Looking Back on the Legacy of ‘All in the Family’ 50 Years Later
When “All in the Family” debuted Jan. 12, 1971, on CBS, it was exactly the TV show America needed — though America didn’t realize it at the time.
Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin had taped two ABC pilots of the script, both starring Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton, starting in 1968. But ABC was reluctant to commit; as Lear told Variety’s Army Archerd, it was “too controversial.”
Lear and Yorkin took the show to CBS, which surprisingly bought it.
The show was carefully tested for a long time. On July 22, 1970 — six months before the debut — Variety asked CBS president Robert Wood why the network wasn’t trumpeting the new show. He said, “Frankly, we’re still not sure how to introduce this one to the public … it might just be best to go on with no fanfare, and then prepare ourselves for the explosion.”
The first episode, “Meet the Bunkers,” aired Tuesday, Jan. 12, 1971, at 9:30 p.m., still with O’Connor and Stapleton, but now with Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers as the younger generation; John Rich was the director.
As Lear recalled later that year to Variety, “There was no advance publicity, no promo, as a nervous network didn’t quite know what to do with a show in which the hero is a bigot. The web expected an avalanche of protests and hired extra operators to handle them. There was an avalanche, but 99% of the callers liked the show.”
However, appreciation was not unanimous.
In those days, weekly Variety and Daily Variety had different TV reviewers.
On the day after the debut, Daily Variety’s Tony Scott frowned that it was “a one-joke show, and a sick joke at that.” He added, “It’s nothing less than an insult to any unbigoted televiewer.”
In contrast, weekly reviewer Bill Greeley raved, “This is the best TV comedy since the original ‘The Honeymooners,’ ” which had aired 15 years earlier. He added that the show’s prime asset is “audacity.”
Audacity was a key element, both on and off-screen. A week later, Tandem Prods., which produced the show, took out a full-page ad in Variety reprinting the two reviews side by side and asking “It IS a controversial show … which Variety do you read?”
“Family” viewers had an intense reaction, but in the early days, there weren’t enough of those viewers. Still, CBS stuck with it, since the web had low expectations for any mid-season series.
“AITF” got a big boost on May 9, 1971, when the Emmycast opened with a brief bit showing the Bunkers in front of their TV set, watching the Emmy show. As a bonus, “Family” won for best comedy, best new series, and Jean Stapleton won for comedy actress. The show was gaining momentum and on May 24, 1971, Daily Variety ran a page 1 report that “Family” was No. 1 in Nielsen’s 70-city tally.
During the summer, it gained even more viewers since other networks were showing reruns. The first 13 episodes pulled no punches, dealing head-on with women’s liberation, homosexuality, unemployment, hippies and the Nixon Administration.
As Lear told Variety in August 1971, “Archie is a lovable bigot. Most bigots are human. They are usually portrayed as one-dimensional bigots whom you are supposed to hate. People are more complicated than that …There’s a little big of Archie Bunker in all of us.”
He added “The world is changing so fast around him, attitudes on everything are changing. That’s why he is lashing out at everything … He is holding on for dear life to the ’40s.” (That explains the theme song, “Those Were the Days.”)
Newspapers carried op-ed pieces about the series, both pro and con, and TV talkshows featured debates. Haters declared that “AITF” glorified bigotry; the show’s supporters pointed out that Archie was always put in his place by the end of the episode. Some said “Family” would help stamp out prejudice.
But as Lear shrugs in his 2014 autobiography “Even This I Get to Experience”: “If two thousand years of the Judeo-Christian ethic hadn’t eradicated bigotry and intolerance, I didn’t think a half-hour sitcom was going to do it.”
He just wanted to get the conversation rolling.
The project had begun in 1966, when Lear read a Variety review of the British sitcom “Till Death Us Do Part,” created by Johnny Speight and starring Warren Mitchell as working-class bigot Alf Garnett. So Tandem Prods. (the joint venture of Lear and Yorkin) pursued the rights.
A pilot was taped in 1968 called “Justice for All” (with the lead character named Archie Justice) but ABC didn’t go for it. The following year, ABC recast the daughter and son-in-law for a second pilot, renaming it “Those Were the Days.” ABC was still on the fence. So Yorkin and Lear bought back the script, thinking maybe it would work better as a film.
The two had a solid movie career going at that point, with “Never Too Late” (1965), “Divorce, American Style” (1967), and the soon-to-be-released “Start the Revolution Without Me.”
Lear was offered a three-picture deal with United Artists on the same week that Yorkin met with CBS execs, who were curious about the “Archie pilot” at ABC.
They received an order for 13 episodes, and it was the first major American sitcom to be videotaped in front of an audience; after the success of “I Love Lucy,” sitcoms favored film, but “AITF” was done on tape to save costs for the then-risky project.
While the show gained momentum during the first part of 1971, the show was a full-fledged hit by the time it began its second season Sept. 18, 1971. That season’s 24 episodes dealt with such topics as impotence, menopause and infidelity.
The season contained the classic episode featuring guest Sammy Davis Jr. playing himself; it also introduced Edith’s cousin Maude (Bea Arthur), who was such a hit that it led to the first of “Family’s” seven spinoff series.
Tandem was becoming so successful that Lear and Yorkin hired Jerry Perenchio in 1973 to be president-CEO. Soon afterwards, Alan Horn signed on and the company continued as a breeding ground for executives as well as talent. On Nov. 21, 1974, Variety announced that Yorkin and Lear had formed TAT Communications, with Perenchio and Horn as part of new company.
“All in the Family” was No. 1 in the annual Nielsens for five years, and scored high in the other years. Nevertheless, the headaches continued. Lear and his team were constantly battling with network censors — and with O’Connor.
Lear wrote in his autobiography: “Carroll sat down to every reading worried and unhappy … For the next eight years, Carroll would continue to dislike every script at the start. It was nothing but fear, and blind anger was his only defense.” But Lear acknowledges that the actor would eventually triumph in every episode. “As difficult and often abusive as Carroll could be, his Archie made up for it and I could kiss his feet after every performance.”
On Feb. 14, 1973, Variety reported that O’Connor had threatened to leave the show.
The following year, he made good on his promise. On July 25 1974, Variety reported that the actor had filed suit over terms of his contract, including the fact that he was prevented from doing ads, resulting in a substantial loss of income. Tandem got a restraining order preventing him from working elsewhere, and O’Connor returned to the show, after two episodes were shot without him.
Arthur Taylor was named president of CBS in July 1972. He was a big proponent of a “Family Hour,” in which all 8-9 p.m. programming would be free of sex and violence and adhere to “family values.” As Larry Michie wrote in Variety Jan. 15, 1975, Taylor was “anxious to establish himself as an industry spokesman and aggressively the voice of CBS recently.” Taylor suggested the National Assn. of Broadcasters TV code should adopt CBS’s principles: family viewing during the first hour of primetime; a warning note when family hour makes a rare exception; and on-air warnings after 9 p.m. “when material broadcast later might be disturbing to a significant portion of the adult audience.”
“All in the Family” had been top-rated for four seasons in its Saturday night 8-8:30 p.m. slot. But with CBS’s new policy, Lear was told that only one of the 24 episodes that had aired that season would have been acceptable under the new standards. “AITF” was moved to 9 pm Mondays and continued to do well, but the series’ team was demoralized by the notion that their successful show was not suitable for family viewing.
In his book, Lear says whenever CBS’s program practices execs questioned a line or plot point, they always said, “This won’t fly in Des Moines.”
However, Lear had spent a lot of time in the Midwest when filming the 1971 bigscreen comedy “Cold Turkey” (he was director and co-writer). Lear said, “The American establishment always underestimates the American people. I think they’re dead wrong. We are not as well educated as we might be, but we’re a people wise of heart.”
Despite the backstage drama, “Family” and TAT continued to flourish.
In 1975, Lear had seven shows on the networks, also including “Sanford and Son” (which ran 1972-77); “One Day at a Time” (1975-84) and two other groundbreakers starting that year: “Hot L Baltimore” (with several characters who happened to be gay), plus “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” which aired five nights a week in syndication. The seven series was a record for a single company, matched by Aaron Spelling in the ’80s and beaten by Jerry Bruckheimer with nine series in 2005-2006. For the 1974-75 season, “All in the Family” was the top-rated show, with “Sanford & Son” No 2. “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times” and “Maude” were all in the top 10.
When Lear was interviewed by “60 Minutes” in 1976, the news magazine said his shows were viewed by 120 million each week.
In June 8, 1977, Variety front-paged the news that TAT Communications was putting “Maude,” “Good Times” and “Sanford & Son” in syndication. “AITF” had begun in syndication on Dec. 1, 1975, under Viacom Enterprises. “Family” was being stripped on CBS in the afternoons and, Variety reported, “chances are it will continue being presented that way for some time.” So apparently “All in the Family” was acceptable for viewing in the afternoon, but not between 8-9 p.m.
On rare occasions, “AITF” expanded to an hour, such as the Dec. 21, 1974, outing, celebrating the show’s 100th episode, in which Henry Fonda hosted clips of series highlights.
It also expanded Oct. 16, 1977, for the one-hour “Edith’s 50th Birthday,” in which Edith foils an attempted rape, and Gloria encourages her to report it, though other characters tell Edith it might be embarrassing. It was one of the show’s most memorable episodes.
Also memorable, but in a different way, was the Emmycast of Sept. 17, 1978. “Family” won for comedy series, “Rockford Files” for drama and the miniseries “Holocaust” was a multiple winner. The telecast was interrupted by news from Camp David as President Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat announced an Egypt-Israel peace settlement.
It was one of many brushes with real-world politics for the sitcom. In one of the Watergate tapes, Richard Nixon is heard discussing the show, saying it glorifies homosexuality and “The son-in-law obviously goes both ways,” which was a very strange conclusion to most people watching the show.
In more credible D.C. news, Variety on Sept. 7, 1978, reported that Archie Bunker’s chair would go on display at the Smithsonian.
On May 2, 1979, as “Family” was ending its ninth season on CBS, Variety announced the fall start of “Archie Bunker’s Place,” with a different locale, but still Archie. Variety reported that Stapleton wanted to pull back, so would only appear in some episodes.
The premise had Archie running a bar. Retained from “Family” was Danielle Brisebois as Stephanie Mills. The young character was introduced at the start of “Family’s” ninth season, after Gloria and Mike had moved out. She was the abandoned daughter of Edith’s cousin-in-law, so the Bunkers took her in.
On Sept. 26, 1979, weekly Variety reviewed “Archie Bunker’s Place,” and described it as the 10th season of “All in the Family.” The unnamed reviewer said “the edge has left (O’Connor’s) performance since the decision was made a year ago to stop taping in front of a live audience.” The new premise showed Archie in partnership with Murray Klein (Martin Balsam); the reviewer was not won over, but felt it had potential. At Daily Variety, Tony Scott still was unimpressed. Archie “is played with distinction by Carroll O’Connor” but the first half-hour was too acidic” for the hour-long episode. However, Scott felt the second half-hour “warms up considerably and indicates which way the series could go towards heart.”
On Jan. 14, 1980, Variety carried the story that Jean Stapleton wanted to end participation in the show, and that Edith would die. Stapleton wanted it to be off camera, telling Army Archerd “Let it all happen by Archie’s reaction in a hospital corridor.” Some fans started a “Save Edith Bunker Committee,” but to no avail.
The second season kicked off Nov. 2, 1980, with Edith’s death from a stroke occurring off-camera, as requested.
Two days later, Stapleton told Archerd she watched at home with husband Bill Putch. She said, “We loved it. We cried for his (Archie’s) compassion. Carroll is a wonderful actor.”
“Archie Bunker’s Place” ran four seasons, wrapping in 1983 and ending the long Bunker mega-saga.
“All in the Family” lives on in streaming, DVD box sets and tributes, such as the Jimmy Kimmel shows under the umbrella heading “Live in Front of a Studio Audience.” The first such taping re-created episodes of “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” in May 22, 2019, followed by a combo of “AITF” and “Good Times” on Dec. 18 that year.
Fantasy depictions of modern life are fun and Hollywood has always been good at that. But the legacy of “All in the Family” is clear. The series opened the door for 50 years of TV shows in which fictional characters reflect the real world. For that, everyone in Hollywood, and everyone who watches television, should be grateful.
Here’s a timeline of how the series unfolded:
— June 22, 1966 Variety runs a review of Britcom “Til Death Us Do Part” that inspires Tandem (Norman Lear, Bud Yorkin) to acquire U.S. remake rights
— Sept. 29, 1968 ABC tapes pilot for “Justice for All,” about Archie Justice and his family, starring Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton, with Kelly Jean Peters and Tim McIntire
— Feb. 10, 1969, ABC tapes second pilot, now titled “Those Were the Days,” with O’Connor, Stapleton, Candy Azzara and Chip Oliver.
— July 22, 1970 A CBS rep says that “Those Were the Days,” a new pilot now featuring Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers, will “salt up” the network’s midseason.
— Jan. 12, 1971 CBS airs the show, now retitled “All in the Family,” with no advance fanfare.
— May 9, 1971 The Emmy Awards begin with the Bunkers in front of a TV set, ready to watch the Emmys. It wins for comedy series, new series and comedy actress Jean Stapleton.
— Feb. 14, 1973 Carroll O’Connor vows to quit show at the end of the third season.
— May 1973 RCA releases the album “Archie & Edith — Side by Side,” with O’Connor and Stapleton singing oldies like “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” and the Beatles’ “When I’m 64.”
— Dec. 21, 1974 For the show’s 100th episode, it expands to an hour with host Henry Fonda introducing clips.
— Jan. 11, 1975 The Bunkers’ neighbors move away, in an episode that serves as a pilot for “The Jeffersons.”
— Dec. 1, 1975 CBS begins airing “AITF” episodes in syndication at 3 p.m.
— Dec. 15 and 22, 1975 In a two-part episode, Gloria gives birth. Ideal creates a doll called “Archie Bunker’s Grandson, Joey Stivic.” The package gives the alert that it was “a physically correct male.” Of course the baby’s plastic genitals cause an uproar.
— March 19, 1978 “The Stivics Go West” marks the final appearance of Gloria, Mike and Joey as regulars.
— Sept. 24, 1978 Danielle Brisebois debuts as 9-year-old Stephanie Mills, abandoned by her father, who is Edith’s step-cousin. Brisebois remains a regular on “AITF” and its follow-up series.
— Sept. 1979 “Archie Bunker’s Place” debuts, with O’Connor, Brisebois and other recurring characters from “AITF,” plus Martin Balsam as Archie’s business partner in a tavern.
— Nov. 2, 1980 “Archie Bunker’s Place” kicks off its second season, with the (off-camera) death of Edith Bunker by stroke.
— April 4, 1983 The final episode of “Archie Bunker’s Place” airs, wrapping a 12-year Bunker saga.