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SU Newhouse School TV guru Bob Thompson reflects on producer Norman Lear's legacy as he turns 100

Carrol O'Connor and Jean Stapleton
Bettmann Archive
Bettmann/via NPR
Scene from All in the Family where Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) is lecturing his wife, Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton) about a piece of jewelry she's wearing.

Most Central New Yorkers have watched or at least have heard of shows like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, and other groundbreaking shows from the 1970’s. What do they have in common? Legendary television producer Norman Lear. He turns 100 years old Wednesday. Syracuse University Newhouse School Trustee Professor of television and popular culture Bob Thompson says Lear's legacy is felt today.

"No question in my mind that all in the family, Norman Lear's first really big show, was the single most influential entertainment television program of all time in the United States. News shows, that might be different. But TV prime time entertainment was one thing before Norman Leer put all in the family on the air, and it was something completely different after he did that."

Thompson says unlike shows of the previous decade that were mostly fantasy, Lear infused his shows with his take on the controversial social and political issues of the day.

"These were not disguised message kind of shows. Maude did a two part episode pre-Roe V Wade...abortion was legal in New York, but Roe V. Wade hadn't happened yet. He did a two part episode in which Maude gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion."

Thompson says the shows, their characters, and the topics they covered were nothing short of revolutionary, and changed the industry forever.

"I think Norman Lear and all those actors essentially save American entertainment television from its complete head in the sand, deliberate by policy ignoring anything of controversy or of contemporary relevance and launched us into a completely different era, which we're still to this day, the beneficiaries of."

The audio link on this page features Thompson's full interview with WAER's Scott Willis.

lear ted 2016.jpg
Bret Hartman/Bret Hartman / TED
TED Conferences, LLC via flickr
Norman Lear at a TED talk in 2016.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at