If you’ve ever laughed at a TV show from the ’70s, there’s a good chance you have Norman Lear to thank. (At one point, he had nine series on the air.) Here, the 93-year-old Emmy-winning creator/ producer/legend — who will be honored at the TV Land Icon Awards (Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, in celebration with EW) — recalls a few of his favorite moments from his provocative, socially conscious sitcoms.
ALL IN THE FAMILY, “SAMMY’S VISIT” (1972)
Sammy Davis Jr., as himself, drops by to retrieve a briefcase he left in Archie’s cab. Archie (Carroll O’Connor), of course, shows his bigoted colors, and as a photo is taken, Sammy surprises Archie — who didn’t want to drink from his glass — with a kiss.
“There were some great racial lines in the buildup: Archie talking about, ‘If God had meant us to be together, he’d have put us together,’ and Sammy says, ‘Well, you must have told ’em where we were because somebody came and got us.’ There was no kiss at all in the script. It was Sammy’s idea. He surprised everyone at rehearsal. The writers and I were blown away…. The audience’s reaction to it was huge. They loved it. There was something so lovely in the reaction. As much as it was fun, the audience was making a statement: ‘We can handle this.’”
MAUDE, “MAUDE’S DILEMMA” (1972)
Maude (Bea Arthur), 47 and a grandmother, is shocked to learn that she’s pregnant, and after some soul-searching with husband Walter (Bill Macy), decides to have an abortion.
“We got one of the longest laughs when Maude tells her friend [Rue McClanahan] she’s pregnant. But I can’t think of that episode without the last line of the show: ‘Just tell me, Walter, that I’m doing the right thing, not having the baby.’ And he says — and s—, I tear up every time I think about it — ‘In the privacy of our own lives, you’re doing the right thing.’ I love the way that finished…. The truly interesting thing is nothing really happened when the show aired. But in reruns, the religious right [protested and] laid in front of [CBS founder] Mr. Paley’s car in New York and my car in Los Angeles.”
THE JEFFERSONS, “A FRIEND IN NEED” (1975)
Louise (Isabel Sanford) asks excitable husband George (Sherman Hemsley) why they can’t be more like interracial-couple Tom (Franklin Cover) and Helen (Roxie Roker). His answer? Tom and Helen are too scared to fight. “If you two really ever started going at one another,” George tells Helen, “inside of five minutes, he’d be calling you—” Helen: “Don’t say it!” George: “N—–.”
“That was a great scene, a great moment. They performed it so well. The problem the network had with that was it was so f—ing funny. Why was it funny? Sherman Hemsley. [CBS’ concerns with the scene] were louder and fiercer on paper than they were after they saw it…. It was a word that nobody was saying, and nobody would dare say. And Sherman didn’t dare — he just did it.”
GOOD TIMES, “THE EVANS GET INVOLVED” (1977)
The comedy about a black family in the projects explored issues beyond poverty and race. Lear is proud of the child-abuse story involving 10-year-old neighbor Penny (Janet Jackson, in her first Hollywood gig), and the season 1 plot in which the family urges patriarch James (John Amos) to seek treatment for hypertension.
“Penny talked about how somebody put a hot iron on her shoulder. The network got tons of calls for information about child abuse…. [One time, a writer] came in with a news clipping that said hypertension in black males was way up. It was a great idea for an episode. When it went on, the network got thousands of calls from black families seeking information about hypertension… That’s when I learned a big lesson: My God, these things really matter.”
This article appears in the April 22/29 issue of EW.