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'All in the Family' is 50 years old. A new book looks at how it changed TV

Updated November 2, 2021 at 12:43 PM ET

It would seem unthinkable by today's standards: the most popular character on television was a blue-collar bigot from Queens, New York — who, despite his prejudices, was often considered lovable at the same time.

But that was the case for much of the 1970s with the character Archie Bunker on All in the Family, which debuted in 1971. For five years, it was the most-watched show on television.

The show was groundbreaking for openly talking about serious issues of the day. While other shows featured surface-level plots, All in the Family's storylines often involved deeper discussions of racism, women's rights, the Vietnam War, homosexuality, rape and more.

"I had a father who was a bit of an Archie Bunker," says Norman Lear, who created the show. Lear says his father would use racist terms for Chinese people and Black people. "He was, in my mind, a long way to what became Archie Bunker."

Actor Carroll O'Connor played Bunker for 13 seasons, the first nine on All in the Family and then another four years in the spinoff, Archie Bunker's Place.

Lear tells Morning Edition that dozens of actors interviewed for the part. When O'Connor walked in, "we sit at this little table and he reads. You know I wish I could express — my entire body felt, 'Oh my god. This is Archie.' "

Writer Jim Colucci put together the new book All in the Family: The Show that Changed Television, which features interviews with cast and crew members, including Lear's memories of certain episodes.

Colucci says that despite producers writing the main character the way they did, the actual atmosphere on set was that of respect, based on what guest stars on the show told him.

"Even people who just came in for an episode or two or three remarked about how collaborative the show was," he says. "And it would often be actors who themselves were people of color or LGBT. And they said, 'As an African American, I normally play these roles that are either really small or the dialogue is written in a way that white people think that Black people speak.' Here they said, 'We came in and we got to do something authentic and funny.' And so I think that it was a combination of, back then, they knew how collaborative it was, and they knew how, even then, how groundbreaking it was."

The evolution of Edith Bunker

Jean Stapleton and Carroll O'Connor, pictured at the 1972 Emmys, played Edith and Archie Bunker. Stapleton's character evolved throughout the show.
David F. Smith / AP
Jean Stapleton and Carroll O'Connor, pictured at the 1972 Emmys, played Edith and Archie Bunker. Stapleton's character evolved throughout the show.

Jean Stapleton played Archie's wife, Edith Bunker. The character evolved from a meek housewife to a woman who became a symbol of the feminist movement at the time.

"She was developed to respond to any situation in life the way the most decent good person, the way the most Jesus-like, if you will, person would respond," Lear says. "It was absolutely wonderful the talent Jean Stapleton brought to that character."

Colucci thinks that taking on the role led Stapleton to changes in her own life.

"She was from the Christian Science background, so she had a religious background that was very specific. And I think that she herself had a very quiet life in Pennsylvania in the theater. And I think only through exposure to All in the Family and the wider world of Hollywood did she become awakened to some of the women's issues that were happening in her time and really grew as a person."

In the 50 years since All in the Family's debut, countless TV shows have pushed boundaries with their own delves into controversial and complex topics. Lear still thinks there's more room to go deeper on religion.

"There is a lot that can be done with conversations that include belief and our lives from a spiritual standpoint," he says.

Lear is now 99 years old. All in the Family was just one of the scores of beloved TV shows he's produced, written, developed or created. His advice, though, isn't to spend a long time looking back on things in the past.

"Two little words we don't pay enough attention to: over and next," he says. "When something is over, it is over and we are on to next. And I like to think about the hammock in the middle of those two words. That's living in the moment. That's the moment I believe I'm living as I complete this sentence. And it couldn't be more important to me."

A version of this story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.