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Norman Lear Told Social Issue Stories With Familiar Daytime Stars

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The legendary TV creator leaves behind a memorable body of work.

Familia soap opera faces can be seen in series created by Norman Lear.Photo bySoap Hub

Norman Lear, who passed away on December 5 of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles, will be remembered, of course, for his prime-time sitcoms All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, and Good Times. However, the late TV producer/creator, who lived to the age of 101, is also responsible for developing a show that shined a prominent light on the world of soap operas.

Norman Lear: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

“It’s the difference between a painting on a canvas and a mural on a full wall,” Lear was quoted as saying in the 1979 tome, All My Afternoons by Annie Gilbert, about writing a serialized drama. With this in mind, Lear created the TV show Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, starring Louise Lasser. His goal with the series was to examine how consumerism affected the American housewife.

The mega-success of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman brought attention to the soap opera world. Two tomes in the 1970s that examined daytime serials contained the name of Lear’s series in their titles: From Ma Perkins to Mary Hartman: The Illustrated History of Soap Operas by Robert LaGuardia and From Mary Noble to Mary Hartman: The Complete Soap Opera Book by Madeleine Edmondson and David Rounds.

Arguably, Mary Hartman was a spoof of soaps but Lasser and the rest of the show’s cast played their characters in their own grounded reality, making it easy for viewers to get caught up in the show’s outlandish storylines. The series lasted from 1976 to 1977. After Lasser’s departure, the program was retitled Forever Fernwood and then became Fernwood 2 Night.

Lear had another serialized syndicated nighttime drama, All That Glitters, which ran for three months in 1977. The show’s cast included Linda Gray (Sue Ellen, Dallas) as fashion model Linda Murkland, the first series regular transgender character.

Lear never wrote for a daytime soap opera; however, he not only told social issues on his sitcoms, as soaps do, but some of his most memorable ones employed actors who are well-known to soap opera fans.

Anthony Geary (ex-Luke, General Hospital) and the late Phil Carey (ex-Asa, One Life to Live) guest-starred in the 1971 All in the Family episode, “Judging Books by Covers.” The show’s plot had Archie balking at Mike (Rob Reiner) and Gloria’s (Sally Struthers) pal, Roger (played by Geary), suspecting that he was gay because of Roger’s mannerisms. Later, Archie’s army buddy Steve (played by Carey) indicated that he was gay — after beating Archie in arm wrestling.

Lear changed hearts and minds through humor with his sitcoms. In a 1977 episode of The Jeffersons, titled “Once A Friend,” Veronica Redd (Mamie, The Young and the Restless) played George’s (Sherman Helmsley) pal “Eddie,” a transgender, who was now going by the name “Edie.”

Kimberly McCullough (ex-Robin, GH) directed episodes of Lear’s One Day at a Time revival. She took to Instagram to share her feelings on the sitcom creator. “My hat goes off to your, sir Norman,” McCullough wrote. “What a wonderful life you lived. In my very first directing job, only 6 weeks after having a baby, I was feeling fragile and not quite ready to get back to work.

“On the set of One Day At A Time, you squeezed my chin and said, ‘Look at you! A baby directing our show.’ It wasn’t condescending at all,” McCullough clarifies. “In fact you seemed thrilled by how far we’d come in the industry, giving young women a seat at the table. I replied, ‘I’m not a baby. I just had a baby.’ You gave me nod of approval saying, ‘Even better. You let me know if you need anything.’ That meant the world to me. Thank you for your service of the television industry, of our country and being a stand up human. #ripnormanlear.”

“Thank you for the moving outpouring of love and support in honor of our wonderful husband, father, and grandfather,” reads a statement from Lear’s family. “Norman lived a life of creativity, tenacity, and empathy. He deeply loved our country and spent a lifetime helping to preserve its founding ideals of justice and equality for all. Knowing and loving him has been the greatest of gifts. We ask for your understanding as we mourn privately in celebration of this remarkable human being.”

Lear is survived by his third wife, Lyn Davis, six children, and four grandchildren. Soap Hub sends sincere condolences to Lear’s loved ones at this difficult time.

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