We are all Archie Bunker- how one tv character exposed America in all its contradictions.
The 1960's were one of the most turbulent and consequential decades in American history, but you'd never know it from the pop culture of the time. That all changed in 1971 with the rural purge of 1971, when popular television shows were cancelled en masse to make room for a new set of stories. Gone were shows like Bonanza, Lassie, Mayberry RFD, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and more, all set in an idyllic America that no longer existed. In came a brash new show, All in the Family, set in blue collar New York and ready to break taboos and air dirty laundry.
I recently did a month-long binge of All in the Family, 50 years after it first hit the scene, and it seems quaint by today's standards, but the story is eerily the same as the one we face now- conservative white people facing off against threats to their world as they know it, and those who see things differently trying to create a new, more inclusive and diverse reality. Archie Bunker, star of All in the Family, became one of the best known television characters of all time, and his "Bunkerisms" showcased his smugness and vulnerability at the same time.
"Somebody's Gotta Be Dead, That's Life"
"Entertainment’s A Thing Of The Past, Now We Got Television”
"God Can Do Anything! He Can Turn Your Jawbone Into An Ass!”
"The Lord Might Be Smilin' On The Sheeps, But They Still Wind Up As Lambchops"
“Anybody that goes to see a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined!”
“I ain't no bigot. I'm the first guy to say, 'It ain't your fault that youse are colored.'”
“Archie: I think that if God had meant us to be together, He'd have put us together. But look what He done. He put you over in Africa, and He put the rest of us in all the white countries.
Sammy Davis Jr.: Well, you must have told him where we were, 'cause somebody came and got us.”
All in the Family was inspired by a British situation comedy, Till Death Do Us Part, centered around a similar blue-collar family. Norman Lear used that inspiration to create the show, along with his own childhood experiences with his conservative father. Iconic AITF phrases like meathead, dingbat, and stifle yourself came from Lear's father. The show nearly didn't get off the ground, requiring four pilot episodes before a network would commit to produce it. The first two pilots, made for the ABC network and titled And Justice For All, were deemed too controversial and didn't get picked up. They included Carroll O'Connor as Archie but two sets of replaceable actors as Mike and Gloria who would eventually be recast.
CBS eventually picked up the show and made a third pilot episode, with the final cast, and had to make a second episode before it got the go-ahead for an entire 13 season episode run. Lear was warned that the show would never succeed because of its casual use of offensive ethnic epithets and its willingness to explore previously avoided topics like sex, war, gender, and racism. The premier episode was prefaced by an almost unheard of warning, “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.”
All in the Family almost got cancelled after its first year due to the controversy and mediocre ratings. But over the summer during rerun season the show took off and CBS renewed it at the last minute. The rest is history as the show ran nine full seasons and spawned a record seven spin-off shows including Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Gloria, and Archie Bunker's Place. (Roseanne Barr also credited the show as the inspiration for her blue collar sitcom- Roseanne.) The show was nominated for 55 Emmy awards and won 22 times, including all four main cast members. It dominated its time slot in the ratings for most of the 70's while changing the face of television from the kindly souls like Andy Griffith and Gilligan to more complex and opinionated characters like Archie and Edith Bunker.
The cast was small and intimate, with most episodes revolving around the Bunker family, including:
Patriarch Archie Bunker, a working-class loading dock foreman with a big mouth and strident conservative views during a time of rapid changes. Played by Carroll O'Connor, Lear tried to get Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney, and Gavin McLeod to play the role first, and all turned it down because of the controversial nature of the show. As the star, O'Connor pulled his weight with a famous contract dispute where he failed to show up for three episodes and risked having his character killed off. But he won the dispute and the show kept going.
His wife, Edith Bunker was played by Jean Stapleton, and she was the soul of the show, moderating Archie's worst instincts and convincing him to be more open-minded and civil. Stapleton was an accomplished singer, but changed her voice for the show to its iconic off-key and loud version. Edith was portrayed as a bit dim witted, but she eventually figured things out and knew her husband better than anybody. Her character evolved as the show kept going, becoming more independent and willing to stand up for herself.
Their daughter Gloria was played by Sally Struthers, and she was given the least to do in most of the plots besides stand by her husband and contradict her sexist father. Struthers was unhappy with her character, most of whose lines were written by old men, and she tried to fight her contract, only to end up the only character to follow Archie to the bitter end, with her own spin-off show, Gloria.
Gloria's husband, Mike Stivic, was a Polish-American liberal college student and the main foil for Archie during the first few seasons. He was played by Rob Reiner, son of comedy legend Carl Reiner. At the time Reiner was married to Penny Marshall (Laverne of Laverne and Shirley), and at one time she was considered for the role of Gloria. For some reason, Archie and Edith agreed to let Mike and Gloria live with them while he was in college, and this provided ample opportunity for him to butt heads with Archie over many of the debates of the time.
After watching parts of all nine seasons, it appeared to me that there were three distinct segments of All in the Family that almost qualify as different shows.
The first segment, covering the first four seasons, focused heavily on the conflicts between Archie and his many comic foils. There was his son-in-law, Mike, a liberal academic who took on Archie over many topics from guns to war to race. There was Edith's cousin Maude, played by Bea Arthur, a strong woman character, who took on Archie over sex and gender issues. Then there was George Jefferson, (played by Sherman Hemsley) and his son Lionel, black neighbors of the Bunkers who poked fun at his smug bigotry while exposing some of their own.
A typical plot in this period revolved around something that Archie said or did, and his eventual and unavoidable crash and burn as his assumptions turn out wrong. While Archie was a die-hard conservative in every way, the man who played him, Carroll O'Connor was a devout liberal, as was Norman Lear and most of the cast and writers of the show. You can tell how they set up Archie to be wrong most of the time while poking fun at his ignorance and wrong assumptions about people. But somehow, conservatives loved the show too as it seemed to validate many of their viewpoints and show how a strong, hard-working white man could hold his own against a pack of liberals.
The second period, which covers the second four seasons, cuts back on some of the political drama as Maude and George Jefferson went off to get their own shows. Mike and Gloria are less strident, and are struggling with marriage problems, having a baby, and job issues just like everybody else. It's during this period that Archie's more complex side comes out, as he struggles with declining health, unemployment worries, mental health and substance abuse, and impending death. Edith faces an attempted rape. Archie flirts with another woman and considers an affair. Edith gives up on God after a beloved transvestite friend is beaten to death. And Archie risks it all by buying a nearby bar and forging Edith's signature on the loan papers.
The eighth season, when most shows are running low on stories, might be the best one, as all of the plot-lines of this period come to a dramatic and funny head. When Mike and Gloria move to California to follow a new job, Archie and Mike reconcile in a moving episode that shows how much they've meant to each other all the time. True to his character, Archie can't come out and show emotions or say how he feels, but his face speaks volumes as his world changes one more time beyond his control. Season eight was meant to the the final season, but CBS had different ideas.
The third segment is the weakest, and it includes the final season of the show plus the four seasons of its successor, Archie Bunker's Place. While episodes of the latter are very hard to find, the reviews of that show pale in comparison to those of AITF. Mike and Gloria left at the end of season eight in what was a perfect finale, and Edith became less central, eventually dying off in season two of ABP. Jean Stapleton had had enough, and the show became a showcase for O'Connor to become surrounded by a new cast of characters, including his grand-niece Stephanie, a cute little girl that's usually a sign of a sitcom's demise. (Google Cousin Oliver syndrome for more.)
Archie Bunker's place had decent ratings, but won no Emmys and as the 80's rolled on Archie's takes on everything weren't as shocking as they once were. Ronald Reagan was president and America had retrenched into a more conservative and less confrontational time.
The most lasting thing from this show may end up being the two chairs used by Archie and Edith that sat at the center of their iconic living room. The chairs were obtained from a second-hand store when the show began and eventually donated to the Smithsonian, where they can be seen today. They were donated after the end of season eight, so for season nine new chairs had to be reconstructed to look identical, costing much more than the originals ever had.
Looking back over fifty years later, All In The Family still seems revolutionary, especially since most of the arguments that appeared on the show are still with us today. We still have racism, antisemitism, sexism, war, and economic insecurity. Though there has clearly been some progress on these issues, but we have a long way to go. In today's toxic political culture the discussions shown on this show would never happen. Archie would not only be a Trump voter, but he would have never agreed to let Mike and Gloria live with him, and Gloria most likely would have cut off contact with him completely.
The sad fact is that all of these arguments will be with us forever and will never be completely resolved. Archie Bunker had some mean-spirited, bigoted views that many still harbor today, even if in secret. Those views may seem justified to those that hold them, but can only be moderated and expanded through contact with others who don't neatly fit into the little world that creates them. In a way, we are all Archie Bunkers, but we just don't realize all of our faulty assumptions, as we build impenetrable walls that make it nearly impossible for other viewpoints to break through.
We need more shows like this to expose the debate, humanize its elements, and come to a better understanding of how we got here and how we can all get along for the future.
Below you will see two clips- one from the first season and the emotional farewell of season eight. I wish all families could stick together and evolve like this one did.