THE TV PIONEER DIED IN DECEMBER, BUT HIS LEGACY OF BELOVED SITCOMS LIVES ON
By Andrew Nodell
It has been nearly three months since Norman Lear died, and the wound still feels fresh – no doubt because the television shows he created in the 1970s will remain as relevant tomorrow as they felt a thousand yesterdays ago. So inescapable is Lear’s shadow that this year’s Emmy Awards began with an homage to several shows he created and continued to pay tribute to him throughout.
When Lear died in December, at age 101, the award-winning creator left us with a legacy that includes some of the 20th century’s most groundbreaking shows – All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and Good Times, for starters. While television series of the 1950s and ’60s served as an escape from social and political issues facing America at large, Lear’s programs tackled those topics with a masterful combination of dignity and humor. “We wanted to tell good stories,” Lear said in a 2015 interview with CBS News. “But I advised writers to read the L.A. Times, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to get a broadening of attitudes and so forth, and come in [to the writers’ room] with those things that would a story make.”
When All in the Family premiered in January 1971, a notice was shown to viewers: “Warning: 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.” The American public showed resounding approval of the needle-moving storylines, and the series went on to air for nine successful seasons followed by four seasons of spinoff Archie Bunker’s Place.
Last spring, Heritage Auctions was entrusted with a portion of The Comisar Collection, a grouping of nearly 1,000 props, costumes and sets assembled by art market specialist James Comisar. In his early 20s, Comisar – whose collection has been dubbed by Forbes magazine as “The World’s Greatest Collection of TV Memorabilia” – was writing stand-up jokes for Joan Rivers and Howie Mandel before scriptwriting for none other than Norman Lear.
Comisar, who described Lear as “a kind gentleman who would walk clear across the office just to tell you he liked the sweater you were wearing,” made a discovery that would become a cornerstone in his iconic collection. “I stopped dead in my tracks when I noticed the corner of a set wall covered in a vintage, careworn wallpaper,” the collector told Heritage Auctions. “It was Archie and Edith Bunker’s living room from All in the Family sadly sandwiched between a failed game show set and a crumbling, snowy mountaintop carved out of Styrofoam.” This was typically the last stop before the walls of the Bunkers’ fictional New York City home met their maker in the form of a sledgehammer and landfill. Understanding the historical importance of this set, the astute collector arranged a meeting with Lear.
Explaining his preservationist mission (and adding that Lear’s friend Johnny Carson had recently released his The Tonight Show set to him), Comisar convinced the Hollywood heavyweight that this property would have a much better future under his care. Sets from All in the Family were centerpiece offerings in Heritage’s June 2023 auction of The Comisar Collection, each directly acquired from Lear.
Beyond their recognition as background for the classic show, these sets helped to illustrate the Bunkers as a working-class family in Astoria, Queens, which exemplifies the thoroughness and intention Lear put into his storytelling. The sets’ drab decor, sourced from secondhand shops, is meant to resemble a sepia-toned photograph. Like Archie Bunker’s worldview, this furniture was outdated and worn, even by early 1970s standards.
The costumes from Lear’s programs received the same careful attention to detail. Edith Bunker’s unfussy green floral print dress (worn by actress Jean Stapleton) further indicates the character’s working-class standing. The Jeffersons – a Black couple who moved on up to “a deluxe apartment in the sky” on the eponymous sitcom – donned a more elevated wardrobe, which included Louise Jefferson’s diaphanous peach-colored housecoat (worn by actress Isabel Sanford) and George Jefferson’s purple crushed velvet blazer (worn by actor Sherman Hemsley). Lear’s depiction of Black Americans as successful and upwardly mobile was a departure from the racial stereotypes often seen in popular culture of the time. A physical representation of this idea lives on in these treasured garments.
Similarly, Maude Findlay’s custom-made, floor-length burgundy vest worn by actress Bea Arthur on Maude helps to illustrate her as a progressive-minded modern woman of the 1970s. It was this character that resonated most with the late producer. “That role was as much [of] me in the way that she was political,” Lear told CBS News. “She was, for me, a bleeding-heart conservative. If you were dealing with fairness and justice, she was 1,000% progressive.”
ANDREW NODELL is a contributor to Intelligent Collector.