40 Years: Remembering 'All In the Family'

Mike Stivik: You know, you are totally incomprehensible.

Archie Bunker: Maybe so, but I make a lot of sense.

In 1972, one year after the premiere of the TV comedy All in the Family (1971-1979) there was a national campaign complete with bumper stickers, buttons and t-shirts to elect the show’s lead character Archie Bunker as President. Very happy about the incredible cash cow Family’s popularity was generating, series creator Norman Lear was nevertheless shocked that that the bigoted right-wing Archie was becoming a working class hero to many Americans. Sammy Davis Junior genuinely liked Archie and asked to be on an episode where he played himself. At one point Sammy joked to the Bunker’s young neighbor Lionel Jefferson (Mike Evans) that his fellow Republican Archie might toast a marshmallow on a burning cross, but Sammy generally seemed to get that Archie was simply misguided and basically decent. (Glossed over was the fact that most racist cross burners in this country have traditionally been Democrats.)

Lear had been inspired to create All in the Family after reading about a British comedy Till Us Death Do Part (1965-1975); the reactionary, anti-socialist father on the English show hit close to home. Growing up Norman had felt his father Herbert had been wrong about practically everything. King Lear had sat in a leather chair on Saturday nights perched in front of the TV, putting down people who weren’t white, calling his wife a dingbat and telling her to “stifle herself”, all biographical elements which were incorporated into the new program. The casting process had been full of twists and turns; at one point Mickey Rooney had been set to play the lead, then had been dismissed after wanting to change the premise to make Archie a Vietnam veteran who was now a detective with a dog. Dublin theater veteran and former New York City public school teacher John Carroll O’Connor replaced the Mick. O’Connor’s stage experience, writing skills, and perhaps general fear of playing such a lighting rod character led him to question nearly every script often driving Lear and his team of writers crazy, though both sides were usually pleased with the finished results.

Damn Yankees actress Jean Stapleton, who had never been a regular in a television series, turned down a chance to be Mike Teavee’s mom in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) to play Archie’s long-suffering but loving wife Edith. When the second pilot episode was filmed in New York City, where people were generally in a hurry, Stapleton came up with the idea that Edith would constantly be running everywhere. As time went on Edith became more nasally sounding, more naïve and loving and was generally considered to be the wisest character on the show. After two initial pairs of young actors failed to click in the pilots, Lear hired the prematurely balding son of his old friend Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, to play the freeloading, disapproving son-in-law Mike, and the highly energetic Sally Struthers, who had formerly worked as a cleaning lady in a movie theater before doing a nude sex scene with Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (1970), to play daughter Gloria.

After a slow start the show found tremendous success in summer reruns; not unexpectedly sudden fame hugely affected the lives of the four principle cast members. O’Connor and Reiner, the two cast members who ironically got on the best in spite of their battling characters, enjoyed giving each other a hammy hug in front of the delighted studio audience before the cameras rolled. Reiner, who resented being called Meathead (a name that Herbert Lear had bestowed on young Norman due to his son’s liberal views), took to taking off his toupee in order to be unrecognized in public. Likewise the always-polite Stapleton asked fans to please call her Jean, not Edith. Never before very political, Stapleton fell under the spell of other Hollywood activists and gave permission for Edith’s image to be used in a feminist magazine.

The fun-loving and kindly Sally Struthers, feeling slightly guilty about her newfound wealth, became greatly involved with children’s charity work. In the ’70s many film producers felt that cinemagoers would not pay to watch TV actors who came into their homes for free; Struthers felt pigeonholed by playing Gloria and expressed great frustration that her contractual obligations to Family were hurting her movie career. And the temperamental O’Connor made no secret of his dislike for Lear, and began to battle the producer for control of the show. For his part Lear became so fed up with his leading man’s contract demands he threatened to kill Archie off and have Edith remarry, before eventually realizing he needed his star and giving O’Connor a big raise.

O’Connor, who was actually more liberal than Reiner, once stated that conservative politicians never did anything for the workingman. Yet he played Archie with utter conviction sometimes, unlike the more detached Stapleton, introducing himself as his character in public. O’Connor delighted in telling Walter Cronkite that Archie thought that the famed newscaster was a “pinko”. Similar to the character he played, the actor could not understand the popularity of the Edith’s bombastic left-wing cousin Maude (Bea Arthur) who was created to be a formidable opponent to Archie. O’Connor was bitter when he got no share of the profits from Family’s spin-offs Maude (1972-1978) and The Jeffersons (1975-1985) and admitted to being envious of Lear’s wealth.

Mike: “I just thank God I’m an atheist.”

Left wing notions were often shot down on All in the Family, sometimes inadvertently. The character of Mike was shown to be a hypocrite who was bitter at losing a teaching job to a black man due to affirmative action. On one episode Mike confessed to Archie that he really had no good ideas on how to solve the world’s problems, he compared being a liberal to witnessing a house burning down; all he could do was call the fire department. In another show Mike became furious to find out that many of his close friends actually resented his patronizing more than Archie’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get-attitude.

Mike: What were you saying about colored families having no love?

Archie: Why is it you can remember everything except how to work?

Through it’s eight-year-run All in the Family ‘s creative people often stooped to lowbrow humor to fill out its quota of weekly episodes. Toilet flushing sounds, heads bumping into cabinets, people side-by-side stuck in doorways and cartoonish overacting by both the main actors and their co-stars turned off some critics and viewers. But audiences willing to hang through the cringe-worthy sequences often were rewarded by poignant moments. There was the time Archie found the right words for his pregnant daughter Gloria to help her get over any ideas of potentially having an abortion. Edith telling Mike that his real reason for resentment towards Archie was the fear that he would never be able to pay his father-in-law back for his generosity. Mike telling a fearful Edith that she needed to support Archie in his quest to buy a bar and become a successful entrepreneur. Gloria realizing that despite her love for Mike, her husband was sometimes the liberal bleating-heart phony that her father said he was.

Mike: In today’s society, people throw things out because they don’t work.

Archie: Well you don’t work; maybe we should throw you out.

As the show wound down to its conclusion the principal actors went their separate ways. Sally Struthers, after not making a big name in movies, came back for the short-lived series Gloria (1982-1983), and had a falling out with O’Connor, who was initially involved with the creative development of the new show, after his handpicked writers were replaced. Rob Reiner, who admitted that his acting on All in the Family may have suffered due to his interest in getting behind the camera, left the show to pursue what for a time was a very successful career in directing. Reiner’s left-wing political activism helped ensure that the Meathead label stuck to him like glue. Stapleton, reasoning that Edith had reached her full potential, decided to only be a part-time player on Family’s spin-off Archie Bunker’s Place (1979-1983). Fearing that non-Edith episodes would compare unfavorably on the new show, O’Connor told Stapleton and Lear it would be best if Edith was killed off. After Jean got over the initial shock, she calmly reminded both Norman Lear and her fans that Edith was merely a fictional character; years later the actress lamented that, unlike O’Connor, she made a bad mistake selling her share of Family’s profits back to the producers.

Mike: That’s what’s wrong with this country; nobody asks questions any more!

Archie: Can I ask *you* a question?

Mike: Sure.

Archie: Why don’t you shut up?

Years after the show went off the air O’Connor’s personal life took a tragic turn when his drug-addicted son Hugh committed suicide at the age of thirty-two. The actor remained defiantly liberal yet stayed a devoted fan of his conservative alter ego. By the time the series concluded Archie’s prejudices had been for the most part written out. The racist who had been created to be wrong about everything was proven to be shrewdly correct in his prediction that the horrible economic policies of Jimmy Carter would lead to the election of Ronald Reagan.

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