Actors Mike Evans and Carroll O'Connor on the cover of TV Guide. Photo by Flickr user tomovox.
It has been at least 40 years since I’ve said I was looking forward to watching that night’s episode of “All in the Family.”
This is not to slight its spin-off “The Jeffersons,” which ended 34 years ago. I intend to watch both this evening, and I can honestly say that I’m looking forward to the experience.
It may be peculiar that Norman Lear’s classic sitcoms about race, class and American life still seem so relevant after so long. Yet to someone my age, it is no more peculiar than tuning to ABC in order to find Archie Bunker spouting bigoted malapropisms from his easy chair. For those who don’t (or can’t) remember, Archie and his chair were last seen on CBS. Bill Paley and his network drew great prestige by letting Lear’s team cover new ground in network entertainment, from racism and anti-Semitism to the mere fact that the Bunker residence in Astoria, Queens was equipped with indoor plumbing – which meant you could occasionally hear a toilet flush.
Back in the day, the Walt Disney Co. would not have come within miles of any of this. Now, as ABC’s owner, Disney has assembled an all-star cast for a one-night-only live special.
I am eager to see how Woody Harrelson will interpret the character of Archie, first embodied by Carroll O’Connor. O’Connor was an Irish American Catholic who was born in Manhattan and raised largely in Queens, the borough where his most famous future character would live. O’Connor was a member of my father’s generation, and Archie Bunker was someone that any working-class white teenager from the outer boroughs (like me) could recognize when “All in the Family” first aired in 1971. If Archie wasn’t exactly like my father, he was certainly very much like some of the fathers I knew among my family and friends.
Harrelson is a native Texan. His father was a reported hit man, convicted for the murder of a judge, who later died in prison. Harrelson’s background, in other words, is nothing like Archie’s – or, for that matter, like the white-collar O’Connor’s. O’Connor attended the same college I did, the University of Montana, and worked on the very student newspaper where I later worked at the time the Bunkers were on the air.
When we met the Bunkers, they came off as caricatures. Archie was an ill-informed, narrow-minded, cigar-chomping working stiff, who lorded over his domestic castle with pompous certitude. His wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) was a simplistic throwback to an earlier era when wives promised to love, honor and especially obey their husbands. Their daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) agreed with her husband Mike Stivic (Rob Reiner) that Archie was a buffoon, but bowed to her mother’s quiet insistence that she respect his place as her father.
Younger audiences may not appreciate how rapidly the world was changing when viewers first met the Bunkers. In less than a decade, we had gone from John F. Kennedy’s inauguration through the core of the civil rights movement, urban riots, the ramp-up of the Vietnam War and its spread into Cambodia, campus unrest, multiple assassinations, and the fall – and later rise – of Richard Nixon through his appeal to an American “silent majority” of people a lot like Archie Bunker. A couple of seasons into the show, we had reached Watergate and the country’s first presidential resignation. “White flight” from the cities was fully on the wing. The city-dwellers who remained often hunkered into their neighborhoods and retreated from strangers, especially strangers who looked or sounded different.
Yet at the time, most households received no more than three broadcast networks, and perhaps a small handful of independent local stations. Those networks had to try to appeal to a mass audience comprising viewers from communities as disparate as Dallas, Las Vegas and my home in the Bronx. The night “All in the Family” premiered, both ABC and NBC were showing movies that had finished their run in theaters.
To succeed commercially, Lear and his cast had to lampoon Archie’s bigotry without demanding that the audience hate the bigot. How could many of us be expected to hate someone who was so much like the people we saw regularly at our dinner tables or in our living rooms?
And so, over time, we got to know the Bunkers as people, rather than as cartoons. Archie was dull and uninformed, but not without virtues. He had unquestioningly placed his own life at risk in service of his country in World War II, where right and wrong seemed much clearer than in Vietnam. He might not want to live next door to a black family, but he went gaga when Sammy Davis Jr. visited his home to retrieve an item he left in Archie’s taxi. Or at least he did, until Davis mistakenly assumed next-door neighbor Lionel Jefferson was Gloria’s husband. Archie hastily noted that Gloria was married to “the white guy over there.”
Lionel was part of the younger generation, which saw itself as more tolerant and certainly “hipper” than Archie’s. His father George (Sherman Hemsley) was Archie’s African American counterpart, just as leery of strangers but with considerably more reason, having grown up black in a largely segregated country. The Jeffersons, led by George and his wife Louise (Isabel Sanford), eventually found financial success and moved “on up” to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a neighborhood then known as the “silk stocking” district. Through the Jeffersons, we met one of the first interracial married couples on television, a pair of neighbors with whom George was none too enraptured. Jamie Foxx and Wanda Sykes will give new life to George and Louise tonight; I look forward to seeing them as much as I do to Harrelson and his Edith, played by Marisa Tomei.
If we choose, we can treat tonight’s teleplays as pure nostalgic entertainment, like a revival of “Hello, Dolly.” But I probably won’t see it that way. These shows hark back to a time when we were not so quick to divide ourselves into a malevolent “them” and a virtuous “us,” even if we often expended great effort to avoid interacting with “them.” Americans had seen the anti-integration protests on TV from Little Rock in the 1950s, but then we saw almost the same reactions from anti-busing demonstrators in Boston in the 1970s.
Norman Lear’s shows helped usher in an era in which television exposed us to the idea that the people we thought of as “them” were not so different from us after all. We met people who looked different, sounded different, eventually even loved and married differently than we did. But we weren’t that different beneath the surface.
We still aren’t. If tonight’s rendition of these TV classics by some of the best actors of our era helps to remind us of that, it will be an evening that is as well spent as it is entertaining.