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Norman Lear, who made funny sitcoms about serious topics, dies at 101

A black-and-white photo of a bald man with a mustache holding a pencil drawing of five people, all of whom are standing next to him in real life.
CBS / Landov
Norman Lear (center) created, developed and produced the hit show All in the Family, which ran from 1971 to 1979. The politically charged sitcom starred (from left) Jean Stapleton, Carroll O'Connor, Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers and Mike Evans.

Norman Lear, who addressed serious issues in humorous sitcoms, died Tuesday in Los Angeles at the age of 101. Matthew Lawrence, a spokesperson for the family, said the producer and screenwriter died of natural causes. A post on his Facebook page said that he was "surrounded by his family as we told stories and sang songs until the very end."

Lear was hailed for producing beloved television shows like All in the Family and The Jeffersons, and later, for his work as a political activist. The families in his shows had conversations about the real things that were going on in the 1970s. Before these shows, television worlds were simpler, nicer places, says Darnell Hunt, a leading scholar of racial representation on TV, with plot lines like: "I burnt the pot roast. What are we gonna do we don't have anything for dinner. Or I have a talent show at school and I don't know how to dance."

Then Lear's roster of hit '70s sitcoms revolutionized television.

"Those shows took on issues that couldn't be resolved," Hunt says. "They were issues that were at the heart of inequality and struggle in American society. He tackled everything from homophobia, sexism, racism, you name it."

If you watched All in the Family, you probably already have a sense of Lear's own family. Archie Bunker is reminiscent of Lear's own father; Edith was based on his mother, Jeanette; and America knew Lear's ex-wife Frances as the character Maude.

Lear grew up in a Jewish family in Connecticut. "I was a kid of the Depression," Lear told NPR in 2012. "I saw my father's brothers go belly up. My father was always belly up. It's very difficult for me to call my father what he was, so I use 'rascal.' He served time. He was in trouble a lot with the law. ... But I can't overstate how much I loved him. You hear me talk about him lightly because I cannot make him a villain. I loved him."

Norman Lear (second from right) with Jerry Lewis (center) and a group of television writers during rehearsal in 1951.
Robert Kradin / AP
Television writers join Jerry Lewis as they rehearse in May 1951. From left, Kingman T. Moore, Jerry Lewis, Ed Simmons, Norman Lear and Ernie Glucksman.

Lear dropped out of college and enlisted in the Air Force to fight in World War II. In his late 20s, he moved to Los Angeles and struggled for several years, selling furniture door to door and taking baby pictures. Eventually, he talked his way into writing for a nightclub comedy act, which led to variety-show gigs.

"He worked for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and then Martha Raye — this is a kind of who's who of television in that era," says Marty Kaplan, founding director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California.

By 1971, Lear was almost 50. He had produced and directed some shows and movies, and his life was about to change.

"I'd read in TV Guide about this British show Till Death Us Do Part," Lear recollected in the DVD set The Norman Lear Collection. "That dynamic of the father and the son and the political arguments and the bigotry and so forth — that was my father," Lear says. "I grew up with that. I couldn't believe it hadn't been my idea, it was so clearly a show."

So he decided to make his own version. He cast stars like Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton, and he got a pilot filmed. But Lear had to fight for years to get All in the Family on air.

<i>All In The Family</i> stars Jean Stapleton and Carroll O'Connor (front) show off the Emmys they've just won in September 1978. Behind them are (from left) actor Rob Reiner, producer Norman Lear and executive producer Mort Lachman.
/ AP
All In The Family stars Jean Stapleton and Carroll O'Connor (front) show off the Emmys they've just won in September 1978. Behind them are (from left) actor Rob Reiner, producer Norman Lear and executive producer Mort Lachman.

When it finally did air, viewers got this warning first: "The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show — in a mature fashion — just how absurd they are."

The network was prepped for lots of complaints about the unbridled racism of the family patriarch, Archie Bunker. But people got it, and All in the Family made it to the top-10 for eight of its nine seasons.

"I set out to make people laugh, truly to make people laugh," Lear said. "But we approached it seriously. Our writers read two, three newspapers a day, paid a lot of attention to their kids and families, came in to talk about everything that was affecting us in our daily lives. And that's where we got our material."

All in the Family was the beginning of Lear's sitcom reign. Edith's cousin Maude spun off her own show, Good Times, that focused on Black housekeeper Florida Evans and her family's struggles with poverty. Then came The Jeffersons, about a black family on its way up.

"The Jeffersons were unabashedly Black," says Darnell Hunt. "It tried to engage race and class dynamics and gender dynamics at the same time. I remember The Jeffersons growing up, I remember feeling like, 'There really isn't anything else like this on TV so I have to watch this.'"

Hunt says the portrayal of a Black family was far from perfect, but it had a level of realness that Black audiences could relate to. The Jeffersons ran for 11 seasons — one of the longest running sitcoms on television. It became another Lear success story.

"He had, at one point, three out of the five top shows on television, and this was a time when there were only three networks," says Kaplan. "Routinely, a show might get 50 or 60 million viewers. He was in direct contact with the living rooms and families of the country."

Lear took that reach seriously. He routinely fought with executives to get on storylines that reflected the social upheaval of the '70s, with the Black Power movement and women's liberation. "It didn't escape our notice also that if you can get people to care when they laugh, they will laugh more," Lear told NPR in 2008.

By 1980, Lear was moving away from sitcoms and toward political activism. "The mixture of politics and religion scared the hell out of me," he said. "And I went out and made a 60-second television spot."

In that spot, aimed at the religious right, Lear says: "There's something wrong when people — even preachers — suggest that other people are good Christians or bad Christians, depending on their political views. That's not the American way."

He says he never intended to start an organization, but People for the American Way "just sprung up around it."

Lear bought an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and toured the country with it. A nonprofit campaign that grew out of that tour called We Declare says that it registered nearly 4 million young voters ahead of the 2008 election.

Lear's passion and activism turned him into something of a lightning rod. "I've received a lot of death threats," he told NPR in 2012. "I never intended to be a lightning rod. Somebody asked me in an interview, if I had a bumper sticker, what would my bumper sticker be? And I said, 'Just another version of you.' And that's what I think we all are — versions of each other."

An older man wearing a light-colored brimmed hat, glasses and suit-and-tie smiles while looking at an unseen audience and standing against a black background.
Ted S. Warren / AP
Lear thrived producing sitcoms. "Standing behind an audience of 240 people and watching an audience come out of its seat and go down and come back up again on a big laugh was a spiritual experience," he said.

In more recent years, Lear had something of a comeback in Hollywood. For example, he helped reboot his series One Day At A Time. He was pitching pilots and holding political fundraisers, and recording Twitter videos on his front porch — even after turning 100 years old.

Kaplan says Lear did all he did with humor and compassion. "Norman divided people into wet and dry," he explains. "Dry people were calm, cool, unruffled. Wet people were emotional, and impulsive, and things get to them."

Lear considered himself a "wet" person — he teared up, he joined causes, he acted on what he believed — and his life was anything but dry.

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Selena Simmons-Duffin
Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.