Remembering Norman Lear, creator of 'All in the Family' and 'The Jeffersons'
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. Today's show is devoted to Norman Lear, the sitcom producer who helped transform television of the 1970s by stressing topicality, divisive issues and likeable but volatile comedy characters. He died last week at age 101. Lear's most famous achievement, "All In The Family," was the most popular series on TV for five consecutive years. That show spawned several hit spinoffs, including "Good Times" and "The Jeffersons," and Lear created many other comedies, as well. Most of them were instant successes, but even the lesser-seen cult shows were fascinating. On today's show, we'll listen back to our interview with Norman Lear. We'll also revisit interviews with Esther Rolle, the star of "Good Times" and John Rich, who directed one episode of "Good Times" and 81 episodes of "All In The Family."
But first, let's put Norman Lear's legacy in its proper perspective. Like MTM Enterprises with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and Larry Gelbart with "M*A*S*H," Lear was a TV pioneer of sorts. Part of a new tolerance and appetite for comedies that actually said something rather than just offered total escapism. Lear adapted his first sitcom hit, "All In The Family," from a long-running British sitcom called "Till Death Us Do Part." But Lear made his version utterly American from the start. The first episode of "All In The Family" was so controversial it was preceded by an on-air disclaimer. But the clash of ideas and ideals between bigoted Archie Bunker and his son-in-law, whom Archie called Meathead, caught on instantly. And by the third season, the show was so successful it found a way to feature Rat Pack superstar Sammy Davis Jr., who played himself having a conversation about race with Archie played with perfect timing and delivery by Carroll O'Connor.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")
CARROLL O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Now, no prejudice intended, but, you know, I always check with the Bible on these here things.
SAMMY DAVIS JR.: (As Self) Oh.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Yeah. I think that - I mean, if God had meant us to be together, he'd have put us together. Well, look what he'd done. He put you over in Africa. He put the rest of us in all the white countries.
DAVIS: (As Self) Well, you must have told him where we were, 'cause somebody came and got us.
BIANCULLI: The many successes of Norman Lear are well known, and such shows as "Sanford And Son," "Good Times" and "The Jeffersons" were not only popular, but groundbreaking, by giving leading roles to gifted, Black actors. But I'm equally fascinated by the lesser-known, cultish TV experiments on Lear's resume. "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," for example, was a brilliant, deadpan satire of soap operas set in the small, fictional town of Fernwood, Ohio. And it, too, spawned a spinoff, "Fernwood Tonight," a spoof of a local TV talk show that was the spiritual ancestor of Garry Shandling's "The Larry Sanders Show," which would appear a generation later. "Fernwood Tonight" starred Martin Mull as smarmy talk show host Barth Gimble and the great Fred Willard as Barth's announcer, an amazingly clueless sidekick, Jerry Hubbard. In this clip, after the theme music, they're interviewing a World War II vet.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FERNWOOD TONIGHT")
FRED WILLARD: (As Jerry Hubbard) Tonight from Fernwood, Fernwood Tonight. Coming to you live with your host for tonight, Mr. Barth Gimble.
MARTIN MULL: (As Barth Gimble) And cut and hurt. And you were smart, being careful.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character) Darn right. Yeah.
WILLARD: (As Jerry Hubbard) World War II. You know, it's funny. Back then, it was legal to kill a German. But, boy, if you kill one now, all hell breaks loose.
BIANCULLI: Most esoteric of all, perhaps, was Lear's concept for a gender switching 1977 comedy called "All That Glitters." Shot without a laugh track, its premise was that stereotypical roles in society have been reversed - women ran corporations and law firms, and men were secretaries and house husbands. Here's a scene from the rarely seen pilot, with an unmarried couple snuggling in bed at the start of a workday. Louise Shaffer plays the woman, Gary Sandy, later to star in "WKRP In Cincinnati," plays the man.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL THAT GLITTERS")
LOUISE SHAFFER: (As Andrea Martin) You know something? You are a very unusual guy.
GARY SANDY: (As Dan Kincaid) Oh, yeah.
SHAFFER: (As Andrea Martin) I bet if you wanted to, you could be a hell of a lot more than just a secretary. There's got to be some kind of executive job for a bright, inquisitive, capable guy.
SANDY: (As Dan Kincaid) Sorry, it's not in my plans. All I want is you, a home of my own, a wife to take care of.
SHAFFER: (As Andrea Martin) Now, Michael (ph). No way. Not now. I'm just getting started at the law office.
SANDY: (As Dan Kincaid) Andrea, I love you.
SHAFFER: (As Andrea Martin) Yeah. Well, I love you, too. So stop wasting precious time.
BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with Norman Lear in 2014 when he had written his autobiography, "Even This I Get to Experience." They began with this scene from the first season of "All In The Family," which, like many scenes from the show, was about the bigotry of the family patriarch, Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O'Connor. Archie is making insulting comments about a friend of Michael's, his son-in-law, played by Rob Reiner. Archie thinks the friend is gay. Also in the scene are Jean Stapleton as Archie's wife, Edith, and their daughter, Gloria, played by Sally Struthers.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) His pal Roger is as queer as a $4 bill and he knows it.
SALLY STRUTHERS: (As Gloria Bunker-Stivic) That's not only cruel, Daddy, that's an outright lie.
ROB REINER: (As Michael Stivic) You know something, Archie? Just because a guy is sensitive and he's an intellectual and he wears glasses, you make him out a queer.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) I never said a guy who wears glasses is a queer. A guy who wears glasses is a four eyes. A guy who is a f** is a queer.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Well, go ahead, Edith, now, answer the guy. Now, you've seen Roger sashaying around here with his la-di-da talk. He's a pansy.
JEAN STAPLETON: (As Edith Bunker) I don't know.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) What do you mean, you don't know?
STAPLETON: (As Edith Bunker) I'm not an expert on flowers.
REINER: (As Michael Stivic) You might as well face it, you're all alone in this. We all know Roger, and we all know he's straight. And even if he wasn't - and I said if - what difference would that make? Do you know that in many countries, England, for instance, there is a law that says whatever two consenting adults do in private is their own business?
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Listen, this ain't England. We threw England out of here a long time ago.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) We don't want no more part of England. And for your information, England is a f** country.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Are they still picking handkerchiefs out of their sleeve, huh?
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Are they still standing around, leaning on them skinny umbrellas like this here? I know their whole society is based on a kind of a f**dom.
REINER: (As Michael Stivic) You know, you're right, Archie. You're right, the British are a bunch of pansies. Pansies, fairies and sissies. Japanese are a race of midgets. The Irish are boozers. The Mexicans are bandits.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) And you Polacks are meatheads.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Norman Lear, welcome to FRESH AIR. So in your memoir - in your autobiography, you write that the network executives gave you notes asking you not to use the language that we just heard. And I'm going to read a memo that you quote in your autobiography. We ask that homosexual terminology be kept to an absolute minimum, and in particular the word f** not be used at all. Queer should be used most sparingly, and less offensive terms like pansy, sissy, or even fairy should be used instead. A term like regular fella would be preferred to straight. So - but the way you're using it, those words are being used by a character who's obviously representing the wrong way of thinking. I mean, you're obviously not endorsing those kinds of, you know, stereotypes. So how did you get around the network executives who didn't want you to use the language and say the things that you were obviously doing in that clip we just heard?
NORMAN LEAR: Well, basically, I said, you know, if you forced the change, I won't be back. That sounds so much like a big deal. It wasn't, as it played out at the time, a big deal. In the very first show, Archie had a line. They came in from church because he hated the sermon. And the young people were - thought they had the house alone, and they were going to go upstairs to make love. They heard the door open, they came down quick. Archie got the moment. He understood what had happened and he said, 11:10 of a Sunday morning. They wanted that line out. It had to be out. And why? Because it was specific. The audience would know exactly what he was talking about. And I said, of course they would. They were going to bed. I said, well, they're also married. What is the problem with a married couple finding themselves...
GROSS: Having sex. Yes, we can say that (laughter).
LEAR: And so, 20 minutes or so before it was to air in New York, I was on the phone with the president of the company saying they were going to put it on, but they were going to cut that line. Well, the show would have been just fine with that line cut. It wouldn't have hurt the show, but it was such a silly little argument that if I lost that, I would have continued - or the scripts, the shows would have continued to lose on a constant basis those little arguments. And I knew I just couldn't live with that.
GROSS: But this was your first TV show that you created. So if you lost, if you said, you know, I leave if you take that out and you lost that battle, you'd be really out of luck. You needed this show.
LEAR: But I had finished a film for United Artists, wasn't out yet, but called "Cold Turkey," starring Dick Van Dyke. And I had a three-picture deal offered me. I wasn't so brave (laughter). Everybody told me I shouldn't be - I should be turning down the CBS offer anyway since I had a three-picture deal to write, produce and direct and a studio that was telling me, Norman, there's only Woody Allen and Blake Edwards. Nobody else does this with comedy, writes, produce and directs. But "All In The Family" was an emotional - had a great emotional attachment to me because I was writing about my father in some sense, too. A long way of saying it wasn't such a brave decision.
GROSS: So you write in your autobiography that you gave the character of Archie, the father in "All In The Family," some of your father's characteristics. Which ones? Was your father as racist and homophobic and anti-feminist as Archie Bunker was?
LEAR: No, we didn't get to those arguments that way. But he was the blusterer. And he had an opinion on everything, knew everything. And he was a bit of a racist, although he would never, ever have thought so or admit it, you know? I was the dumbest white kid he ever met. And when I would say, you're putting down a race of people to call me that - no, I'm not, and you're the dumbest white kid I ever met. So he had shades of that.
GROSS: Did your parents fight and bicker a lot?
LEAR: Oh, my God.
LEAR: In a film called "Divorce American Style," Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds playing the parents - as they fought around the kitchen table exactly the way my folks did, I was upstairs. And in the film, a young man was in bed scoring the argument. We were in an apartment. I didn't have a bedroom upstairs, so I sat at the kitchen table with a pad and scored their arguments out with - and kind of made it funny for me because that was my way of fending it off, handling it.
GROSS: So we talked a little bit about "All In The Family." "Maude" is one of the shows that was spun off from it. She was a relative of Edith Bunker, the mother in "All In The Family." Who did you base the character of Maude on? And why don't you describe her for people too young to have watched the series when it was on.
LEAR: Well, I had seen many years before a review. And an actress by the name of Bea Arthur - performer, singer - sang a song called "Garbage" standing at a streetlight at night under a street lamp with a big pocketbook and a big hat, and a deep voice, singing a song called "Garbage" about a fellow who treated her like garbage. Every time she got to the word, the audience howled. And she had a great voice, too. I never forgot her performance. And on "All In The Family," I wanted somebody to beat the hell out of - I wanted somebody who really knew Archie to clobber him.
We wrote a character into "All In The Family," a cousin of Edith that was her best friend as they were growing up, who met Archie when he met Edith and who disliked him intensely. I made sure she was available before we wrote the character. That's how much I wanted her in the role. And she came out and she clobbered Archie in an episode of "All In The Family" that was so strong, before the show was going off the air in New York, Fred Silverman, who - a VP at CBS, was calling to say, I think there's a show in that woman (laughter). And of course we had figured that as well. And that's how "Maude" was born.
BIANCULLI: Norman Lear speaking with Terry Gross in 2014. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF QUINCY JONES SONG, "HIKKY BURR")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2014 interview with Norman Lear. He died last week at the age of 101.
GROSS: So you write that Maude is the character that most resembles you. What similarities does she have to you?
LEAR: She was, you know, an out-and-out liberal, as I am - no apologies in any direction - and the kind of liberal I am in the sense that I am not well-schooled in the political reasons for my being a liberal. That was Maude. She was emotionally, intellectually, as far as she could go, that. And that's me, too.
GROSS: I want to play a scene from what is, I think, the most famous episode of "Maude." It's actually a double episode, and it's when Maude finds out at the age of 47 that she's pregnant, and she's considering having an abortion. This was a few months before the Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. But abortion was already legal in several states, including New York, where the character of Maude lived. So it would have been legal for her to have an abortion. She's not sure what to do. And in this scene, her daughter, played by Adrienne Barbeau, is talking with her about it. And her husband - and was this her third husband?
GROSS: Fourth husband.
LEAR: Fourth husband.
GROSS: Yeah. And her fourth husband, Walter, played by Bill Macy is there, too. So here's that scene from a 1972 episode, Season 1, of "Maude."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAUDE")
ADRIENNE BARBEAU: (As Carol Traynor) You know, I've been thinking. There is no earthly reason for you to go through with this at your age. You know it. I know it. Walter knows it.
BEA ARTHUR: (As Maude Findlay) I don't want you to talk of - just don't talk about it now. Please.
BILL MACY: (As Walter Findlay) I didn't say anything. But now that you mentioned it, it's legal in New York now, isn't it?
BARBEAU: (As Carol Traynor) Oh, of course it is, Walter. Mother, I don't understand your hesitancy. When they made it a law, you were for it.
ARTHUR: (As Maude Findlay) Of course. I wasn't pregnant then.
BARBEAU: (As Carol Traynor) Mother, it's ridiculous, my saying this to you. We're free. We finally have the right to decide what we can do with our own bodies.
ARTHUR: (As Maude Findlay) All right. Then will you please get yours into the kitchen?
BARBEAU: (As Carol Traynor) You're just scared.
ARTHUR: (As Maude Findlay) I am not scared.
BARBEAU: (As Carol Traynor) You are. And it's as simple as going to the dentist.
ARTHUR: (As Maude Findlay) Now I'm scared.
BARBEAU: (As Carol Traynor) Mother, listen to me. It's a simple operation now. But when you were growing up, it was illegal. And it was dangerous, and it was sinister. And you've never gotten over that. Now, you tell me that's not true.
ARTHUR: (As Maude Findlay) It's not true. And you're right. I've never gotten over it.
BARBEAU: (As Carol Traynor) It's not your fault. When you were young, abortion was a dirty word. It's not anymore. Now, you think about that.
GROSS: OK. That's a scene from "Maude." And why did you want to do an episode about abortion? You didn't see abortion discussed on sitcoms of the time in the early 1970s.
LEAR: No, I simply saw it in homes everywhere. It was part of the American cultural fabric. It was - no. It wasn't talked about a great deal, and it wasn't written about a great deal. And I didn't understand why. Actually, I didn't give it that kind of - and by the way, the script was written by Susan Harris, who later went on to create "Golden Girls." But it was a conversation I'd heard a hundred times in family life, in my country, in my culture. So I didn't see any reason why we couldn't open it up for a television family.
GROSS: So what did the network have to say about this episode? Were they at all concerned about running it? Again, it's before Roe v. Wade.
LEAR: This is when the network became concerned. The - we did the show. They were concerned, of course. As a result of their concern, we made this addition in the script that Maude had a friend who had four children, was pregnant with her fifth and couldn't afford the four she had, let alone another child. And there was no question in this woman's mind or her husband's that she was going to have that baby. So that was part of the fabric of this storyline. So we presented the other point of view in that way. That was as a result of the network's need. There were times when things were improved because they had problems. That was one of them.
But the show went on the air in, let's say, January, and absolutely nothing happened. There were, of course, some letters. There were, of course, some telephone calls. They didn't amount to much at all. America lived with it. They had seen that situation in their lives, and it was no surprise. The only surprise was, oh, they're doing that on television. And the religious right - it happened in front of their eyes, and there was nothing they could do about it because it had happened.
But when the show went into reruns and was due to appear, let's say, in May, then they were organized. Then they carried on with signposts and protests, and somebody laid down in front of Mr. Paley - he was the owner, conceiver of CBS - laid down in front of his car in New York. It happened in front of my car in LA. So that's when they got upset, and that's when the network was upset and didn't wish to run it when it went into reruns.
BIANCULLI: Norman Lear speaking with Terry Gross in 2014. More of their interview after a break. Also, we hear from actress Esther Rolle, who played Florida, the housekeeper on "Maude," then was spun off to lead her own series as the same character in the sitcom "Good Times." And we'll hear from TV director John Rich, who directed many episodes of "All In The Family." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University. Today, we're paying tribute to Norman Lear, the influential TV producer whose sitcom credits included "All In The Family," "Maude," "Good Times," "Sanford And Son," "The Jeffersons," and a spoof of soap operas called "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." Let's get back to Terry's 2014 interview with Norman Lear. He died last week at the age of 101.
GROSS: So the network was kind of concerned when "All In The Family" was about to start because of some of the language and because some of the sentiments expressed, which were, you know, most unusual for prime time network sitcoms. So the first episode actually started with a disclaimer, which you print in your book, so I will read it. And the disclaimer to the first episode of "All In The Family" said, (reading) the program you are about to see is "All In The Family." It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show, in a mature fashion, just how absurd they are.
What a comedy killer that is.
LEAR: (Laughter) It was a total surprise to us. I had no idea that was going to happen. But we lived with it for some weeks and then they took it down.
GROSS: Oh, they did it more than once? They did it before each show for a while?
LEAR: Oh, I think they did it for some three, four weeks. And when they realized the show was accepted, they took it away.
GROSS: And I'm sure you thought this was totally unnecessary.
LEAR: I thought it was unnecessary. I don't remember being upset by it, you know? It was, in a sense, even - you know, it's like more fingers pointing at it. Go watch, you know, something's happening here.
GROSS: We talked a little bit about "All In The Family" and about "Maude." "The Jeffersons" was spun off from "All In The Family." They started off being the neighbors of the Bunker family.
GROSS: So when you gave the characters their own show, it was still pretty unusual for a TV series to be centered on African American characters. And what are some of the issues that came with that when you were starting to design the series?
LEAR: Well, the first of them was "Good Times." The character of Florida was Maude's maid. And it was clear she became very, very popular, and it was clear that she could play a key role in a show about her as the kind of mother - or a mother like Maude. And so, at some point, we introduced the character of her husband, who came to pick her up once, and we cast John Amos. And we did that a couple of times. And the network too realized that, you know, these were two very strong actors, did comedy exceedingly well. And so we looked for their children and they became "Good Times."
And "Good Times" - the senior actors in "Good Times," which was, as I said, the first of the two shows to go on the air, had an enormous responsibility. And I'm not sure when I recognized that - perhaps I didn't at the beginning, I certainly did after a while - because they were the only representations of parents and lovers, husband and wife, you know, fixtures in an American family that were Black that had ever been on television. And they represented their race. And that responsibility weighed on them.
GROSS: So three of the shows that you created starred African American characters "Good Times," "The Jeffersons" and "Sanford And Son." What was your thoughts about who should be in the writers room - whether it should be exclusively African American writers - like, what the representation of African American writers should be on those shows?
LEAR: Well, it couldn't be African American writers only because there weren't that many who sought to be writing. And we had several and always looked for more.
GROSS: "Good Times" - the family in "Good Times" lived in a housing project. The family in "The Jeffersons" owned a chain of dry-cleaning stores and they were prosperous, middle class. Did you intentionally want to represent two different economic classes in those shows?
LEAR: Well, what happened, Terry, was that "Good Times" had been on for a couple of years. And some of the Black press were writing that it's a shame that there were no upwardly mobile African American families on television, that James on "Good Times" had to hold down two jobs and sometimes he would have a third. And that made sense to us. And we were looking at "The Jeffersons" as the possibility of a spinoff also and so it made sense to think of them as moving on up. He was known early on as having a dry-cleaning store, so then we gave him a second and a third, and soon he had a chain and he was moving on up when we spun him off.
GROSS: And then, of course, you had your show "Sanford And Son," which starred Redd Foxx. What was...
LEAR: Well, "Sanford And Son" I had very little to do with. I - Bud and I found Redd Foxx in Las Vegas. I was very much a part of that decision to do the show. As a matter of fact, we rehearsed the show, the pilot. We had no network deal, but we made a deal with Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson to play his son. And we rehearsed it about three rehearsal halls down from "All In The Family" - where I was rehearsing "All In The Family." I couldn't get the CBS executives in the same building to come down and see this rehearsal.
And frustrated one day, I called NBC and got ahold of the executives at NBC, who were lunching nearby and came over almost, like, in trench coats with the collars up and the hats pulled down (laughter), because they were NBC executives in the CBS building. But they saw a run through of the pilot episode in rehearsal. Standing up, no cheers, just everybody - and roaring. And they bought the show. NBC bought that show in the CBS building.
GROSS: That's unusual (laughter).
LEAR: I don't think it ever happened before or since.
GROSS: Norman Lear, thank you so much. Thank you for all the TV shows you've given us. And thank you for the interview.
LEAR: Well, thank you for it. I couldn't have enjoyed it more.
BIANCULLI: Norman Lear recorded in 2014. We'll have more of our tribute after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON'S "LET IT SNOW")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. In the 1960s, Esther Rolle was one of the original members of the Negro Ensemble Company. After playing a regular on the soap opera "One Life To Live," she took on the role of Florida Evans, the housekeeper on Norman Lear's comedy series "Maude." She soon had her own spinoff series, "Good Times." Her husband in the sitcom was played by John Amos. One of her sons was played by Jimmie Walker, whose signature catchphrase on the show was dynamite. Terry spoke with Esther Rolle in 1983.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Did you think twice about taking the role as a Black housekeeper 'cause, you know, I'm thinking in the way that the Negro Ensemble Company was was developed as a place to get roles where you wouldn't have to play housekeeper-type roles, which was, for many years, some of the only roles for Black women in movies or television or the stage. So how did that strike you when the offer was made?
ESTHER ROLLE: Well, very poorly when they first told me about it. But then I asked because I didn't particularly want to go to Hollywood, and they finally called and said what is the holdup? Why don't you want to do it? I said I was not interested in playing a Hollywood maid. They wanted to know what that meant. And I said, you know, the inhuman, detached, laughing, clowning, fat, Black lady. That I don't - I know no human being was like it.
And when Norman assured me that that was not what he was looking for and described Maude as an over-liberal, upper-middle class white woman and Florida as a woman of the same strength, he said what he was looking for was the - two sides of the same coin. And I asked, well, will I have anything to say about the dialect and about the dialogue? And he said, sure, you can. I said, oh, well, then I'll be right there. I particularly wanted to have a chance to nationally portray the role of a housekeeper or maid or whatever you would call it, because I sorely resented the way they had been depicted, and I felt that I would have a chance to redeem some of those ill-conceived notions of what a Black maid was like.
GROSS: Did Norman Lear's willingness to have you change the dialect when necessary or alter the dialogue prove to be true once you actually started working with him?
ROLLE: Oh, sure. I think that's one of his great successes - he listens.
GROSS: Then you had your own spinoff series, "Good Times," which the characterizations on that changed in the years that you played it, and you ended up leaving for a year in protest. How did the characters change to the point that you wanted to walk out?
ROLLE: Well, in the first place, when the series was conceived, it was for me and my three children. Having come from a home where there was a mother and a father, and my father having lived with us all of our lives, I never wanted to take a role where there was no father in the home for a series, something that would go on that long, because I couldn't understand why people felt afraid to show a Black father in a home. That was our first contention. So they finally gave me a husband. When they gave me the husband - and I had something to do with the selection of that husband, because I said he'll have to be this - a particular kind of a person. I really based it sort of on the image of my father. John Amos said I understand exactly what you want. I'd love to do it. And he proved to be just what I wanted in the father. We worked beautifully together.
Of the children, it was mainly the daughter and the younger son who were aspiring to do things. And the older boy was sort of a ne'er-do-well, you know, just got about. And he had, really, the lesser role. And the clownishness of the older boy maximized to the point it became a clown show, and I didn't feel that it was necessary for me to be a part of that. I felt there were other things that I could do in life that would be more meaningful. We had a program that was funny and had pathos. It had everything. Why change it to a clown show? Ours was unique.
GROSS: Why did you go back after taking a year off?
ROLLE: Because I was asked by the head of CBS. Mr. Paley called me. I told him my problems with it, and he said what concessions he could make.
GROSS: Were you pleased with those successions?
ROLLE: Yes and no. I had taken it off my heart. I had divorced myself from it. I went back because it would have meant a lot of people out of work. I went back for the year, but I told him I would only go back for one year. The show lost its ratings after I left - completely. And he had said he was going to close the show. So I went back for the year that I promised to go back. But the joy of doing "Good Times" I had lost.
BIANCULLI: Esther Rolle speaking to Terry Gross in 1983. She died in 1998. TV director John Rich had a hand in many of the programs from the Golden Age of American television, including "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "All In The Family," "Gunsmoke," and "The Twilight Zone." In 2006, FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies asked John Rich about directing "All In The Family," starting with that classic episode guest starring Sammy Davis Jr.
DAVE DAVIES: One of the more memorable episodes was where Sammy Davis Jr ends up coming to visit Archie Bunker, who happens to be a Black guy that Archie Bunker really likes.
JOHN RICH: Oh, yes. Yeah, yeah.
DAVIES: But, you know, this is a film of working-class people in Queens. How do you - why did you decide to get Sammy Davis into a show?
RICH: Well, apparently, in our opening weeks, Sammy had been on the Johnny Carson show and was talking about this new show, "All In The Family," and praising it. And we thought, this is wonderful. We need the publicity. It's great. And so the agent called Norman and said, when is he going to be on the show? And Norman said, well, I don't think he's going to be. He came to me and said, what do you think about Sammy Davis on the - I said, no, just exactly what you just said. It's a middle-class Queens family. What? How do you put these two together?
If anything, it would be, not typecasting, but it would be celebrity casting, which we don't want to do because you can't have that kind of visitation. And the agent said, well, he can play any part. And we said, no, no, no, if he ever showed up, he'd have to be himself. He's too big a star. And he kept - Sammy kept talking about, I'm going to be on the show, I'm going to be on the show. And one day, Norman came and said, you know, the pressure is on. Maybe we can do one episode. I said, well, you're going to have to lay down an awful lot of pipe, which - a phrase we use for exposition, to explain how it's even possible. So cleverly, Norman began to write...
DAVIES: Meaning set up a plot so that he gets there and it's believable, right.
RICH: Set up a plot line, but it had to have been done carefully some six or seven weeks earlier. So Norman came up with the idea of having Bunker occasionally drive - moonlighting a cab, Munson's cab. He would drive this taxi, which would allow Sammy Davis to get into the cab one night, leave a briefcase. And with that conceit, we would say, Archie would find the briefcase. And because he had given Sammy his address and his phone number, because he wanted a picture, the phone rings and it's Sammy saying, you've got my briefcase. And Bunker says, oh, yeah, it's over at the cab office, but I can get it for you. He said, well, if you can, he said, I'm on my way to the airport and I can stop off at your house.
DAVIES: And I guess the big payoff moment of the show is when Sammy Davis meets Archie and says goodbye, right?
RICH: Right. They had talked for a while. It was beautifully done, and Sammy was great. But at the first reading, everything went very well. The script sounded terrific and we were all very happy. But as the script ended and the cast was dismissed for coffee, take a break, I kept sitting there and thinking, there's something wrong. And Lear came over and said, what's going on? I said, well, I think we have a good show. The script is good, but there's no finish.
The finish that was written was that a neighbor wanted to take a picture of Sammy Davis Jr. And Sammy says - and Archie says, no, no, no pictures. And Sammy says, no, I want a picture with my friend Archie, whatever it was. And by all means, take the picture. I want to remember this occasion. And then he leaves. And I said to Norman, it's flat. I'd like to have something real physical that goes on. And I don't know what - and as I sat there, I started to grin. And Norman said, you got something? I said, maybe. I said, I think Sammy ought to kiss Archie (laughter) on the cheek.
RICH: And Norman said, you think, really? I said, yeah, it's worth a shot. I said, I think it's a wonderful finish. Yeah, I think it'll work. Well, it worked, if I may say, brilliantly. In fact, the applause and the laughter were so long that we had to cut it down because you couldn't stay on it that long. The audience just went berserk.
DAVIES: One other question I had to ask you about "All In The Family." You know, a lot of - one of the sets that was used a lot was the dinner table, the four of them sitting around the dinner table.
DAVIES: And you see this a lot in movies and television, where people are supposed to be eating but they're not really eating. They don't really take bites. They push food around.
DAVIES: You insisted that people ram food into their mouths. Why?
RICH: Well, because - one of my deep complaints is exactly what you just said. I hate to see an eating scene where people sit down to a meal and they don't eat. They just push the peas around or - and of course, there's a real reason for it, and it's because an actor doesn't want to get stuck with food in his or her mouth to deliver their lines. But I said, look, on the Bunker family, I said, when dinner is served, you folks should be ravenous. And we should really play it with real food. Eating carefully has to be choreographed. It is not a simple thing to do. You have to be able to figure out how much you can take, how much you can masticate, how much you can put on the side of your mouth to be able to deliver the lines.
So I said, let's rehearse with food. So we got stew. The prop man brought in - I think it was some canned stew. And Carroll O'Connor said, I can't eat this stuff. I said, well - he said, you're right about the eating, but I can't eat this. I said, OK. I said, let's send out the Chasen's. It was a very famous restaurant in Hollywood. They made a stew that was made of Kobe beef, I think. It was very expensive, but it was terrific. And the family would sit down, and we would eat all this food. And I said, it has to be ravenous. You must - everybody, fight for your - and eat a lot, which they did. Now, that's what gave...
DAVIES: Why did you want that? Wouldn't it have been just as effective to deliver the lines? No?
RICH: No. No, no. It's very funny because you got extra moments out of it that were terrific - glaring, you know, somebody going for the same piece of meat, somebody going for the same roll or whatever. Or Archie deliberately putting too much ketchup on something, but Edith looks at him reproachfully, and Archie puts more ketchup on. All has to be timed. Yeah, there was a moment I had between Carroll and Meathead were they meet over a piece of something and glare at each other. But, yes, it - there's an air of verisimilitude. Is that the word?
DAVIES: Right, like a real family. Right.
RICH: It was a real family. Yeah.
BIANCULLI: TV director John Rich speaking with Dave Davies in 2006. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with TV director John Rich, who directed many TV shows from the 1960s and '70s. In 2006, he spoke to Dave Davies about his work on "All In The Family."
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DAVIES: It was interesting how this came to you. You had two great opportunities at once, and this looked like the weaker of the two - right? - in some ways.
RICH: Oh, not just the weaker. It looked like - no, it was the stronger of the two. But in my view, it was the one least likely to succeed because of its language. The shows that you're referring to - on the same day, which is incredible for a freelance director, I was offered the pilot for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and Norman Lear had called with the pilot of "All In The Family." I read both scripts. Mary's script was outstandingly funny and wonderful, but in the genre of really excellent situation comedy. But "All In The Family" had this language that I said, this is 1970. Nobody will allow this on American television.
And it was so compelling to me because the writing was terrific. I called Mary, and I said, look, I'm going to have to pass on your show, but I know it's going to be a big hit. But I've got to try this other thing as an experiment. Now, I don't think it's going to get on the air, mind you, and I think it'll be dead after the first couple of episodes, but I've got to try it. So if you will have me when this thing fails, I'll be delighted to come back and do some of the episodes of "Mary Tyler Moore," gladly, but I have to pass right now. Well, I took the job on "All In The Family," which was a great risk because I thought, this will never get on the air.
DAVIES: Well, it was so different. And one of the moments that I love in the book is where - I guess you'd done the first 13 episodes, and it wasn't clear if the network was going to renew it, and then...
RICH: No. It was very clear. We were...
DAVIES: The answer was no.
RICH: We had to. We were finished.
DAVIES: And then you're in Hawaii.
DAVIES: And you meet this person. Tell that story.
RICH: Well, because we were canceled, and I was rather tired - I mean, after 13 weeks of live work, no editing, I took my family to the island of Kauai, and we were having lunch. And the waiter - waitress was a very nice Japanese lady who was very apologetic. She said, do you mind if - paying for the lunch right now? It was 2 o'clock, and I have to leave early. I said, oh, sure. But may I ask, what's so compelling on a Sunday afternoon that you want to get home? She said, it's television. There's a new show called "All In The Family," and I've got to watch this.
Well, I was amazed, but I didn't tell her my connection. But I said, what is it about the show that appeals to you so? And she said that Archie Bunker, that's my husband. Well, I thought, holy mackerel. If a Japanese lady can make this adjustment, I'll bet you this is happening in other places because people are going to be - I had heard already from some people who had said, you know, that's my father. In fact, it was Norman Lear's father and a good piece of my father, I hate to say, people who were trapped by old-fashioned notions. So sure enough, when I got back, apparently they had put the show on in reruns in the summer, and it began to catch on.
BIANCULLI: TV director John Rich recorded in 2006. He had just written a book called "Warm Up The Snake: A Hollywood Memoir." He died in 2012. As we conclude our tribute to Norman Lear, we send our condolences to his family and thank them for providing that rare clip of "All That Glitters" we used to start this tribute. Norman Lear died last week at the age of 101.
On Monday's show, actress Taraji P. Henson, best known for her role as uncompromising matriarch Cookie Lyons (ph) on the series "Empire." She now stars as jazz singer Shug Avery in the new film adaptation of "The Color Purple." She talks about bringing nuance to her portrayal of Shug and what the film meant to her when she was young. I hope you can join us.
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BIANCULLI: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram - @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm David Bianculli.
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