settled for keeping the soundstage neutral, implying the sepia tones of an old family photograph album. The Astoria, Queens, row house living room was supposed to look comfortable but worn, old-fashioned and retrograde, mirroring Archie’s attitudes: A displaced white hourly wage earner left behind by the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.

“I think they invented good weather around 1940.”

American sitcoms began shortly after World War II, and primarily focused on the upper-middle class white families of Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. I Love Lucy’s Ricky Ricardo, played by Cuban-American Desi Arnaz, ran a successful nightclub. The Honeymooners was a standout because Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden was a bus driver from Bensonhurst (the actual address on that show, 328 Chauncey Street, is in the Bedford–Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn). American TV had little use for the working class until the 1970s. They’d only paid frightened lip service to the fights for civil rights and the women’s liberation movements, and when the postwar economy had to be divided to meet with more equalized opportunities there was no one to break it down in easy terms. The charitable and likable Flying Nun didn’t have the answer hidden under her cornette. It wasn’t even on the docket in Nancy, a 1970 sitcom about a first daughter. The first working family on TV competing in the new job market was the Bunkers, and they had something to say about the new competition.

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Social commentary wasn’t new on television. Shows like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek routinely explored contemporary issues, including racism, corporate greed, and the military action in Vietnam, through the lens of fantasy and science fiction. The war and other unrest were coming into the people’s living rooms every night on the evening news. The times they were a-changing, but television answered to sponsors who feared offending consumers. 

Ah, but British TV, that’s where the action was. Lear read about a show called Till Death Us Do Part, a BBC1 television sitcom that aired from 1965 to 1975. Created by Johnny Speight, the show set its sights on a working-class East End family, spoofing the relationship between reactionary white head of the house Alf Garnett (Warren Mitchell), his wife Else (Dandy Nichols), daughter Rita (Una Stubbs), and her husband Mike Rawlins (Anthony Booth), a socialist from Liverpool. Lear recognized the relationship he had with his own father between the lines.

CBS wanted to buy the rights to the British show as a star vehicle for Gleason, Lear beat out CBS for the rights and personalized it. One of the reasons All in the Family works so well is because Lear wasn’t just putting a representative American family on the screen, he was putting his own family up there.

“If It’s Too Hot in The Kitchen, Stay Away from The Cook.”

Archie Bunker dubbed his son-in-law, Michael Stivic, played by Rob Reiner, a “Meathead, dead from the neck up.” This was the same dubious endearment Lear’s father Herman called him. The same man who routinely commanded Lear’s mother to “stifle herself.” Lear’s mother accused her husband, a “rascal” who was sent to jail for selling fake bonds of being “the laziest white man I ever saw,” according to his memoir Even This I Get to Experience  All three lines made it into all three of the pilots taped for All In the Family. When Lear’s father got out of prison after a three-year stretch, the young budding writer sat through constant, heated, family discussions. “I used to sit at the kitchen table and I would score their arguments,” Lear remembers in his memoir. “I would give her points for this, him points for that, as a way of coping with it.”

All in the Family, season 1, episode 1, provides an almost greatest hits package of these terse and tense exchanges, which also taught Lear not to back away from the fray. He served as a radio operator and gunner in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, earning an Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters after flying 52 combat missions, and being among the crew members featured in the books Crew Umbriag and 772nd Bomb Squadron: The Men, The Memories. Lear partnered with Ed Simmons to write sketches for Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin’s first five appearances on the Colgate Comedy Hour in 1950. They remained as the head writers for three years. They also wrote for The Ford Star Revue, The George Gobel Show, and the comedy team Rowan and Martin, who would later headline Laugh-In.

Lear went solo to write opening monologues for The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, and produce NBC’s sitcom The Martha Raye Show, before creating his first series in 1959, the western The Deputy, which starred Henry Fonda. To get Frank Sinatra to read Lear’s screenplay for the 1963 film Come Blow Your Horn, Lear went on a protracted aerial assault. Over the course of weeks, he had the script delivered while planes with banners flew over Sinatra’s home, or accompanied by a toy brass band or a gaggle of hens. Lear even assembled a “reading den” in Ol’ Blue Eyes’ driveway, complete with smoking jacket, an ashtray and a pipe, an easy chair, ottoman, lamp, and the Jackie Gleason Music to Read By album playing on a portable phonograph. After weeks of missed opportunities, Lear remembers Sinatra finally read the script and “bawled the shit out of me for not getting it to him sooner.”

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The creative perseverance Lear showed just to get the right person for the right part is indicative of the lengths Lear would go for creative excellence. He would continue to fight for artistic integrity, transforming prime time comedy with shows like Good Times, One Day at a Time, and the first late-night soap opera Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. He brought legendary blue comedian Redd Foxx into homes with Sanford and Son, also based on a British sitcom, Steptoe and Son, which starred Harry H. Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell, best known for playing Paul McCartney’s grand-dad in A Hard Day’s Night. But before he could do these, and the successful and progressive All in the Family spinoffs The Jeffersons and Maude, he had to face battles, big and small, over the reluctantly changing face of television.

“Patience is a Virgin”

After Lear beat CBS to the rights to adapt Till Death Us Do Part he offered the show to ABC. When it was being developed for the television studio, the family in the original pilot were named the Justices, and the series was titled “Justice for All,” according to a 1991 “All in the Family 20th Anniversary Special.” They considered future Happy Days dad Tom Bosley, and acclaimed character actor Jack Warden for the lead part, before offering the role to Mickey Rooney. According to Even This I Get to Experience, Lear’s pitch to the veteran actor got to the words “You play a bigot” before Rooney stopped him. “Norm, they’re going to kill you, shoot you dead in the streets,” the Hollywood icon warned, asking if Lear might have a series about a blind detective with a big dog somewhere in the works.

Taped in New York on Sept. 3, 1968, the first pilot starred O’Connor and Jean Stapleton as Archie and Edith Justice. Stapleton, a stage-trained character actor who first worked as a stock player in 1941, was a consistent supporting player for playwright Horton Foote. Stapleton originated the role of Mrs. Strakosh in the 1964 Broadway production of Funny Girl, which starred Barbra Streisand. Lear considered her after seeing her performance in Damn Yankees. She’d made guest appearances on TV series like Dr. Kildare and The Defenders.

O’Connor was born in Manhattan but grew up in Queens, the same borough as the Bunker household with the external living room window which wasn’t visible from the interior. O’Connor acted steadily in theaters in Dublin, Ireland, and New York until director Burgess Meredith, assisted by The Addams Family’s John Astin, cast him in the Broadway adaptation of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. O’Connor had roles in major motion pictures, including Lonely Are the Brave (1962), Cleopatra (1963), Point Blank (1967), The Devil’s Brigade (1968), Death of a Gunfighter (1969), Marlowe (1969), and Kelly’s Heroes (1970).  O’Connor appeared on television series like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Fugitive, The Wild Wild West, The Outer Limits, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, That Girl, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. He’d guest starred as a villain in a season 1 episode of Mission Impossible, and was up for the parts the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island and Dr. Smith on Lost in Space.

The first pilot also starred Kelly Jean Peters as Gloria and Tim McIntire as her husband Richard. ABC liked it enough to fund a second pilot, “Those Were the Days,” which shot in Los Angeles on Feb. 10, 1969. Richard was played by Chip Oliver, and Gloria Justice was played by Candice Azzara, who would go on to play Rodney Dangerfield’s wife in Easy Money, and make numerous, memorable guest appearances on Barney Miller. D’Urville Martin played Lionel Jefferson in both pilots. ABC cancelled it after one episode, worried about a show with a foul-mouthed, bigoted character as the lead.

CBS, which was trying to veer away from rural shows like Mayberry R.F.D., The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres, bought the rights to the urban comedy and renamed it All in the Family. When Gleason’s contract to CBS ran out, Lear was allowed to keep O’Connor on as the main character.

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Sally Struthers was one of the young actors featured in Five Easy Pieces, the 1970 counterculture classic starring Jack Nicholson. She’d also recently finished shooting a memorable part in the 1972 Steve McQueen hit The Getaway. Struthers had just been fired from The Tim Conway Comedy Hour because executives thought she made the show look cheap, which was her job. The premise of the show was it was so low-budget it could only afford one musician, who had to hum the theme song because they couldn’t afford an instrument, and one dancer, as opposed to a line of dancers like they had on The Jackie Gleason Show. Lear noticed her as a dancer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a counterculture variety show which Rob Reiner wrote for with Steve Martin as a writing partner. Reiner’s then-fiancée, the director Penny Marshall, was also up for the role of Gloria, but in an interview for The Television Academy, Reiner recalls that, while Marshall could pass as Stapleton’s daughter, Struthers was obviously the one who looked like Archie’s “little girl.”

Reiner, the son of comedy legend Carl Reiner, was discovered in a guest acting role on the Andy Griffith vehicle series Headmaster, a show he wrote for, but had also played bit roles in Batman, The Andy Griffith Show, Room 222, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., The Beverly Hillbillies and The Odd Couple. Reportedly, Richard Dreyfuss campaigned for the role of Michael, and Harrison Ford turned it down. Mike Evans was cast as Lionel Jefferson, the Bunkers’ young Black next-door neighbor who sugar-coated nonviolent protests with subtle and subversive twists on “giving people what they want.”

“We’re just sweeping dirty dishes under the rug.”

The very first episode tackled multiple issues right away. It discussed atheism, with Michael and Gloria explaining they have found no evidence of god. The family dissects affirmative action, with Archie asserting everyone has an equal chance to advance if they “hustle for it like I done.” He says he didn’t have millions of people marching for him to get his job, like Black Americans. “His uncle got it for him,” Edith explains, with an off-the-cuff delivery exemplifying why Stapleton is one of the all-time great comic character actors. The family argues socialism, anti-Semitism, sausage links and sausage patties. The generation gap widens as Archie wonders why men’s hair is now down to there, while Gloria’s skirt got so high “all the mystery disappears” when she sits down.

All in the Family would continue to deal with taboo topics like the gay rights movement, divorce, breast cancer, and rape. Future episodes would question why presidential campaign funds are unequal, how tax breaks for corporations kill the middle class, and weigh the personal price of serving in an unpopular war as opposed to dodging the draft. When Archie goes to a female doctor for emergency surgery a few seasons in, All in the Family points out she is most certainly paid less than a male doctor. When skyjackings were a persistent domestic threat in the 1970s, Archie suggested airlines should “arm the passengers.” It is very prescient of the NRA’s suggestion of arming teachers to combat school shootings.

But the first showdown between Lear and the network was fought for the sexual revolution. The first episode’s action begins when Edith and Archie come home early from church and interrupt Michael and Gloria as they’re about to take advantage of having the house to themselves. Gloria’s got her legs wrapped around Michael as he is walking them toward the stairs, and the bed. “At 11:10 on a Sunday,” Archie wants to know as he makes himself known. According to Lear’s memoir, CBS President William Paley objected, saying the line suggested sex. “And the network wants that out even though they’re married–I mean, it was plain silly,” he writes. “My script could have lived without the line, but somehow I understood that if I give on that moment, I’m going to give on silly things forever. So, I had to have that showdown.”

The standoff continued until 25 minutes before air time. CBS broadcast the episode, but put a disclaimer before the opening credits rolled, which Reiner later described as saying “Nothing you’re about to see has anything that we want to have anything to do with. As far as we’re concerned, if you don’t watch the next half hour, it’s okay with us.” Lear knew, with what he was doing, this was going to be the first of many battles, because this was the first show of its kind. Television families didn’t even flush toilets, much less bring unmentionables to the table. “The biggest problem a family might face would have been that the roast was ruined when the boss was coming over to dinner,” Lear writes. “There were no women or their problems in American life on television. There were no health issues. There were no abortions. There were no economic problems. The worst thing that could happen was the roast would be ruined. I realized that was a giant statement — that we weren’t making any statements.”

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“What I say ain’t got nothing to do with what I think.”

Politicians and pundits worried about how the series might affect racial relations. The country had experienced inner city riots, battle lines were drawn over school desegregation, busing children to schools was met with violent resistance. Did All In the Family undermine bigotry or reinforce racism? Were people laughing at Archie or with him? Was it okay to like Archie more than Mike?

Lear believed humor would be cathartic, eroding bigotry. Bigots found a relief valve. Lear always insisted Archie was a satirically exaggerated parody to make racism and sexism look foolish. Liberals protested the character came across as a “loveable bigot,” because satire only works if the audience is in on the joke. Bigoted viewers didn’t see the show as satire. They identified with Archie and saw nothing wrong with ethnic slurs. Mike and Gloria come off like preachy, bleeding-heart liberal, hippie leeches. Lionel handled Archie better than Michael did.

O’Connor humanized Archie as an old-fashioned guy trying to make sense of a rapidly changing world. Bunker gave bigotry a human face and, because he hated everyone, he was written off as an “equal-opportunity bigot.” Not quite a defensible title. Archie was the most liked character on the show, and the most disliked. Most people saw him as a likable loser, so identifiable he was able to change attitudes. In a 1972 interview, O’Connor explained white fans would “tell me, ‘Archie was my father; Archie was my uncle.’ It is always was, was, was. It’s not now. I have an impression that most white people are, in some halting way, trying to reach out, or they’re thinking about it.” It sometimes worked against O’Connor the activist, however. When he backed New York Mayor John Lindsay’s 1972 anti-war nomination for the Democratic presidential nomination, Archie Bunker’s shadow distanced progressives.

Archie was relatable beyond his bigotry. He spoke to the anxieties of working- and middle-class families. Archie was a dock worker in the Corona section of Queens, who had to drive a cab as a second job, with little hope of upward mobility. He didn’t get political correctness. The character’s ideological quips were transformed into the bestselling paperback mock manifesto The Wit and Wisdom of Archie Bunker. White conservative viewers bought “Archie for President” buttons. 

“If you call me Cute one more time, I swear I’ll open a vein.”

As cannot be overstated, All in the Family set many precedents, both socially and artistically. The Bunker family is an icon on many levels, Archie and Edith’s chairs are at the Smithsonian. But Archie Bunker is also the Mother Courage of TV. The antithesis of the bland sitcom characters of the time, he also wasn’t the character we hated to love, or loved to hate. Archie was the first character we weren’t supposed to like, but couldn’t help it. This phenomenon continues. The next TV character to take on the iconic mantle was probably Louis De Palma on Taxi. Audiences should have wanted to take a lug wrench to his head, but Danny De Vito brought such a diverse range of rage and vulnerability to that part it was named TV Guide’s most beloved character for years.

We shouldn’t like Walter White, especially when he doffs that pretentious Heisenberg hat, on Breaking Bad. And let’s face it, Slipping Jimmy on Better Call Saul isn’t really the kind of guy you want to leave alone in your living room while you grab a drink. Families across the United States and abroad sat down to an Italian-style family dinner with Tony Soprano and The Sopranos every Sunday night. But on Monday mornings, most of us would have ducked him, especially if we owed him money. Even the advanced model of the Terminator guy was scared of Tony.

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The best example of this is South Park’s Eric Cartman. While we don’t know who his father is on the series, he’s got Bunker DNA all over him. He’s even gotten into squabbles with Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner. This wasn’t lost on Lear, who contacted creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to say he loved the show in 2003. Lear wound up writing for South Park’s seventh season. “They invited me to a party and we’re partying,” Lear told USA Today at the time. “There’s no way to overstate the kick of being welcomed by this group.”

“I hate entertainment. Entertainment is a thing of the past, now we got television.”

Television can educate as much as it wants to entertain, and All in the Family taught the viewing audience a whole new vocabulary. The casual epithets thrown on the show were unheard of in broadcast programming, no matter how commonplace they might have been in the homes of the people watching. When Sammy Davis Jr. comes to Bunker house in the first season, every ethnic and racial slur ever thrown is exchanged. In another first season episode, and both the unaired pilots, Archie breaks down the curse word “Goddamn.” But a large segment of the more socially conservative, and religious, audience thought All in the Family said whatever they wanted just because they could get away with it.

All in the Family debuted to low viewership, but rose to be ranked number one in the Nielsen ratings for five years. The show undermined the perception of the homogeneous middle-class demographic allowing shows like M*A*S*H to comment on contemporary events.

All in the Family represented the changing American neighborhood. The show opened the door for the working poor to join situation comedies as much as when the Bunkers welcomed Lionel, Louise (Isabel Sanford), and George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) when they moved into Archie’s neighborhood. Lear reportedly was challenged by the Black Panther Party to expand the range of black characters on his shows. He took the challenge seriously and added subversive humor. Sanford and Son was set in a junkyard in Watts. Foxx’s Fred Sanford rebelled against the middle-class aspirations of his son, Lamont (Demond Wilson). Good Times was set in the projects of Chicago, and took on issues like street gangs, evictions and poor public schools.

Married With Children, The Simpsons, and King of the Hill continued to explore the comic possibilities of working class drama. Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a successful, upwardly mobile television producer. Working-class women were represented on sitcoms like Alice, but didn’t have a central voice until 1988 when Roseanne debuted on ABC, and Roseanne Barr ushered in her brand of proletarian feminism. All in the Family’s legacy includes Black-ish, as creator Kenya Barris continues to mine serious and controversial subject matter for cathartic and educational laughter. Tim Allen covets the conservative crown, and is currently the Last Man Standing in for Archie. But as reality gets more exaggerated than any satire can capture, All in the Family remains and retains its most authentic achievement.

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