Norman Lear, pioneering TV legend, dies aged 101

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Norman Lear, the Emmy-winning US screenwriter and TV producer behind more than 100 shows, has died aged 101.

The leading TV industry figure, responsible for hit sitcoms such as All in the Family and One Day at a Time, died on Tuesday (5 December) at his home in Los Angeles.

In a statement shared with Variety, his family confirmed that Lear had died of natural causes. “Thank you for the moving outpouring of love and support in honor of our wonderful husband, father, and grandfather,” they said.

“Norman lived a life of creativity, tenacity, and empathy. He deeply loved our country and spent a lifetime helping to preserve its founding ideals of justice and equality for all. Knowing and loving him has been the greatest of gifts. We ask for your understanding as we mourn privately in celebration of this remarkable human being.”

A private funeral service will be held for Lear’s immediate family in the coming days.

Lear was best known for creating and producing many of the biggest sitcoms of the Seventies, as well as his position as an outspoken liberal activist. In addition to All in the Family, he worked on Sanford and Son, Maude, The Jeffersons and Good Times.

Lear, pictured in 2009 (REUTERS)
Lear, pictured in 2009 (REUTERS)

After creating family comedy One Day at a Time in the Seventies, with the show going on to air for nine years, he returned to produce the rebooted series of the same name in 2017. He gave the same treatment to Netflix’s revival of Good Times in 2022.

Born in Connecticut in 1922, Lear served in the army in the Second World War and began a career in publicity soon after. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he discovered the local theatre scene and began writing sketches with Ed Simmons, an aspiring writer and the husband of Lear’s cousin.

Together, Lear and Simmons wrote for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis for the Colgate Comedy Hour. Further writing roles came along in the Fifties and Sixties, and Lear earned his first Oscar nomination for the 1967 comedy Divorce American Style starring Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds.

In 1971, his signature production, CBS sitcom All in the Family, first aired. Loosely based on Sixties BBC sitcom Till Death Do Us Part, the show featured storylines about racism, feminism and the Vietnam War, while also drawing upon Lear’s childhood memories of his tempestuous father.

Receiving the National Medal of Arts and Humanities Award from president Bill Clinton in 1999 (AFP via Getty Images)
Receiving the National Medal of Arts and Humanities Award from president Bill Clinton in 1999 (AFP via Getty Images)

It initially debuted to poor ratings, but still picked up multiple Emmy Awards, and grew in popularity when the show was repeated later that year. By the end of 1971, All in the Family was the No 1 show in the country, with president Richard Nixon among its famous fans. However, Nixon privately fumed when an episode of the show centred on a close friend of protagonist Archie (Carroll O’Connor) who is gay, the president telling White House aides that the show “glorified” same-sex relationships.

The show maintained the top spot for five consecutive years, and picked up four Emmys for Best Comedy Series. Spin-off shows soon followed, in the form of Maude and The Jeffersons. In a 1972 two-part episode of Maude, the titular character became the first person on television to have an abortion, drawing a surge of protests along with the show’s high ratings.

Lear’s big follow-up sitcom Sanford and Son also looked to British comedy for inspiration, and was based on Steptoe and Son. It centred around a Black family and starred Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson, with the show becoming known for its edgy humour.

Lear’s series reflected his ardent political beliefs, which his business success allowed him to express in grand fashion. In 2000, he and a partner bought a copy of the Declaration of Independence for $8.14m (£6.46m) and sent it on a cross-country tour.

Lear is survived by his third wife Lyn Davis, six children and four grandchildren (AFP via Getty Images)
Lear is survived by his third wife Lyn Davis, six children and four grandchildren (AFP via Getty Images)

In 1980, he founded the non-profit liberal advocacy group People for the American Way in response to the growing influence of conservative religious groups. In a 1992 interview with Commonweal magazine, Lear said he acted because he felt that Christian media figures such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were “abusing religion”. “I started to say, ‘This is not my America.’ You don’t mix politics and religion this way,” Lear said.

An active donor to the Democratic Party, Lear was lauded as the “innovative writer who brought realism to television” when he became one of the first seven people inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Hall of Fame in 1984. He later received a National Medal of Arts and was honored at the Kennedy Center, while also featuring on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest people in America in 1986. His net worth was estimated at the time to be $225m (£178m).

Lear retained a youthful outlook for much of life and continued creating television well into his nineties, rebooting One Day at a Time for Netflix in 2017 with the show now reimagined around a Latino family. He explored income inequality for the documentary series America Divided in 2016, and the same year featured in the documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.

In his later years, Lear joined with Warren Buffett and James E Burke to establish The Business Enterprise Trust, honouring businesses that take a long-term view of their effect on the country. He also founded the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California to explore the relationship between entertainment, commerce and society. In 2014, he published the memoir Even This I Get to Experience.

Married three times, Lear is survived by his third wife Lyn Davis, six children and four grandchildren.