Norman Lear looks back on 'All in the Family,' 50 years after its debut All in the Family creator Norman Lear, along with writer Jim Colucci, talked with NPR about Carroll O'Connor, Jean Stapleton and their roles on the groundbreaking TV show.

'All in the Family' is 50 years old. A new book looks at how it changed TV

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1971 was a year of a lot of firsts, including the launch of NPR and a show that has played a major role in television history.


CARROLL O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker, singing) Boy, the way Glenn Miller played...

JEAN STAPLETON: (As Edith Bunker, singing) Songs that made the hit parade.

O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker, singing) Guys like us, we had it made.

CARROLL O'CONNOR AND JEAN STAPLETON: (As Archie and Edith Bunker, singing) Those were the days.

MARTIN: And those were the days when "All In The Family" was breaking the formula for what a television sitcom could be. The show marks its 50th anniversary this year. At the time, most of the storylines on TV were surface-level stuff, really. Dad's boss is coming to dinner, and Mom's burn the food again. What'll happen next? "All In The Family" got deep into the muck of real life and real issues - politics, women's rights, racism.


SHERMAN HEMSLEY: (As George Jefferson) See, that's the trouble with you people. You always think that...

O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Hold it, hold it, hold it. Who are you calling you people? You people are you people.


MARTIN: At the center of all of it was a character for the ages - Archie Bunker. Norman Lear created the show and the many spinoffs. I got to talk to him recently about the show's legacy. And he told me Archie Bunker was inspired by his own family. And a note, our conversation includes mention of racist slurs.

NORMAN LEAR: I had a father who was a bit of an Archie Bunker. You know, Chinese people were Chinks. And Black people were - he didn't say the N-word, but he said darkies and things like that. He was, in my mind, a long way to what became Archie Bunker.


O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) I think that I mean, if God had meant us to be together, he'd have put us together. But look what he done. He put you over in Africa. He put the rest of us in all white countries.


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


MARTIN: Today you can imagine the criticism, right? Some kind of character in a show like Archie Bunker would provoke some to say, this isn't worth it. I mean, sure, you're poking fun of this guy. But it's not worth the social cost of giving him and his ideas airtime.

LEAR: I don't think you need be correct about that. I do think well-done, funny as Archie, Edith, Mike and Gloria were, I do think it would play.

MARTIN: How much of a role did Carroll O'Connor play in defining Archie's character?

LEAR: Oh, I must have interviewed maybe 30 actors. And then one of them turns out to be Carroll O'Connor. And he walks in. And we sit on this little table. And he reads. I wish I could express - my entire body felt - oh, my God; this is Archie.

MARTIN: The show is the subject of a new book titled "All In The Family: The Show That Changed Television." It was put together by Jim Colucci, who talked with many of the former cast and crew members. Over the course of talking to some of the other people who made "All In The Family," was there a throughline that emerged?

JIM COLUCCI: Yeah. Even people who just came in for an episode or two or three remarked about how collaborative the show was. And it would often be actors who themselves were people of color or LGBT. And they said, as an African American, I normally play these roles that are either really small or the dialogue is written in a way that white people think that Black people speak. Here they said, we came in, and we got to do something authentic and funny. And so I think that it was a combination of back then they knew how collaborative it was, and they knew how - even then how groundbreaking it was.


ROB REINER: (As Michael Stivic) Ma, I know why he yells at me. He hates me.

STAPLETON: (As Edith Bunker) Oh, no, Mike. Archie had to quit school to support his family. He ain't never going to be nothing more than he is right now. He sees in you all the things that he could never be. So the next time Archie yells at you, try to be a little more understanding.

MARTIN: Can I ask about Edith? She changed from this sort of meek housewife to a woman who became a symbol of the feminist movement at the time.

LEAR: There was a book written about Edith called "Edith The Good." It was written - I think he was a reverend at the time. And she was developed to respond to any situation in life the way the most decent, good person - the way the most Jesus-like, if you will, person would respond. It was absolutely wonderful, the talent Jean Stapleton brought to that character.

MARTIN: Jim, it was interesting to read in the book - this was an evolution for her herself, right?

COLUCCI: Yes. She was from the Christian Science background. And I think that she herself had a very quiet life in Pennsylvania, in the theater. And I think only through exposure to "All In The Family" and the wider world of Hollywood did she become awakened to some of the women's issues that were happening in her time and really grew as a person.


STAPLETON: (As Edith Bunker) Well, anyway, Ms. Strickland says that women are being kept out of lots of jobs because they ain't got equal rights.

O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Well, you know what Ms. Strickland was talking in two words? - crap ola.


STAPLETON: (As Edith Bunker) Is that all I am to you - a cook, a cleaning lady and a sex object?

O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Oh.


MARTIN: Is there a topic you think hasn't yet been addressed on television that you think should be?

LEAR: I think religion per se - there's a lot of that can be done with conversations that include belief and our lives from a spiritual standpoint.

MARTIN: You turned 99. How have you so successfully gotten through so many days?

LEAR: You know, two little words we don't pay enough attention to - over and next. When something is over, it is over and we are on to next. And I like to think about the hammock in the middle of those two words. That's living in the moment. That's the moment I believe and living as I complete this sentence. And it couldn't be more important to me.


O'CONNOR AND STAPLETON: (As Archie and Edith Bunker, singing) Those were the days.

MARTIN: Famed TV creator Norman Lear, along with Jim Colucci - the new book is called "All In The Family: The Show That Changed Television."


O'CONNOR AND STAPLETON: (As Archie and Edith Bunker, singing) Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.

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