Jim Cullen, Opinion contributor
Published 4:00 a.m. ET Sept. 28, 2018
‘All in the Family’ was a hard sell 50 years ago but became a huge hit that changed public discourse. ‘Roseanne’ fate suggests we’re going backwards.
Fifty years ago this week, on Sept. 29, 1968, producer Norman Lear and a small group of collaborators shot a pilot for a TV sitcom about a Queens dockworker named Archie, the wife he called “Dingbat” and the son-in-law he dubbed “Meathead.”
The show was canceled before it ever aired.
There had been reason to think it could work. The previous year, Lear’s partner, Bud Yorkin, told him about “Til Death Us Do Part,” a BBC sitcom he had seen in London about a bigoted Cockney father in chronic conflict with his daughter’s live-in husband. Lear persuaded him that the premise had possibilities as the basis for an American show.
He hired longtime character actor Carroll O’Connor to play the bigot, Jean Stapleton to play his long-suffering wife, Edith, and two young actors, Kelly Jean Peters and Tim McIntire, to play the parts of daughter Gloria and Irish son-in-law Richard. Lear commissioned a theme song, “Those Were the Days.” He named the show “Justice for All” because Justice was the television family’s last name.
’60s comedies took on race, sex, women’s rights
The times they were a-changin’ in 1968. Though television was the most conservative of all the mass media, a series of new shows — notably “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “Laugh-In” — broadcasted edgy comedy that commented directly on political issues. Lear hoped to push the envelope in this and other ways — like overturning the image of the family patriarch as a wise and loving figure of the sort one saw on shows like “Leave It to Beaver” or “My Three Sons.”
The sparks flew fast and furious in “Justice for All.” In one episode, Archie and Edith arrive home from church with Gloria and Richard tucking in their clothes after a spontaneous tryst. “What the hell is it nowadays, huh?” Archie complains. “Girls with skirts up to here and boys with hair down to there.”
The battlefront also extended to race relations. “Guys like you are afraid to give the black man and the Mexican-American and all those other minorities their just and hard-earned and rightful share of the American dream,” Richard tells Archie at the kitchen table. “Your blacks and s—s want their rightful share of the American dream, let them get out there and hustle for it, just like I done,” Archie replies.
Network executives at ABC, where Lear had brought the show, were skittish about language and arguments like this. Lear agreed to reshoot the pilot. The show would now be titled “Those Were the Days.” The parts of Gloria and Richard, now Gloria and Mike, were cast with two new actors. That pilot was shot in February of 1969. But ABC passed.
And that might have been the end of it, had not Yorkin gone to CBS about a year later about a different project and was asked about that pilot. Yorkin screened it, and the laughter emanating from the office was so loud that a young exec named Fred Silverman— soon to have a legendary career as a programmer — came over to see what was so funny.
The pilot then was reshot for a third time, this time with Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner as Gloria and Mike. It was now known as “All in the Family.” Within a year of its premiere in 1971, the sitcom was drawing audiences of 50 million viewers a week,en route to becoming one of the most beloved shows of all time. Archie’s chair is now on display at the Smithsonian.
We can handle shows and stars like Roseanne
American society in the past 50 years has become much more accepting on any number of issues since the advent of “All in the Family.” But while it was once conservatives who fretted about what’s appropriate, it’s now those on the left who police controversial language and people.
Earlier this year, ABC canceled the reboot of “Roseanne” — a direct heir of “All in the Family” — in response to hate speech used by Roseanne Barr on her Twitter feed. It had every right to do so (an overhauled version, “The Conners,” will premiere next month). It also scrubbed the reboot entirely from the Internet, which it also had the right to do.
But our national discourse is weaker when we distrust Americans to hear candid arguments and come to their own conclusions. Norman Lear understood that, and we are better for it.
Jim Cullen, an author and pop culture expert, teaches history at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. His book on the history of “All in the Family” is scheduled for 2020 publication by Rutgers University Press. Follow him on Twitter: @jcullenAHN
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