Television icon Norman Lear, who revolutionized sitcoms, died on Tuesday, December 5, 2023, of natural causes. He was 101 years old.
“Thank you for the moving outpouring of love and support in honor of our wonderful husband, father, and grandfather,” Lear’s family said in a statement. “Norman lived a life of creativity, tenacity, and empathy. He deeply loved our country and spent a lifetime helping to preserve its founding ideals of justice and equality for all. Knowing and loving him has been the greatest of gifts. We ask for your understanding as we mourn privately in celebration of this remarkable human being.”
Lear changed American sitcoms in the 1970s by not only acknowledging, but actually exploring real, controversial issues that people face. His shows covered topics like racism, homosexuality, abortion, and the Vietnam War. It started with All in the Family, a show about working class, outspoken bigot Archie Bunker and his family living in Queens. He followed that up with Sanford and Son, a Los Angeles-set show about the cantankerous, politically incorrect Fred Sanford and his long-suffering, progressive son Lamont.
He also challenged the structure of sitcoms which were usually centered around the traditional mother, father, and children family unit. One Day at a Time starred a single mother of two young girls, and Diff’rent Strokes was about two black kids being adopted by a wealthy white man.
Lear was born in New Haven, CT on July 27, 1922. He studied at Emerson College in Boston, but left school in 1942 to join the Air Force where he served as a radio operator/gunner during World War II. After being discharged from the military, he worked as a door to door salesman and in public relations.
He and Ed Simmons wrote the variety show, Ford Star Revue, which got them a job writing for The Colgate Comedy Hour. Then he served as a producer on The Martha Raye Show, and teamed with Bud Yorkin to create Tandem Productions and created his first show, The Deputy. He was nominated for an Oscar for the satirical Divorce American Style, which was followed up by Cold Turkey.
In 1971, he created All in the Family, which was loosely based on a British sitcom. The boundary pushing show attracted audiences across the political and social spectrum, earning Lear multiple Emmys. A year later he created Sanford and Son, another hit about a working class family. Lear launched multiple All in the Family spinoffs, including Maude, a show about an outspoken liberal woman (that unabashedly tackled abortion in the show’s boldest episode); The Jeffersons, about a black couple who suddenly see success and wealth, moving from Queens to a Manhattan high-rise; and Good Times, which featured a couple struggling to raise their family in a Chicago housing project.
Lear’s credits also included Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Archie’s Bunker’s Place, Silver Spoons, The Facts of Life, 227, and The Powers that Be. He hosted the Quiz Kids revival in the early ‘80s, was an executive producer on The Princess Bride and Fried Green Tomatoes, and was a consultant on episodes of South Park.
Throughout his career, he was nominated for 18 Emmy Awards, including recent wins for the Live in Front of a Studio Audience specials on All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Good Times. In 2017, he was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.