Ask any television critic what was the most important sitcom of the 1970’s and you’ll most likely hear “All In The Family.” This classic television show used the story of an average American household as a mirror to reflect all the social changes going on in the country at the time. It also brought a new level of reality to the sitcom, dealing with difficult issues and depicting the language and attitudes of the average joe with an honest (but affectionate) sense of realism. The result was a show that inspired devotion and controversy in equal measure as it became one of the greatest television successes of the 1970’s. In point of fact it’s origins lay in an equally controversial UK 1960’s show Til Death Us Do Part.
All In The Family focused on the blue-collar household of one Archie Bunker, the dock foreman for the Prendergast Tool and Die Company. The household was maintained by Archie’s ditzy but sweet wife Edith, who always had her hands full dealing with her cantankerous hubby. Rounding out the household were Gloria, Archie’s sweet-natured daughter who often raised her father’s ire with her free-thinking ways, and Michael “Meathead” Stivic, Gloria’s impassioned liberal beau. “Meathead” was studying for a sociology degree and frequently ended up in heated debates with Archie over their wildly-different views.
This household presented an impressive collection of distinctive characters, but Archie was definitely the standout of the group, despicable and lovable all at once. This ultra-conservative man was full of prejudiced opinions on every issue and took great pride in having an insult for every ethnic type. His saving grace was that he expressed himself in a way that was often hysterically funny. For example, a frequent highlight of the show was Archie’s never-ending verbal duels with Michael, whom he dubbed “Meathead” because of his left-of-center opinions. Michael also happened to be Polish, so Archie took no end of joy in skewering Michael with jabs about his heritage.
Much to Archie’s consternation, the world around him was full of people who were just as opinionated (and ethnic) as “Meathead.” A prime example was the Jeffersons, his African-American neighbors. George Jefferson ran a dry-cleaning store, his wife Louise was a good friend to Edith, and their son Lionel was a good friend of Michael’s. Lionel took his own cruel pleasure in teasing Archie about his bigoted opinions, making for plenty of entertaining comedy. There was also Maude Findlay, Edith’s progressive-minded cousin who enjoyed taking Archie to task for his sexist attitudes. These characters eventually became so popular with audiences they earned their own shows, The Jeffersons and Maude.
All In The Family presented a heady brew of sensitive comedic topics, many of which had never been dealt with on television before. Television executives feared that the show’s issue-oriented content and often-raw language would turn viewers off, not to mention realistic yet humorous touches like Archie loudly flushing his toilet for everyone in the house to hear (a television first). Much to the surprise of everyone involved, audiences immediately took the Bunker household to heart and made the show an out-of-the-box hit. Ironically enough, the character of Archie became a hero to many average joes who admired Archie’s ability to speak his mind.
It’s easy to understand why Archie inspired such devotion: Carroll O’Connor made this potentially detestable character an audience favorite by adding humor and humanity to flesh the character out. Archie may have been incorrigible in his attitudes, but he worked hard, took care of his family, and could be relied on to do the right thing when the chips were down. His rough edges were also softened by the presence of Jean Stapleton, who rounded out the character of Edith by balancing her good nature with hidden reserves of strength and intelligence. The performances of these two great characters helped make Archie and Edith one of television’s most unforgettable (and beloved) couples.
By the mid-1970’s, All In The Family had progressed from popular show to American institution. The show’s writers and producers took advantage of this and used the show’s clout to take on difficult issues in the story’s plots. Over the years, All In The Family would tackle such sensitive topics as women’s lib, menopause, interracial romances, atheism, impotence, wife swapping and drug addiction in addition to Archie’s standard repertoire of racism and sexism.
A prime example of the show’s fearlessness in tackling tough subjects was “Edith’s 50th Birthday,” an unforgettable episode that handled the taboo subject of rape in a scenario where Edith was nearly raped by a man posing as a police detective. Legend has it that when Edith overpowered her attacker and ran to get help, the entire studio audience rose to their feet to cheer on her triumph. This wild response from the audience shows exactly why audiences could cope handle the unconventional topics the show dealt with: they truly cared about the show’s characters. Because the audience was so crazy about the Bunkers, they could deal with a topic they wouldn’t normally discuss amongst themselves if it were acted out in the exploits of these characters.
The show’s willingness to deal with these topics led to plenty of faithful fans who tuned in every week what the show’s latest controversial topic would be. One of these fans was Sammy Davis, Jr., who made a memorable appearance as himself in the episode “Sammy’s Visit.” After a lengthy verbal duel with Archie, Sammy ended his visit by planting a kiss on a completely flummoxed Archie.
All In The Family’s unprecedented success also made a star of its creator, Norman Lear. As the 1970’s continued, Lear built on the power of All In The Family to develop an impressive dynasty of sitcoms that included such influential shows as Maude, Sanford And Son, The Jeffersons, One Day At A Time and Good Times. Like All In The Family, each of these shows presented audiences with Lear’s trademark combination of wit, warmth and social conscience.
All In The Family continued to be a success throughout the remainder of the 1970’s, surviving even the departure of Michael and Gloria in the 1977-78 season. This led to “The Stivics Go West,” a tearful farewell episode where Michael put aside his differences with Archie to emotionally admit how much he truly admired him. To compensate for the loss of this duo, the producers soon added Stephanie, a niece who was dropped off at the Bunker’s for a permanent visit by her deadbeat dad. The Bunkers adopted Stephanie, thus providing a convenient solution to their “empty nest” situation.
In 1979, the producers of All In The Family decided to retire the show in favor of a new spin-off entitled Archie Bunker’s Place. This show went on to enjoy a successful run of four years, but it never replaced the original show in the hearts of its fans. Even today, All In The Family continues to be avidly watched by fans all over the world in syndication. Critics and historians also continue to appreciate the show, both as a time capsule of a tumultuous era and as a collection of some of the finest writing and performances to ever grace television. For these reason and many more, All In The Family will always be a special show to television fanatics everywhere.
On 16 Feb 1991 there was a 90 minute CBS special called All in the Family 20th Anniversary special. The show was never shy of tackling issues such as abortion, homosexuality and so on, in fact Archie had something to say about most things.
Catchphrases included “Still Yourself”, “Dingbat” and “Meathead”. Lear made a pilot for the ABC called Those Were The Days but they passed on the show only for CBS to take up the option and see it become a runaway hit.
Theme tune lyrics…
“Boy, the way Glen Miller played,
Songs that made the Hit Parade,
Guys like us we had it made,
Those were the days…”
“Didn’t need no welfare state,
Everybody pulled his weight,
Gee, our old LaSalle ran great,
Those were the days…”
USA / CBS – Tandem / 196×30 minute episodes 5×60 minute episodes 1×90 minute episodes / Broadcast 1971-1979
Creator: Johnny Speight / Executive Producer: Norman Lear, Bud Yorkin, Mort Lachman / Producer: Milt Josefberg
CARROLL O’CONNOR as Archie Bunker
JEAN STAPLETON as Edith Bunker
ROB REINER as Michael Stivic
SALLY STRUTHERS as Gloria Bunker Stivic
ISABEL SANFORD as Louise Jefferson (1971-75)
MIKE EVANS as Lionel Jefferson (1971-75)
MEL STEWART as Henry Jefferson (1971-73)
SHERMAN HEMSLEY as George Jefferson (1973-75)
DANIELLE BRISEBOIS as Stephanie Mills (1978-79)
ALLAN MELVIN as Barney Hefner (1973-79)