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The legacy of visionary TV producer Norman Lear, dead at 101

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Norman Lear was the visionary (ph) producer behind classic TV sitcoms such as "All In The Family" and "The Jeffersons." A spokesman for his family says he died of natural causes at the age of 101. Lear's hit TV comedies drew humor from controversial social issues. In this moment from "All In The Family," the bigoted patriarch Archie Bunker talked about racial integration with one of Bunker's heroes, Sammy Davis Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")

CARROLL O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) If God had meant us to be together, he'd have put us together. Well, look what he's done. He put you over in Africa. He put the rest of us in all the white countries.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMMY DAVIS JR: (As self) Well, you must have told him where we were 'cause somebody came and got us.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Here to talk about Lear's legacy is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Hey, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: You have said that almost every modern TV show you watch today owes a debt to Norman Lear. Explain how his legacy goes beyond just creating a lot of successful shows.

DEGGANS: Sure. Well, let's talk first - Lear got his start in show business as a writer, so he worked with people like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. But by 1971, when he was almost 50, he heard about this British TV comedy called Death - "Till Death Do Us Part," and it featured a white, reactionary, working-class guy who was racist and sexist and head of his family. Lear decided to create an American version of the show centered on Archie Bunker, a working-class guy who could be racist and sexist, but his family still loved him. Now, Lear said aspects of Archie were inspired by his own father. Archie's casual racism led to a moment when he talked to a Black man about the race of God, and we've got a clip. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")

O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Well, and, I mean, you know, God is white, ain't he?

MEL STEWART: (As Henry Jefferson) What makes you think God isn't Black?

O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Well, because I was made in God's image, and you'll note that I ain't Black.

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: (As Henry Jefferson) Well, don't complain to me about it.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: So you can see how the show was undercutting Archie while showing him expressing views that a lot of white people had at that time.

SHAPIRO: And in the context of TV in that time, why was this so groundbreaking?

DEGGANS: Well, before the early 1970s, TV executives always insisted that people watch shows, especially comedies, for escapism. They wanted to get away from their daily problems. And Lear was part of this generation of TV producers who proved that people would watch characters talking about what was happening in the real world. So "All In The Family" had an episode where Edith Bunker was sexually assaulted. In 1972, he helped develop another British TV show into "Sanford And Son," which was about a Black junkyard owner and his son in South Central Los Angeles. And a spinoff series in 1972 featuring Edith's cousin Maude featured the character deciding to have an abortion. And they were very popular. So we've got a clip of Maude telling her best friend that she's pregnant at almost 50 years of age.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAUDE")

BEA ARTHUR: (As Maude Findlay) Vivian, at age 62, I'll be the mother of an Eagle Scout.

(LAUGHTER)

RUE MCCLANAHAN: (As Vivian Harmon) No, they made a mistake. Laboratories make mistakes.

ARTHUR: (As Maude Findlay) There's no mistake, Vivian. The rabbit died...

(LAUGHTER)

ARTHUR: (As Maude Findlay) ...Laughing, no doubt.

DEGGANS: And in an interview with the Archive of American Television, Lear himself said the choice for her to have an abortion felt inescapable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORMAN LEAR: The scene in which Maude tells her close friend that she's pregnant - when we went deep into it and explored all of the things we might have done, anything but facing what about this almost 50-year-old woman having a baby - and it just wasn't in our nature, by that time, to wish to take the easy way.

SHAPIRO: Eric, Lear also pioneered a lot of elements of modern television that we take for granted today. What were some of those?

DEGGANS: Well, he helped innovate the idea of taking popular characters from a successful show and spinning them off into their own series. So he developed "The Jeffersons" to feature a Black couple who once lived next to the Bunkers. He also created TV that elevated anti-heroes. So in shows like "All In The Family" and "Jeffersons," the starring male characters were often bigoted and stubborn, but they were also charismatic and lovable, like Tony Soprano or the characters from "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia."

SHAPIRO: Well, after we learned of Lear's death, a lot of modern TV producers today have been posting about how inspired they were by him - people from "Late Night" host Jimmy Kimmel to "Abbott Elementary" creator Quinta Brunson. What was his impact outside of his own shows?

DEGGANS: Well, he founded a group called People for the American Way, which helped with voter registration and opposed religious conservatism in politics. He mentored people in show business. I interviewed him once about the support he gave to Ryan Murphy, who created "Glee" and "American Horror Story." Jimmy Kimmel created several recent specials featuring live renditions of scripts from shows like "All In The Family" and "The Jeffersons." And tonight, five major TV networks - ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The CW - are presenting a small visual tribute to him, and that's a first.

SHAPIRO: Well, when you interviewed him, what was he like as a person?

DEGGANS: Well, I interviewed him for a public talk at the Smithsonian in 2016 that was timed to reference his memoir. It was just before his 94th birthday. He was approachable and had this enthusiasm for life that seemed to keep him vital. And, you know, it was a lesson for all of us that, you know, this guy kept teaching us right up until he left us.

SHAPIRO: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans, speaking about the legacy of pioneering TV producer Norman Lear. Thank you so much, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.