''All in the Family'' came to a classy end -- After nine groundbreaking seasons, the popular sitcom about married couple Edith and Archie Bunker changed television

By Matthew McCann Fenton
Updated April 02, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

All in the Family

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There was no media hoopla, no Seinfeld-esque overhype, no M*A*S*H-like reverence. On the night of April 8, 1979, viewers who tuned in to CBS’ All in the Family saw a simple, poignant episode about the travails of a phlebitic Edith (Jean Stapleton) as she helps Archie (Carroll O’Connor) prepare for a party at his tavern. In the end, he learns of her sacrifice and together, they share a rare moment of tenderness. After nine seasons — five of them (1971-76) as the No. 1 show on TV — this quietly understated story brought to a close what was arguably the most influential sitcom in television history.

When the show debuted eight years earlier, few could have realized the impact it would have. In a prime-time schedule dominated by such frothy fare as The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw, CBS had little faith in a comedy that tossed around words like hebe and spade, and took on subjects like race, menopause, impotence, and rape. The network even prefaced the first episode with a disclaimer: ”[This show] 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.”

But the triumph of All in the Family wasn’t its trumpeting of issue-oriented subject matter; it was that it framed those topics in an exceedingly engaging show. ”Only an a — hole sits down at his typewriter to change the world,” says cocreator Norman Lear. ”A writer sets out to entertain. I’m satisfied with the ripple the pebble makes.”

Make that a splash. Over the course of its run, Family won 21 Emmys and spun off five other sitcoms. And by championing storytelling rooted in the social realities of the day, it paved the way for a generation of topical comedies. Says Paul Bogart, who directed the series finale, ”I don’t know about the world, but we certainly changed television.”

But by the eighth season, the series ”had worn itself out,” says Bogart. CBS planned to end it in the spring of 1978, but at O’Connor’s request, the network kept Family alive for another year. (O’Connor would star for another four years in the spin-off Archie Bunker’s Place.) Accompanied by little fanfare, the finale came and went. It was, says Lear, ”a bittersweet moment. We had given it our best, and it was time to tie it up in a bow and call it a career.”


Time Capsule: April 8, 1979:
AT THE MOVIES, director Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, starring Robert De Niro, is the favorite going into the next night’s Oscars. Of its nine nominations, it would win five, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken). ON TV, Laverne & Shirley, in its third season, is the nation’s top-rated show. It would stay on the air for four more years. IN MUSIC STORES, ”I Will Survive,” by Gloria Gaynor, is perched at No. 1. IN BOOKSTORES, Dr. Herman Tarnower’s The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet tops the nonfiction best-seller lists. The next year, Tarnower would be murdered by his lover, private-school headmistress Jean Harris. AND IN THE NEWS, Harold Denton, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s top official at the crippled Three Mile Island reactor, declares the crisis — which began on March 28 and caused a near meltdown

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All in the Family

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