Tag Archives: Norman Lear

THE BIRTH OF THE BUNKERS

12 Jan

41 years ago tonight, on Tuesday, January 12, 1971 TV changed forever when “All in the Family” premiered on CBS.

Oh it was different. It was a sitcom that starred an unlikeable character. Well… he was likeable… but it was hidden underneath all that bigotry. He loved his wife. He loved his daughter. We figured out eventually that he even loved Meathead. But Archie Bunker was one of a kind (in TV land). The world was full of real “Archie Bunkers.”

And that’s one way “All in the Family” made its mark. It made “Archie Bunker” a common phrase that meant bigot… more specifically a “lovable” bigot. There’s one in almost every family. It also brought several other words into the American lexicon: Dingbat, Meathead, stifle. It even gave us the first toilet flush in sitcom history.

What many people didn’t realize at first is that “All in the Family” wasn’t saluting bigots, it wasn’t praising them. It was holding them up to ridicule.

Publicity still sent to fans in 1975

I remember a wonderful story the show’s producer Norman Lear wrote about on the “All in the Family” album cover. It was about the first fan letter he received for the show. It was from a single mother who said she watched the first episode with her adult child. She wrote that, after the episode, she turned to her child and said – You always wanted to know what your father was like. Now you know!

All in the Family” was that rare breed of show that combined great writing, great casting, great acting – you name it. When I watch it today I am blown away by the talent of Carroll O’Connor. The way he made Archie Bunker a believable, 3-dimensional character is astounding. The man had skills! Chops.

Let’s not forget Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker. Until I saw her on a talk show several years later I thought the actress spoke in the same strident voice as Edith. Sally Struthers as Gloria and Rob Reiner as Mike/Meathead rounded out the fine cast.

Brilliant TV.

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DY-NO-MITE!

8 Feb

37 years ago tonight, on Friday, February 8, 1974 “Good Times,” a spin-off from “Maude” premiered on CBS.

The show starred Esther Rolle as Florida Evans, the role she had been playing on “Maude.” But while “Maude” was set in the New York City suburbs, “Good Times” took place in a Chicago housing project. The original premise of the series was to follow the trials and tribulations of a loving family that was struggling to make ends meet. But, as so often happens in television, one character stood out and, when fans responded, that character was given a larger presence in the show.

Jimmie Walker photo sent to fans in the 1970s.

The character was 17-year old J.J. (for James Junior), the Evans’ family’s oldest son… and the actor portraying him was 26-year old standup comedian Jimmie Walker. So although the cast was headed by experienced actors Esther Rolle and John Amos, it was Walker who stole the show. And a lot of that had to do with dynamite. I mean, “DY-NO-MITE!

The word “DY-NO-MITE!” became a huge catchphrase across America as Jimmie Walker’s popularity surged, as did the ratings for “Good Times.” In its first full season (1974-1975) “Good Times” received its highest ratings and was ranked as the #7 show in the country, ahead of even “Maude.”

Good Times” also starred Bern Nadette Stanis as daughter Thelma and Ralph Carter as Michael, the family’s youngest child. Interestingly, his character “Michael Evans” was given the same name as one of the show’s creators; actor, writer Mike Evans, best known for playing Lionel Jefferson on “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons.”

After 6 seasons (really 5 ½) and many cast changes, audiences had seen enough. The good times ended for “Good Times” in August 1979.

By the way… coincidentally, Jimmie Walker opens tomorrow night (Wednesday, February 9th) at The Comedy Zone in Port Charlotte, Florida. Why not catch the show and wish him a Happy Anniversary for “Good Times.” He’ll be performing through Saturday night. Don’t forget to tip your waitresses.

FAREWELL DON KIRSHNER

18 Jan

Rock impresario Don Kirshner died of heart failure yesterday, January 17, in Boca Raton, Florida. He was 76.

Although many will think of Kirshner as strictly a music legend, some forget that his reach extended to television. His best-known series was “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” which ran in syndication from 1973 to 1981 and featured performances by some of rock & roll’s top acts. Kirshner’s wooden and nasally on-camera introductions were almost as entertaining as the bands. But did you know that Kirshner was also involved with the NBC series “The Monkees”?

“The Monkees” which ran from 1966-1968 on NBC.

He served as the original Music Supervisor for “The Monkees” and was responsible for several of their early hit records. But as the show grew in popularity the four actors who played the fake band pushed for songs that were more to their own liking. Eventually Kirshner stepped aside.

Another series that Kirshner produced, with Norman Lear, was the 1977 CBS sitcom “A Year at the Top” which starred Paul Shaffer (yes, THAT Paul Shaffer) and Greg Evigan. They played a music duo who sells their souls to the son of the devil (Gabriel Dell) in exchange for “a year at the top” of the charts. The show ran for 5 weeks, but both Shaffer and Evigan would find better partners to work with. Shaffer as musical director for David Letterman since 1982, and Evigan as the straight man to a chimp named Bear on NBC’s “B.J. and the Bear” from 1979 to 1981.

Don Kirshner was a New York City native born in the Bronx on April 17, 1934.

< ONE DAY AT A TIME

16 Dec

35 years ago tonight, on Tuesday, December 16, 1975 “One Day at a Time,” the newest sit-com from Norman Lear, premiered on CBS. The show starred Bonnie Franklin as newly divorced Mom, Ann Romano, and Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli as her teenage daughters Julie and Barbara. Richard Masur played Ann’s boyfriend David and the building super, Schneider, was played by the show’s best-known cast member Pat Harrington Jr.

Original cast of "One Day at a Time" - 1975

 The next morning I sent a letter to the show hoping to get Norman Lear’s attention by writing the show’s first fan letter. I had previously read how Lear was touched by a letter from an early viewer of “All in the Family.” However, there was really nothing about “One Day at a Time” that even remotely reflected my life or experiences.

Form letter from Norman Lear, dated January 8, 1976.

 Norman Lear did send a letter though. It was a form letter thanking me for my interest in “One Day at a Time.” But at 15 years old, getting any letter from the most prolific comedy producer of the 1970s felt great.

One Day at a Time” ran for nine seasons on CBS. It is one of the first, and perhaps only shows I can recall that was set in Indianapolis.  It was never a blockbuster hit, but Schneider became an iconic character of the 70s, and the show did introduce us to Valerie Bertinelli.

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