Norman Lear Selected Press
The Team Behind Archie Bunker
September 25, 1972
THE Jack Paar Show, 1960: Paar walks off the show because NBC has censored some terrible words he uttered on the air. The words were not really words but initials: W.C., for water closet, the British equivalent of toilet.
Petula, 1968: the sponsors, Chrysler Motor Corp., try unsuccessfully to quash a shocking sequence in this Petula Clark special. In the sequence, Petula’s white hand rests momentarily on the black arm of Guest Star Harry Belafonte.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, 1969: the brothers, already in jeopardy with CBS for their satirical barbs, lose their show after an allegedly blasphemous guest spot by David Steinberg. The vein in which Steinberg took the Lord’s name was comic.
Incomplete. That was the way it was on network entertainment shows. Scripts were judged not only by what they said but by what they did not say. Blacks were visible but untouchable, and bathrooms simply did not exist. By and large, any subjects were fair game except those that bore on the reality of viewers’ lives. The result was prime-time programming that was at once obvious and incomplete, like connect-the-dots pictures without the lines drawn in. Reduced to japes about mistaken identities and absentminded fathers losing their car keys, even situation comedies had few situations with which to make comedy.
But no more. TV has embarked on a new era of candor, with all the lines emphatically drawn in. During the season that began last week, programmers will actually be competing with each other to trace the largest number of touchy—and heretofore forbidden —ethnic, sexual and psychological themes. Religious quirks, wife swapping, child abuse, lesbianism, venereal disease—all the old taboos will be toppling. Marcus Welby last week joined the abortion debate with a patient who had not one but two in a single year. An upcoming ABC Movie of the Week will feature Hal Holbrook explaining his homosexuality to his son. Just for laughs, Archie Bunker’s daughter will be the victim of an attempted rape.
NBC’s The Bold Ones will be getting bolder, mainly by knifing into such delicate surgical issues as embryo transplants and lobotomy. The lobotomy episode will also depict that rarity on TV medical shows: a crooked doctor. No new adventure hero, it seems, will be admitted to the schedule without an ethnic identity badge. ABC’S Kung Fu is a sort of Fugitive foo yung—a Chinese priest permanently on the lam in the American West of the 1870s, nonviolent but ready to zap troublemakers with the self-defense art of kung fu. The title character of NBC’s Banacek (one of three rotating shows in the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie) is not only a rugged insurance sleuth but also a walking lightning rod for Polish jokes.
Indeed, the 20 new series making their bow this fall add up to a veritable pride of prejudices. CBS’s Bridget Loves Bernie concerns a well-heeled Catholic girl who falls for a poor Jewish cab driver. In last week’s first episode they got married and promptly gave birth to dozens of Jewish-Catholic in-law gags. M* A* S* H, also on CBS, is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the grim-zany 1970 movie about an Army medical unit in the Korean War. It mixes sex, surgery and insubordination until they are almost indistinguishable (Surgeon to nurse leaning over operating table: “If you don’t move, Captain, I’m going to have to cut around your B cups”).
The culmination of the whole trend may lie in NBC’s The Little People, which is contrived to capitalize on nearly every current vogue. It deals with the adventures of a pediatrician (thus getting into the medical bag) who practices with his rebellious daughter (the generation gap) in Hawaii (ethnic tensions) on patients whose problems go beyond mumps to things like mental retardation (controversial topics).
Bolder is not necessarily better. It is just as possible for TV shows to be inane about sex as about fathers losing their car keys. After all, the daytime soap operas have been doing it for years. By the standards of today’s movies or cocktail parties, bolder is not even much bolder. Nor are all of the season’s shows cultivating a racier-than-thou attitude. The coming months will offer a spate of conventional programming in every category.
But on TV, a medium that magnifies the importance of things even as it shrinks their size, small gains loom large. Even allowing for a wide margin of shlock in the new season, some of it will be the shlock of recognition. With a gibe at anti-Semitism here, a humorous insight into sexual hang-ups there, home screen entertainment is beginning to be a little less of a window on a void. It is becoming a little more of a mirror.
Who is behind this transformation on the tube? A new, iconoclastic generation of creative talents? An insurgent band of reformers from outside the wasteland’s preserve? Hardly. If any individuals can be said to be the catalysts, they are a pair of tanned and creased Hollywood veterans named Alan (“Bud”) Yorkin and Norman Lear.
Both are canny professionals who grew up with the medium. Lear served an apprenticeship as a comedy writer in the ’50s and ’60s with Martin and Lewis, George Gobel, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Andy Williams, among others. Yorkin staged such shows as Martin and Lewis’s, Gobel’s and Dinah Shore’s, later directed specials for Jack Benny and Fred Astaire. Together, as partners in a venture called Tandem Productions, they revolutionized TV comedy by adapting a British TV hit into All in the Family.
The night Family went on the air in January 1971, a nervous CBS posted extra operators on its switchboard to handle the calls of protest. An outvoted censor prepared to say “I told you so,” and several programming executives felt premonitions of the guillotine tingling at the backs of their necks. The network did not know whether the show would be a scandal or a flop. It was neither, of course, but instead a piece of instant American folklore.
Archie Bunker burst on-screen snorting and bellowing about “spades” and “spics” and “that tribe.” He decried miniskirts, “bleeding heart” churchmen, food he couldn’t put ketchup on and sex during daytime hours. He bullied his “dingbat” wife Edith and bemoaned his “weepin’ Nellie atheist” daughter Gloria. Above all, he clashed with his liberal, long-haired son-in-law Mike Stivic, a “Polack pinko meathead” living in the Bunker household while working his way through college.
No matter that Archie tripped up on his own testiness and lost most of his arguments. He mentioned what had previously been unmentionable on TV. As played by Carroll O’Connor, he was daringly, abrasively, yet somehow endearingly funny.
With his advent, a mass-media microcosm of Middle America took shape, and a new national hero—or was it villain?—was born. It was not long before more than 50 million people were tuning in to Archie’s tirades each week, making Family the highest-rated series on TV.
Yorkin and Lear repackaged excerpts from Family as an LP album and a book of Bunkerisms. Archie Bunker T shirts and beer mugs appeared. Well before Archie received a vote for the vice presidency at this summer’s Democratic Convention, Columnist William S. White revealed that Washington politicos were talking about a “Bunker vote,” reflecting a lower-middle-class mood of anger and resentment at a tight economy and loose permissiveness. In the White House, Richard Nixon watched an episode in which Archie’s attack on “airy fairies” was blunted by the discovery that one of Archie’s pals, an ex-football star, was homosexual. “That was awful,” said Nixon. “It made a fool out of a good man.”
Fool? Good man? Yorkin and Lear soon learned what it might have felt like to be Cadmus, the legendary Greek who sowed dragon’s teeth only to see them spring up from the ground as armed men fighting each other. From the dragon’s teeth of Archie’s vocabulary, the producers reaped a crop of ethnic spokesmen, psychologists and sociologists, all armed with studies and surveys and battling each other over whether Family lampooned bigotry or glorified it. The debate seemed rather top-heavy for such light humor, but that was precisely the issue: whether Family was not all the more dangerous because it made bigotry an occasion for cozy chuckles and portrayed Archie as an overgrown boy, naughty but ultimately harmless.
Laura Z. Hobson, who prodded the public conscience with her 1947 novel about anti-Semitism, Gentlemen’s Agreement, complained that “you cannot be a bigot and be lovable.” Lear replied that bigotry was most common and most insidious when it occurred in otherwise lovable people. Since then, Northwestern University Sociologist Charles Moskos has supported both the Bunkers and the deBunkers by arguing that Family’s humor cuts two ways: “It is a cheap way for tolerant upper-middle-class liberals to escape their own prejudices while the bigots get their views reinforced.” Lear concedes that the humorous treatment of bigotry means “we don’t have to think about it now.” But he maintains that “we’re swallowing just the littlest bit of truth about ourselves, and it sits there for the unconscious to toss about later.”
Meanwhile, Yorkin and Lear’s breakthrough with Family has prompted a host of imitators—led by Yorkin and Lear. The best of the shows to explore the comic territory they opened up is their Sanford and Son (also adapted from a British original), which made its debut on NBC last January.
New Door. Sanford is built around the love-hate relationship of a black father and son who run a junk business in Los Angeles. But it is no Family in blackface. Its humor plays with prejudices rather than on them. “Were they colored?” the police asked the elder Sanford about a gang of thieves in an early episode. “Yeah,” he replied. “White.” The old man, played by Redd Foxx, has none of Archie’s anger. He is simply an engaging con artist who will resort to any ruse to keep his son from quitting the business and leaving home.
The show’s true novelty stems from its relatively realistic portrayal of poor blacks in a warm, natural relationship. “My friends in the black community told me they’re gonna be at home watching, just like it’s a Joe Louis fight,” Foxx said when the show began. “Means a lot to them.” It must have meant a lot to other people as well. In one of the fastest ascents in TV history, Sanford shot up into the top ten rated shows, close behind Family.
“Those two shows, All in the Family and Sanford and Son, have opened a new door for television,” says NBC’s vice president in charge of programming, Lawrence White. “They have made it clear that we can do broad-based entertainment shows that deal in reality as a source for comedy.”
Among the first through that new door for the coming season were—once again—Yorkin and Lear. This time they have a spin-off from Family called Maude, and already it ranks as one of the fall’s top prospects. Maude is Edith Bunker’s cousin who lives somewhere in upstate New York. As played by the formidable (5 ft. 9 in.), husky-contraltoed Beatrice Arthur, she may do for liberal suburban matrons what Archie has done for urban hardhats.
“The flip side of Archie,” is the way Lear describes Maude. “She is a Roosevelt liberal who has her feet firmly planted in the ’40s.” Maude knows how to arrange all the right-thinking enlightened attitudes around herself, but when she is challenged they open up like gunwales on a galleon, and she blazes away with broadsides at feckless repairmen, greedy cab drivers and her priggish right-wing neighbor.
She first hove into view on a Family episode last season. The entire Bunker family fell ill and Maude took over the household—especially Archie (“You can either get up off that couch and eat your breakfast or lie there and feed off your own fat…and if you choose the latter you can probably lie there for months”). The CBS brass was watching and, in Norman Lear’s words, “saw a star.” A second episode—in effect a pilot —was concocted, in which Archie and Edith visited Maude on the eve of her daughter’s wedding to a Jew: it clinched the deal for a new series.
“Maude breaks every rule of television from the start,” says Robert Wood, head of CBS-TV. “She’s on her fourth husband, and she is living with a divorced daughter who has a son. It’s not so long ago that you couldn’t show a woman divorced from one husband, let alone three.” In last week’s opening episode, Maude had fairly tame set-tos with a door-to-door salesman and a psychiatrist, but her future outings will include a look at legalizing marijuana and a fling at black-radical-chic party giving à la Leonard Bernstein. In one episode not yet okayed by the network, she even gets pregnant and decides to seek an abortion, while her shaken husband looks into the vasectomy market.
With Family, Sanford and Maude going for them, Yorkin and Lear have emerged in a big way from the twilight of anonymity behind the scenes in TV. Johnny Carson was barely exaggerating when he introduced this year’s Emmy Award ceremonies as “an evening with Norman Lear.” After Lear had collected one of the seven Emmys won by Family, Carson quipped: “I understand Norman has just sold his acceptance speech as a new series.”
Of course it isn’t just the recognition; it’s the money. Yorkin and Lear’s profits from their three shows this year could reach $5,000,000, not counting the take from books, records and other byproduct merchandising. With offers of further projects pouring in, their Tandem headquarters is the hottest TV production office in Hollywood. So busy are the partners nowadays that they rarely get a chance to be in the office. They run the business by remote control, communicating with each other by memo. Occasionally they rendezvous for a quick huddle in the parking lot of a studio where one or the other is coming from or going to work.
Lear, who spends most of his time at CBS as executive producer of Family and Maude, is a dapper, droopy-mustached man of 50 with the comedy writer’s congenital air of melancholy, like a sensitive spaniel; he tends to be the spokesman for the team. Yorkin, 46, who concentrates on being executive producer of Sanford at NBC, is a beefy, genial soul with a flushed face and a habit of punctuating his speech with a stabbing thumb that one senses could easily become a fist. Both men, in their divergent styles, bear down hard on their staffs to achieve the gloss and precision that have become characteristic of Yorkin and Lear productions.
Ruthless Rehash. Each of their shows is taped before a live audience. Yorkin or Lear then leads the cast and staff through a ruthless rehash session, and another performance is taped before a second audience. The show that eventually goes on the air combines the best of the two performances. This system provides a TV equivalent of the Broadway theater’s “tryout experience,” says Family Producer John Rich. “We’re doing a play a week and we’re trying to be entertaining every minute. We don’t have a Hartford or a Boston for tryouts.”
No shows on TV are more heavily rewritten than Yorkin and Lear’s. Whether a script originates with their staff or is one of the 60% that come from freelancers, Yorkin and Lear usually see that it gets torn to pieces. The story line acquires new twists, the dialogue is recast, sometimes new characters are added.
“When a writer says, ‘I’d like to see Edith Bunker in menopause,’ I know we can peel back layers of Edith and Archie,” says Lear. “When I hear an idea like that, I’m like a dog hanging on to a bone. I’ll hang on forever until the show is right.” One of this season’s early Family episodes, about Archie’s infatuation with the brassy wife of an old Air Force buddy, was conceived in June 1971. After eight major rewrites, it was scheduled for taping last February. Lear withdrew it at the last minute for more work when it was already in rehearsal. By the time it was finally taped this summer, everybody had had a crack at it, including the actors.
This is where Yorkin and Lear’s flair for casting shows up—in picking seemingly unlikely performers who will grow into their roles and shape them with their own temperaments. Veteran Comic Foxx won his Sanford role partly on the strength of his only other dramatic appearance—as a junkman in the 1970 movie Cotton Comes to Harlem. He and Co-Star Demond Wilson now work with Sanford’s Producer and Chief Writer Aaron Ruben, who is white, to “translate the scripts into spook,” as Foxx puts it. “The writers are beginning to learn that black is another language.” (Meantime, Ruben is training black writers for the show.)
Lear thought of Carroll O’Connor for Archie because he recalled O’Connor’s “outrageous but likable” general in the 1966 movie What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? O’Connor’s participation in the development of Archie’s character has become so passionate that it frequently causes tension on the Family staff. At times he flatly refuses to perform a script that does not conform to his conception of the role. An example was last season’s episode about Archie’s being trapped in a stalled elevator with a middle-class black and a Puerto Rican girl about to give birth to a baby. It was used only after Lear overrode O’Connor’s objections that it “wouldn’t work.” (Such difficulties with O’Connor made the renegotiation of his contract last fall “a bloodbath,” according to one Tandem source.)
“When we see a helicopter land on the roof of the CBS building and a man in a dark suit from New York get out,” jokes one of Lear’s writers, “we know we’re in censorship trouble.” Network censors are rarely as melodramatic as that. Usually they are a task force of some two dozen men and women, each of whom oversees a portion of a network’s total programming (including commercials); they review scripts and sit in on tapings and screenings, questioning anything that seems to conflict with federal broadcasting law or their network’s standards of taste.
But if the helicopter is more writer’s fancy than fact, the censorship troubles of Yorkin and Lear are all too real. Family, particularly, has at least one big crisis a season. Two winters ago, it was over the episode about homosexuality that President Nixon so disliked; last winter, a show on which Son-in-Law Mike’s exam jitters made him sexually impotent. Smaller crises abound, as when CBS succeeded in knocking out the word “Mafia” from one script, the term “smartass” from another.
So far, Lear has staved off every major threat with a combination of logic, persuasion, threats to cancel a whole episode (or the whole series), and scathing contempt for the censors’ “thinktank mentality,” his term for the corporate and governmental attitude that underestimates “how wise-heart a great many Americans are.”
Doing things over is one thing; overdoing them is another. Amid all their taking of pains, Yorkin and Lear rarely forget the importance of not being earnest. Their shows are, after all, only situation comedies. The scripts, however inventive, tend more toward formula than organic form. The characterizations are still exaggerated cutouts from the fabric of real life.
“Sure we want to get the social theme,” says Family Writer Alan Ross, “but the show is a half-hour comedy on commercial TV, and if it’s not funny you might as well be on the lecture platform.” As George S. Kaufman pointed out, speaking of Broadway, the savage moralizing of satire is what closes at the end of one week; sitcoms must go on week after week. Acknowledging this, Yorkin and Lear are entertainers who brandish the weapons of satire but use them sparingly. Their Bunkers and Sanfords are sheep in wolves’ clothing —domesticated in every sense from a tougher breed of British precursors.
The BBC’s arch-Archie is Alf Garnett, a spiteful, bitter dockside worker in Till Death Us Do Part, the model for Family. The fathers of Sanford and son are Steptoe and son, on the BBC series of the same name, a pair of cockney rag and bone men who batter themselves and each other relentlessly against a dead end of life. Both Yorkin and Lear adaptations follow the same recipe: take one BBC show, add the milk of human kindness and stir for 30 minutes. “One of our major concerns was not to make Sanford look too grim,” says Yorkin. “The Steptoe set in England was dark and gloomy; we took pains to make ours poor but not depressing.”
Yorkin and Lear grew up in such a milieu—poor but not depressing—and both reach back to early days for authentic touches to bring their shows home to viewers. Lear’s salesman father, though a second-generation Russian Jew, was almost as much of a source for Archie as Alf Garnett was. He used to call Norman “the laziest white kid I ever saw” and order his wife to “stifle”—both expressions that were to become Archie’s. The family shifted restlessly from New Haven, Conn., where Norman was born, to nearby Hartford, then to Boston and New York City, as the elder Lear pursued a variety of get-rich-quick schemes with a lot of gall but little success. Norman decided to become a press agent like his uncle Jack, “the only relative on either side of my family who could throw a nephew a quarter when he visited.”
After a year at Boston’s Emerson College and another three with the Fifteenth Air Force near Foggia, Italy (since enshrined as Archie’s old unit), Lear was laid off his first job with a Manhattan publicity firm. Then he went bankrupt with his own novelty ashtray business. He took his wife and infant daughter to Los Angeles, where half of his luck improved. He at least survived as a door-to-door salesman of furniture and baby pictures.
Lear and a fellow hawker named Ed Simmons decided that the street they really wanted to work was comedy writing. It was 1949; the infant medium of television was ravenous for material; the new team needed just one break in order to kiss baby pictures goodbye —and Lear typically made it for them. Posing as a New York Times reporter, he got Danny Thomas’ phone number from an agent. He called Thomas and offered him a piece of material for a benefit engagement that night at Ciro’s in Hollywood. “How long will it run?” asked Thomas. “How long do you need?” replied Lear. “Seven minutes.” Simmons and Lear wrote and delivered a routine in two hours, and Thomas liked it enough to use it. In the audience was David Susskind, then a New York agent, who was so impressed that he signed Lear and Simmons as writers for a TV show called The Ford Star Review.
By the time Yorkin and Lear crossed paths on the Martin and Lewis show two years later, the Lear-Simmons partnership was doing so well that it had to farm out some of its work to the younger team of Neil Simon, the future Broadway playwright, and his brother Danny. “To me Norman was big-time,” recalls Yorkin, who was then a lowly assistant director. “He lived at the Waldorf and moved in a different world from my own.”
Yorkin was born and raised in the coal-mining town of Washington, Pa., where his father, a women’s wear merchant, was part of a tiny and somewhat beleaguered Jewish community. Anomalously armed with a degree in electrical engineering from Carnegie Tech, he went to New York in 1946 with the intention of becoming a theater director. A daytime job as a TV repairman supported his night classes in English literature at Columbia University. “My partner and I used to find excuses to fix sets in good restaurants so we could get free meals from the waiters,” he says.
Eventually Yorkin’s engineering background landed him a job as a cameraman at NBC. Zealously he sent executives a steady stream of critiques of the programs he transmitted. They were never answered. He moved up anyway, first to stage manager and then to the control booth, where producers and directors sit. There Lear spotted him and prevailed upon Martin and Lewis to make him their director.
Two Unicycles. Yorkin and Lear’s flourishing careers over the next eight years defied geometry, being two parallel lines that finally intersected. In 1959, well after Lear had drifted apart from Simmons (now a script developer at Universal Studios), the new partnership of Tandem Productions was founded. The first joint venture was the movie Come Blow Your Horn, adapted from a play by former Lear Assistant Neil Simon, which everybody agreed would be a perfect vehicle for Frank Sinatra.
Everybody, that is, except Sinatra. When Sinatra failed to respond to a barrage of calls and telegrams from Yorkin and Lear, they hired a plane to fly over his house and skywrite their phone number. After eight months of such stunts, Sinatra agreed to do the picture “just to get you guys off my back.”
Their wives gave Yorkin and Lear a two-seater bicycle to mark the launching of Tandem. Two unicycles would have been more appropriate. After the initial box office splash of Horn, their subsequent movies (Never Too Late, Divorce American Style) fared only soso. They decided to become parallel again, maintaining a loose, collaborative relationship and splitting their pooled earnings.
Today they kibitz freely about each other’s projects, but friction is minimized because each supplies a different emphasis to the partnership. “Lear can put words in your mouth like nobody else,” says Dick Van Dyke, who has starred in Yorkin and Lear efforts for both TV and movies. “Yorkin, as a director, is the ideal interpreter of Lear’s writing.” Lear is more preoccupied with creative matters. Yorkin, with more business acumen, is by his own admission “the heavy in financial deals.”
Lear has the sort of temperament that might be described by Archie Bunker as “hebe Hollywood egghead”—or, if Archie knew the word, compulsive. The only eye in the hurricane of activity that he whips up around him each day is the moment when he retires to the men’s room for a thorough perusal of the New York Times. One of his two outside interests is writing letters to Presidents and other political leaders on such topics as Viet Nam, the ICBM debate and school desegregation. His voluminous correspondence with four Administrations is filed in a cabinet at his ten-room colonial house in Brentwood, where he lives with his second wife, ex-Department Store Executive Frances Loeb, and their two daughters. His other interest is psychoanalysis. After some four years in it, he is such a believer that he has been known to present young writers with $25 gift vouchers for initial sessions with analysts.
Yorkin blends more readily into the gregarious California lifestyle. Usually calm and direct, he can be stern at work (after being directed by him in a special, Fred Astaire gave him a bull whip), but he enjoys relaxing with a wide circle of friends. He and his wife—former Actress Peggy Diem, by whom he has a son and a daughter—shuttle between a Spanish-style home in Beverly Hills and a rented beach house at Malibu, where Yorkin occasionally dons an Archie Bunker sweatshirt and barbecues hot dogs for neighbors like the Henry Mancinis. Although, like Lear, he describes himself as a putative liberal, he sometimes turns up for dinner with Henry Kissinger when the presidential adviser makes one of his forays into Hollywood salons.
“I’ve seen Norman cry and I’ve seen Bud kick a door because things weren’t working,” says one of their aides. “But they’ve never attacked each other.” Why not? “We have no ego problem,” says Yorkin. “We know that whatever either of us succeeds in doing is good for both, because it all goes in the same pot.” The pot is growing bigger; what to do next is becoming a multimillion-dollar question. Indeed, what else is left for Yorkin and Lear now that they have given TV a new system of dating—B.B. and A.B. (Before Bunker and After Bunker)? How much longer can they compete with themselves for the top audience ratings?
Quite a while, no doubt. Already in the works is a one-hour special on Duke Ellington. Lear is preparing yet another sitcom series for a possible January debut on CBS, this one about a black family named Jones. “Sanford isn’t trying to reflect real ghetto life,” Lear maintains. “Compared with ghetto dwellers, those two men live very, very well. What I would like to do is a real black-ghetto family show.”
Above all, though, Yorkin and Lear yearn to make it in the movies. The failure that each nurses most lovingly is a film. With Yorkin it is Start the Revolution Without Me, a 1970 farce about the French Revolution that he produced and directed. With Lear it is Cold Turkey, a 1971 satire in which he directed his own script about an Iowa town that collectively kicks the smoking habit. Erratic but lively and intriguing, both works were just slightly out of sync with the shifting rhythms of public taste that Yorkin and Lear’s TV shows have always caught so uncannily.
But their timing is improving. Yorkin has directed, and Lear has partly written, a new movie due out early next year. It stars Ryan O’Neal as a burglar whose passion, as luck would have it, is chess. The original title was The Thief Who Came to Dinner. Now, their eyes aglow at the thought of the mania sweeping the country after the Fischer-Spassky match in Iceland, Yorkin and Lear are eagerly dreaming up a good chess title.