I knew when I created this show that someday a journalist would come in here and accuse me or repeating myself, of stealing from my past, of reversing the All in the Family formula.” Norman Lear slumps into the arms of his office chair. ”And here you are.”
Sorry about that, Norm. But the similarities between Lear’s old Archie Bunker show and his latest sitcom, 704 Hauser, are kinda tough to ignore. For starters, the new series takes place in the same tacky tract house-704 Hauser Street in Queens, N.Y.-where Archie Bunker resided from 1971-1983. And while the show isn’t about a loveable bigot and his left-wing, meathead son-in-law, it does feature a ’60s-liberal African- American dad (John Amos) who’s locked in ideological combat with his ultraconservative, Clarence Thomas-loving son (T.E. Russell). It also has a feisty, anti-Edith mom and a hot-to-trot potential daughter-in-law who happens to be-Socially Relevant Plot Point!-white and Jewish.
For Lear, 71, moving a black family into Archie’s old abode is more than a gimmicky stroll down memory lane-it’s a return to the territory that turned him into a TV legend. The success of All in the Family, the first sitcom to take on such TV taboos as racial prejudice and anti-Vietnam War protest, started a string of groundbreaking spin-offs that made Lear one of the most ace-high producers in TV history. Edith’s cousin got her own show, Maude, in 1972. Maude’s maid got a series, Good Times, in 1974. The Bunkers’ neighbors moved on up to The Jeffersons in 1975. At one point in the mid-’70s, Lear was juggling seven series at the same time (including Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time, and Mary Hartman, Mary Harman).</p. No wonder he was called King Lear.
But that was then. These days Lear is better known for his lefty advocacy organizations (People for the American Way,) The Business Enterprise Trust) and his reported $100 million 1987 divorce form his wife, Frances. His recent TV offerings-a.k.a. Pablo (1984), Sunday Dinner (1991), The Powers That Be (1992)-have all tanked. Question is, will his latest All in the Family riff recapture that old Bunker magic?
” I’ll tell you how the show came about,” Lear offers while fielding phone calls in his sparsely furnished Hollywood office. ”I’ve been keeping the sets for All in The Family in storage since it went off the air. Every year my accountant calls and yells at me for spending money on storage bills. The last time he called, I happened to be reading Thomas Sowell, who is perhaps the most listened-to voice of black conservatism in the country. A true scholar. And the next day it just hit me-there’s a show in a black liberal father and his conservative son living in Archie Bunker’s old place.”
Being neither black nor conservative didn’t daunt Lear in the least. To give 704 Hauser a dose of political verisimilitude, he hired right-wing black radio host Armstrong Williams as a creative consultant (”I make sure Lear’s liberal writers don’t turn the characters into conservative stereotypes,” Williams says). Lear also cast Amos, who years earlier had left Good Times because of conflicts with him over creative and racial issues.
”At Good Times, I thought we should’ve had more black writers on staff,” Amos recalls. ”I felt I should’ve been more involved in the development of scripts. But we don’t have those fights on 704 Hauser. Lear is more willing to listen nowadays. He’s mellowed. We’ve both mellowed. We actually enjoy working together.”
What they’re working on, Lear makes a point of stressing, should not be construed as All in the Family: The Next Generation. ”I chose to set it in the Bunkers’ house because I couldn’t resist the theatricality of it,” he says. ”But I could have set it anywhere. Its characters are totally different from All in the Family. Archie and Mike were fools-wonderful and delicious, but fools. The people in 704 Hauser are much more responsible. They know what they’re talking about when they argue. That’s one of the show’s biggest differences.”