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Norman Lear obituary

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Norman Lear obituary

Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters© Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Norman Lear, who has died aged 101, was the writer and producer of a series of hit shows, including All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude and The Jeffersons, that changed the face of American television. At a time of national division, Lear pulled in huge audiences with sitcoms that confronted controversial issues, but used traditional family humour, expanded to black families and single mothers, to illuminate both sides of a conflict, while holding people together. In 1977, he received a Peabody award for “giving us comedy with a social conscience”. That comedy dominated the 70s; All in the Family might draw a 60% share of the Saturday night audience; at times it and Sanford and Son ranked first and second in the ratings.

Lear’s two biggest hits were both adaptations of British shows. Sanford and Son moved Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s sitcom Steptoe and Son to Los Angeles, with the black comedian Redd Foxx as the irascible junkyard owner. All in the Family reworked Johnny Speight’s Till Death Us Do Part; the East End of London became Queens, New York, with Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker as Warren Mitchell’s Alf Garnett. Lear’s versions gained bite from issues such as the Vietnam war, race relations and terrorism; Archie’s solution to the risk of plane hijacking was to issue each passenger with a gun while boarding.

As a producer, Lear was a creative master at development. His ensemble casts developed strong characters, whose popularity saw them spun off into shows of their own; All in the Family alone spawned six more series.

Lear was born in New Haven, Connecticut. Both his parents, Jeanette (nee Seicol) and Hyman (known as Herman) Lear, were the children of Russian Jewish immigrants. Herman was a travelling salesman who went to jail for peddling fake bonds, and the family moved frequently. Norman finished high school in Hartford, Connecticut, and enrolled at Emerson College in Boston in 1940. He left to enlist in the Army Air Corps, and before shipping out in 1943 married Charlotte Rosen. In Italy, Lear flew 52 missions as a radio operator and gunner in a B-17 bomber.

Networks rejected All in the Family twice before its third pilot was bought by CBS in January 1971. It did not find an audience until it moved to Saturday nights, but still won an Emmy for best comedy series. Its second season went to the top of the ratings, where it stayed for five years. A spinoff, Maude, then hatched Good Times, the first sitcom with a black two-parent family; the next was The Jeffersons, which, like Maude, took a character from All in the Family. Lear developed One Day at a Time about a struggling single mother, and Diff’rent Strokes, in which a wealthy white man adopts two black kids. Even his flops were hits. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a mock soap opera rejected by the networks that became a cult favourite in syndication, and spun off another cult hit, the small-town talkshow Fernwood Tonight.

An unrepentant liberal, Lear in 1980 founded People for the American Way, an advocacy group aimed at countering the rising power of the evangelical right. He produced I Love Liberty (1982), a rejoinder to conservatives who claimed the left was unpatriotic. In 2001 his purchase of one of the first published copies of the Declaration of Independence led to its exhibition on a national tour; Lear also produced a celebrity reading of it at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

In the 80s, Lear bought Avco Embassy films. Rob Reiner, who played Meathead, Archie Bunker’s liberal son-in-law, was the son of Lear’s old comedian friend Carl; Avco produced Reiner’s first hit film, This Is Spinal Tap (1984). After selling Avco to Columbia Pictures, he formed Act III, which produced Reiner’s next hits, Stand By Me (1986) and The Princess Bride (1987). He remained active well into the new millennium, his work including writing and voicing for the animated South Park series.

President Bill Clinton awarded Lear the National Medal of the Arts in 1999. He received a Peabody lifetime achievement award in 2016, and a Kennedy Center award in 2017, though on that occasion he refused to attend President Donald Trump’s White House reception. Lear’s memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, appeared in 2014; two years later he was the subject of a documentary, Just Another Version of You. 

Lear once put his original Peabody award into perspective. “We had a Judeo-Christian ethic hanging around a couple of thousand years that didn’t help erase racism at all. So the notion of a little half-hour comedy changing things is something I think is silly.”

His first two marriages ended in divorce; he is survived by his third wife, Lyn Davis, a psychologist, and their son, Benjamin, and daughters, Brianna and Madeline; two daughters, Kate and Maggie, from his second marriage, to Frances Loeb (who used part of her multimillion-dollar divorce settlement to found the monthly magazine Lear’s, “for the woman who wasn’t born yesterday”); and a daughter, Ellen, from his first marriage.

• Norman Milton Lear, writer and producer, born 27 July 1922; died 5 December 2023 

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