By Eric Levenson and Brian Lowry, CNN
(CNN) — Famed television producer Norman Lear, whose wildly successful TV sitcoms including “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” fused comedy with trenchant social commentary and dominated network ratings in the 1970s, died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles, his family announced on his website. He was 101.
“Norman lived a life of curiosity, tenacity, and empathy. He deeply loved our country and spent a lifetime helping to preserve its founding ideals of justice and equality for all,” his family said. “He began his career in the earliest days of live television and discovered a passion for writing about the real lives of Americans, not a glossy ideal. At first, his ideas were met with closed doors and misunderstanding. However, he stuck to his conviction that the ‘foolishness of the human condition’ made great television, and eventually he was heard.”
Beginning with “All in the Family” in 1971, Lear’s shows tackled fraught topics of racism, feminism and social inequalities that no one had yet dared touch. The show – which won the Emmy for Outstanding New Series – focused on the white working class Bunker family and its small-minded, irascible, prejudiced and oddly likable patriarch Archie Bunker.
Director Rob Reiner, who played Bunker’s politically polar opposite son-in-law Michael “Meathead” Stivic on the sitcom, paid tribute to Lear on social media on Wednesday.
“I loved Norman Lear with all my heart. He was my second father. Sending my love to Lyn and the whole Lear family,” Reiner shared in a statement.
“All in the Family” spurred a series of similarly popular and political spinoffs, including “Sanford and Son,” “Maude,” and “Good Times.”
In his 2014 memoir, “Even This I Get to Experience,” Lear attributed the success of his series to stories drawn from the real experiences of his writers that lent to the authenticity of the characters they developed.
“The audiences themselves taught me that you can get some wonderful laughs on the surface with funny performers and good jokes,” he wrote, “But if you want them laughing from the belly, you stand a better chance if you can get them caring first.”
He was executive producer of the cult movie classics “The Princess Bride” and “Fried Green Tomatoes” and was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay for “Divorce American Style.” His political advocacy led to the establishment of the liberal political organization People for the American Way.
The popularity of his shows and his subsequent outspoken liberal views, which he pursued both with his public advocacy and his considerable wealth, made him a target of those on the political right. That included a spot on President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list,” a badge which he wore proudly; and being labeled the “No. 1 enemy of the American family” by Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell.
In a 2016 documentary about Lear’s life and career, “Everybody Loves Raymond” creator Phil Rosenthal said, “Television can be broken into two parts, BN and AN: Before Norman and After Norman.” Lear later participated in another documentary from his friend and then-fellow nonagenarian Carl Reiner titled “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.”
Even in his 90s, Lear kept working. Along with Jimmy Kimmel, a 95-year-old Lear produced and hosted three episodes of “Live in Front of a Studio Audience,” which won Primetime Emmy Awards in 2019 and 2020. The series used current stars like Jamie Fox, Woody Harrelson and Viola Davis to re-create original episodes of “The Jeffersons,” “All in the Family” and “Good Times.”
Lear lived long enough to become not only an elder statesman of the entertainment industry but to receive accolades that spanned generations, being presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in 1999, getting inducted into the Kennedy Center at its annual honors in 2017 and becoming the oldest nominee and winner of an Emmy, at 97, in 2019, then breaking his own record in 2020.
“I like getting up in the morning with something on my mind, something I can work on … to some conclusion,” Lear said.
He married three times, most recently to wife Lyn in 1987, having six children in all, with a 47-year age gap between the oldest and youngest.
In a 2020 interview with CNN, Lear reflected on the continuing relevance of the politically conscious comedy he pioneered. He also joked about the continuing reluctance of networks to deal with hot-button issues.
“It’s a new set of executives, [but] the same old buildings,” he quipped. “They are reincarnated.”
But Lear did take issue with the description of his shows as “edgy,” either then or now.
“Edgy is what others wrote about it, but I never thought it was edgy,” he said. “We were simply dealing with the problems that existed in our culture.”
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CNN’s Sandee LaMotte contributed to this report.