‘‘The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It 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.’’
That was the disclaimer that CBS ran prior to the very first episode of All in the Family. The Norman Lear creation didn’t just push the envelope, it sealed and stamped it as well. But viewers kept tuning in week after week to see stories about previously taboo topics, such as menopause, rape, homosexuality, and race relations. Crack open a can of cling peaches (in heavy syrup) and enjoy this smelting pot of behind-the-scenes tidbits.
1. THE SHOW WAS BASED ON A BRITISH SITCOM.
Norman Lear bought the rights to Till Death Do Us Part in the late 1960s after reading about the BBC series, which ran for 10 years beginning in 1965, in Variety. Alf Garnett (Warren Mitchell) was a working-class conservative who lived in London’s East End with his wife, daughter, and liberal layabout Liverpudlian son-in-law. Alf had opinions on just about everything, and was quite vocal in his dislike of Americans, Catholics, homosexuals, and anyone else who was “different” than him.
2. ARCHIE BUNKER WAS ORIGINALLY ARCHIE JUSTICE.
Lear thought that the BBC show’s set-up—a middle-aged, blue collar conservative man who never hesitated to express his racist viewpoints, his doting wife, and his liberal daughter and son-in-law—could be mined for humor for American audiences. Justice for All, as the show was called in his original pilot script, starred Carroll O’Connor as Archie Justice and Jean Stapleton as his wife, Edith. Kelly Jean Peters and Tim McIntire rounded out the cast as Gloria and Richard (Meathead’s original name). ABC passed on the show, however; their main complaint being Archie and Edith’s lack of chemistry with the younger actors. Lear recast the roles with Candy Azzara and Chip Oliver, changed the name of the show to Those Were the Days and shot a new pilot, but ABC was still uninterested.
3. CBS’S “RURAL PURGE” HELPED ALL IN THE FAMILY TO FINALLY GET ON THE AIR.
When Robert Wood became president of CBS in 1969 he made a bold move and cancelled several of the network’s long-running (and still-successful) “rural” shows, including Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Mayberry R.F.D. The latest market research showed that advertisers were attracted to a younger demographic, which to Wood meant less corn pone and more cutting-edge and socially relevant shows. Norman Lear’s revamped pilot—now called All in the Family and co-starring Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner as Gloria and Michael Stivic—was deemed relevant enough and premiered on the network in 1971 as a summer replacement series.
4. MUCH OF ARCHIE BUNKER WAS BASED ON NORMAN LEAR’S FATHER.
Herman Lear frequently told his son that he was the “laziest white kid I’ve ever seen” and called him “Meathead.” He also referred to his wife as a “Dingbat” and told her to “stifle.” (In an affectionate way, of course.) “King” Lear, as he was known to his family, also had a living room chair reserved for his use only. And the reason that the characters on not only All in the Family, but all other Norman Lear productions, seemed to be constantly shouting is because the entire Lear family always seemed to speak at top volume.
5. MICKEY ROONEY TURNED DOWN THE ROLE OF ARCHIE.
When Norman Lear pitched the series to Rooney, he only got as far as describing Archie as “a bigot who uses words like ‘spade’” before Mickey interrupted him. “Norm,” said the actor with a penchant for shortening names, “they’re going to kill you, shoot you dead in the streets.” Carroll O’Connor read for the role after Rooney’s refusal and had landed the part by the time he got to page three of the pilot script. But even he was dubious about the show and told Lear that CBS would cancel it after six weeks tops.
6. THE FUTURE MRS. REINER ALMOST PLAYED MRS. STIVIC.
Rob Reiner’s girlfriend (and eventual wife) Penny Marshall was a finalist for the role of Gloria. She and Sally Struthers were each summoned before the “suits” to read lines and do improv with Reiner (who had already been cast as Michael Stivic). Since Reiner and Marshall were living together at the time, Struthers had a feeling that Reiner would intentionally work better with Penny, so she went into the final audition without nerves and just gave it her all. Years later she asked Lear why she’d been chosen, and the producer told her that Penny Marshall had given a better reading, but that she resembled Jean Stapleton too much. He explained that it had been decided that Gloria would be Daddy’s Little Girl, so (with brutal honesty) she’d gotten the part because she had “a fat face and blue eyes like Carroll O’Connor.”
7. CBS WANTED “EDGY,” BUT WITHIN REASON.
While the scripts for the 13 contracted episodes were being written, Lear received a memo from the CBS Program Practices department detailing the words and phrases that should be avoided at all costs (based on their focus group research). For example, the network requested that homosexual terminology should be kept to a minimum—that “queer” and “fairy” should be used sparingly, and “regular fella” was preferable to “straight.” Lear’s response to these admonishments was to ignore them, as can be witnessed in the fifth episode of the first season, “Judging Books by Covers”:
Of course, the payoff came in the twist ending to this episode, when it was revealed that not only was Roger a “regular fella,” but that Archie’s burly former professional football player friend Steve was not.
8. THE EXPECTED VIEWER BACKLASH NEVER MATERIALIZED.
Despite the disclaimer posted prior to the first episode, CBS still braced for the worst the night All in the Family premiered. They hired dozens of extra operators at the network’s switchboard to handle the barrage of outraged telephone calls they were sure would follow. Much to their surprise, only a handful of viewers were offended enough to call. Indeed, as the series continued, network executives (and the show’s creative team) were shocked to find that contrary to their original intent, Americans seemed to embrace Archie Bunker rather than be repulsed by him. “Archie Bunker for President” bumper stickers and campaign buttons were all the rage, and a paperback called The Wit and Wisdom of Archie Bunker became a bestseller.
9. THEY DID RECEIVE A LOT OF CALLS AND MAIL ABOUT THE THEME SONG, THOUGH.
Viewers asked the same question over and over during the show’s first two seasons: What is the second to last line of the opening theme song? Folks had so much trouble understanding “Gee, our old LaSalle ran great” that O’Connor and Stapleton re-recorded it prior to season three and carefully enunciated the mystery lyric. (The LaSalle was a high-end General Motors model that was manufactured from 1927 until 1940.)
10. CARROLL O’CONNOR WROTE THE LYRICS FOR THE CLOSING THEME SONG.
Roger Kellaway wrote the instrumental “Remembering You,” which played over the closing credits of All in the Family. After the first season ended, O’Connor approached Kellaway and asked if he’d mind if he (O’Connor) wrote some lyrics to go with his music. Kellaway agreed, and even though the lyrics are never heard, O’Connor received a co-writing credit—and royalties—for the tune. In case you’re curious about the lyrics, here’s O’Connor performing the song on The Flip Wilson Show:
11. FOUR ARCHIE-LESS EPISODES WERE TAPED DURING A SALARY DISPUTE.
O’Connor went missing in action for three weeks in July of 1974 in a protest over his wages and working conditions. He claimed that Tandem Productions owed him $64,000 in back pay and he also wanted 12 weeks of vacation during his 24-week work schedule. Norman Lear countered by filming three Archie-less episodes (beginning with “Where’s Archie?” in season five) and made it known on the set that if O’Connor continued to hold out, the Archie character would be killed in some sort of accident, and that Stretch Cunningham (James Cromwell) would eventually move in with the Bunkers to provide a male foil for the family. Stretch “died” two seasons later; Cromwell told the New York Post that O’Connor had asked for him to be written out of the series “because I was getting too many laughs. Actually, he did me a great favor, because I might have ended up as another Fonzie, an actor totally identified with one character.”
12. SALLY STRUTHERS ALSO HAD CONTRACT ISSUES.
Struthers was itching to work in films and had scored an audition for the lead in the 1975 John Schlesinger film The Day of the Locust. But when All in the Family producers refused to give her time off if she landed the role, she took them to court. Tandem Productions countered by enforcing a provision in her contract that prevented her from appearing as an actress or celebrity anywhere other than on All in the Family. Karen Black eventually won the part in The Day of the Locust, and Gloria was absent from two episodes (“Archie the Hero” and “Archie the Donor”) while the whole kerfuffle was settled.
13. THE SHOW ONCE FEATURED FULL FRONTAL MALE NUDITY.
All in the Family shattered another taboo in 1976 when full frontal male nudity was shown for the first time on American network primetime television. Of course, the male in question was three-week old baby Joey Stivic, and the nudity was both tastefully filmed and germane to the plot. Later that same year, Ideal released an official Archie Bunker’s Grandson Joey Stivic doll that was “physically correct.”
14. THE FAMOUS “SOCK AND SHOE” DEBATE WAS BASED ON A REAL-LIFE INCIDENT.
Reiner stated in an interview that O’Connor happened to drop by his dressing room one day while he was getting dressed. Reiner’s habit is to put a sock and a shoe on one foot before dressing the other foot. O’Connor was nonplussed and proceeded to lecture Reiner on the “correct” way to don footwear. Reiner related the incident to the writers, who included it in a scene in “Gloria Sings the Blues."
15. SAMMY DAVIS JR. CAUSED THE LONGEST LAUGH RECORDED ON THE SERIES.
O’Connor and Sammy Davis Jr. were good friends in real life, and All in the Family was Davis’ favorite TV show. So at his request, a guest spot was arranged for him in season two’s “Sammy’s Visit.” The kiss at the end was O’Connor’s idea, and the audience reaction was the loudest and longest laugh in the history of the series.
16. EDITH DID NOT DIE ON THE SHOW.
Many viewers seem to recall an episode of All in the Family where Edith had passed away and was being mourned, but it never happened. The poignant scene where Archie wept while holding Edith’s pink slipper and asked how she could leave him happened in the first episode of the second season of Archie Bunker’s Place, the All in the Family spin-off series.
Even This I Get to Experience, by Norman Lear
Archie & Edith, Mike & Gloria: The Tumultuous History of All in the Family, by Donna McCrohan
Norman Lear Interview, The Archive of American Television
Carroll O'Connor Interview, The Archive of American Television
Jean Stapleton Interview, The Archive of American Television
Rob Reiner Interview, The Archive of American Television
"The Great Divide," The New Yorker
"The Many Beginnings of All in the Family," Splitsider
Nashua Telegraph, October 25, 1974
Sioux City Journal, February 11, 2014
Toledo Blade, June 12, 1975