Colgate Comedy Hour, 1950
“Bringing joy to people is what it’s all about,” prolific writer and producer Norman Lear told PEOPLE days before his 100th birthday on July 27. “My awards and accolades mean a great deal to me, but they don’t mean as much as the drive to the studio today. I still explode with joy, excitement, interest and utter delight every time.”
That’s always been clear in Lear’s work, which began in the 1950s with his “big break,” as he called it, writing for the Colgate Comedy Hour.
The Martha Raye Show, 1954
“I adored [Martha Raye],” Lear recalled of the variety show, another of his earliest projects, in an interview with the Television Academy. “She … could just explode and go off script.”
All in the Family, 1971
“It’s been incredible to celebrate it every day,” Lear told PEOPLE of All in the Family, the 1971 to 1979 sitcom he created starring Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers, Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton. “I don’t remember what I saw in my imagination when I wrote it, but when O’Connor sat down and read a page, holy moly.” The show scored 22 Emmys, including a 1971 Outstanding Comedy Series win for Lear.
Sanford and Son, 1972
As junkman Fred G. Sanford, “Redd Foxx (right, with Demond Wilson) entertained me in a way that I know added time to my life,” said Lear, who developed Sanford and Son, which aired on NBC for six seasons from 1972 to 1977.
“It was the start of the women’s movement, and casting a strong woman in a leading role seemed like such a fresh and much-needed idea,” says Lear, who created Maude (1972 to 1978) with Bud Yorkin. “Bea Arthur brought all of that to life.”
Good Times, 1974
the Maude spinoff (1974 to 1980) was TV’s first Black two-parent family sitcom and starred Bern Nadette Stanis, Esther Rolle, Jimmie Walker, Ralph Carter and John Amos. Lear and business partner Brent Miller are working on an animated reboot for Netflix.
One Day at a Time, 1975
The original sitcom aired on CBS from 1975 to 1984 and starred Bonnie Franklin as a divorced mother raising two teenage daughters (Valerie Bertinelli and Mackenzie Phillips). Pat Harrington Jr. played their building superintendent Dwayne Schneider.
The Jeffersons, 1975
“While we were creating the show, three members of the Black Panthers came to my office to complain about the ‘garbage’ they were seeing on TV,” recalled Lear. “They were upset about Blacks only being portrayed as poor or as maids. We always wanted my shows to reflect America, like showing a well-off Black family.”
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, 1976
“We made two episodes [as pilots], we financed it ourselves,” Lear recalled of the soap opera satire in an interview with the Television Academy. “We couldn’t sell it. From something salesmen were telling us, they thought it was too off-the-wall, so I had the notion that if we invited people to see that I’m a sensible, sane person and I’ve got kids and a family, coming from not some off-the-wall character, they might wish to buy. So we devised an evening and invited the [syndicated station] buyers to a dinner at my home on a warm spring evening. My daughters and my wife were the hostesses. It was a terrific evening. And the next morning they were going to look at another presentation … Now they were looking at the product of a family guy, and not a lunatic! And [one of the men] stood up and said, ‘I want this show.’ And that started a bandwagon.”
A remake is in the works with Emily Hampshire as the star.
Archie Bunker’s Place, 1979
In a 2016 Sundance Q&A with Lena Dunham, Lear said he actually didn’t want to do the All in the Family spin-off, which ran for four seasons on CBS.
“I prevented it from happening for some months,” Lear recalled. “The only way it got on was when [network owner William Paley] called me to his office and had four or five pages of names of people who would be out of work if the show didn’t go on. And so the show went on.”
Lear said it was star Carroll O’Connor, Archie himself, who pushed hard for the series, too, though Lear called him “difficult” despite his acting talents and the fact he “worshipped the ground he walked on.”
“He didn’t understand the character the way I felt I wished him to be, and he was the character,” Lear continued. “God, that’s all so interesting and complicated.”
The Facts of Life, 1979
the Diff’rent Strokes spinoff centered on Charlotte Rae’s Edna Garrett, who runs an all-girls boarding school and handles the ups and downs that come with it, specifically with four students played by Nancy McKeon, Mindy Cohn, Lisa Whelchel and Kim Fields. (Plus the occasional appearance from a young George Clooney!)
“The fact that Charlotte Rae was in our lives, and was as talented and funny as she was, was a big part of creating the show,” Lear — whose production company handled both Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life — told Vulture in 2021.
Silver Spoons, 1982
The sitcom about a rich businessman who finds out he has a young son (’80s icon Ricky Schroder, right, with Jason Bateman) didn’t touch on issues of social justice the way many of Lear’s other shows did, though was a commercial success .
Writer Christine Houston came to the attention of Lear after she won a play-writing contest in his name with 227, a story of women living together in Chicago in the 1950s. Lear took Houston under his wing and eventually actress Marla Gibbs found the script, starring in a series that moved the story to modern-day Washington, DC Lear served as executive producer, and Houston ultimately won an NAACP Image Award.
America Divided, 2016
In 2016, Lear teamed up with Shonda Rhimes and Common to produce the EPIX Original docu-series, America Divided, which examined “narratives around inequality in education, housing, healthcare, labor, criminal justice and the political system,” according to the series’ website.
In his 2021 interview with Vulture, Lear said, “the country needs a lot of help. I’m not worried about it where I am concerned, at my age, but when I think about my kids and grandkids and their kids to come? ”
He continued, “We need leadership that helps the American people understand what’s at stake and what is possible and how tender our democracy is. There’s nothing more important than helping the American people understand how important their vote is.”
One Day at a Time (Reboot), 2017
“We brought to the screen real loving families living the same lives as millions of others,” Lear said of the original and the reboot, which centered on a Latino family and ran for four seasons on Netflix, from 2017 to 2020.