The Many Beginnings of ‘All in the Family’

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

In the late 1960s Norman Lear was making a comfortable living as a director of reasonably successful films. By the end of that decade, Lear had become driven with a singular goal: he had a vision of a television show, inspired by a British show Till Death Do Us Part that he read an article about in Variety, about a bigoted, curmudgeonly father and his relationship with his more liberal son-in-law. It took three tries shooting the same script, each time with cast changes, title changes, and piles of network notes until it stuck, but when it did, it became a phenomenon. Today we look back at the three pilot episodes of All in the Family and the launching of a television empire.

The first version of Lear’s script, entitled And Justice For All, was shot in New York on September 3rd, 1968 and much of what would appear in the final version of the series is present here. Most importantly, at it’s center, Carrol O’Connor was there as Archie Bunker from the very beginning. Well, basically. In this incarnation he plays Archie Justice, hence the title. According to Lear’s recently released memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, Carrol’s casting almost didn’t happen, as impossible as it is to imagine someone else in the role. Lear briefly flirted with putting Mickey Rooney in the role. However, the pitch didn’t get much further than “You play a bigot-” before Rooney cut him off with a fantastic Old Hollywood response: “Norm, they’re going to kill you, shoot you dead in the streets. You want to do a TV show with the Mick, listen to tis: Vietnam vet. Private eye. Short Blind. Large dog.”

Once Carrol walked in to audition, it didn’t get that much easier. Lear knew he was perfect for the role, but shortly after being told that, Carrol started completely rewriting the pilot script. Lear quickly stamped that out, and Carrol performed it as written, but he never truly believed the show would make it on the air, refusing to give up his apartment in Rome, since he was so skeptical of its success.

And Justice for All was filmed in front of a live studio audience, and in addition it featured Jean Stapelton as Edith Justice, who would remain through every incarnation of the show, and as their daughter Gloria, Kelly Jean Peters, and Tim McIntire as her husband Richard. Once it finally got on the air, All in the Family became one of the first sitcoms to go back to the three camera model, filming on videotape in front of a live audience, as opposed to shows like Green Acres and Gilligan’s Island which were shot on film with one camera, and then had laughs piped in. Eventually this would become the norm, but All in the Family ushered it in. This pilot was filmed in the same manner, but the camera is constantly moving. It rolls backwards for sweeping wide shots, it makes incredibly quick cuts between family members for split second reaction shots. It’s all very busy. I can imagine co-directors Lear and Gordon Rigsby felt that with everything confined to one, relatively stark set, it was their job to spice things up through the camera, but instead it becomes very distracting.

What most impressed me about the pilot was how unafraid it is to really go for it. All in the Family, of course, is famous for dealing with social issues in a very blunt way, showing things from Archie’s older perspective, and the younger couple’s more progressive perspective. Instead of dealing with just one thing, however, this episode-long argument deals with atheism, affirmative action, racism, anti-Semitism, sex, and whether sausage links are better than sausage patties. Lear’s pilot is basically saying, “if you want this show, I want you to know precisely what you’re signing up for.”

And Justice for All

ABC said no to And Justice for All, according to Lear, due to a lack of chemistry between Archie and Edith and the young couple, so the second pilot was filmed in Los Angeles on February 10, 1969, less than five months after the first, with a mostly untouched script. Gloria and Richard (now Michael) are played by actors Candy Azzara and Chip Oliver. In his book, Lear mentions that for this version they decided to film Archie and Edith singing “Those Were the Days,” which would become the name of this second pilot. However, in the version of And Justice for All linked to on YouTube above, the song still appears without the couple on screen.

The second pilot is almost identical to the first, besides the recasting. There are a few minor tweaks to the lines here and there, but on the whole it’s the same show. One interesting difference I noticed, is the show’s color palette. Through each of the living room/kitchen sets, the colors gradually get more and more muted. After reading Lear’s memoir I learned that he wanted to film the show in black and white, but the network wouldn’t allow it, so instead he decided to make the colors of his show resemble sepia tones, so that watching the program would remind viewers of looking through a family album.

Those Were the Days

A skittish ABC ended up passing on the second pilot, and to make a long story short, the show was sold to CBS, the kids were recast again with Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner, and the rest was history. A few more tweaks were made to the script the third time it was shot, so to demonstrate the differences, I’m zooming in on one scene across all three episodes, the first time the two couples interact in the story.

Just before Edith and Archie arrive at the house, a bit earlier than expected, Richard (or Michael depending on the version) is trying to get Gloria into bed since they have the house to themselves. In the first pilot, the pair is kissing and Richard begins to nod his head yes and Gloria begins to nod her head no with a giggle. This gets a laugh from the audience. He tries to cajole her and she explains that they don’t have time and then eventually she runs upstairs giggling and he follows her. When Archie and Edith come home and they come downstairs, Archie scolds, “At 11:10 on a Sunday!” and Gloria hugs him, while holding her bra.

In the second pilot, things progress in much the same way: He nods yes, she nods no, this time much less playfully. When she says “I don’t have time” this time with finality, this is where the audience laughs. The dialogue is the same, but instead of them racing up the stairs together, he picks her up and carries her and she continues her protesting as they walk off-stage. It’s much less fun and light, though the audience still laughs. The couple is again caught in flagrante, this time without the bra in hand, and Archie again remarks on the time.

In the final version of the script that aired, the seduction is much quicker: Michael suggests they enjoy their time together, Gloria says no, he says “C’mere,” kisses her and they walk off-stage. Archie and Edith arrive, and then, still kissing, Michael walks behind them, carrying Gloria with her legs wrapped around him. “At 11:10 on a Sunday,” says Archie Bunker.

Except, he almost didn’t get to on TV, according to Lear’s book. There were a lot of notes given by CBS’s standards department and a lot of rejections issued by Lear, but William Paley, the president of the network, wanted that 11:10 line removed due to the fact that it was suggesting sex. (Showing a young woman straddling her husband is fine, apparently.) Lear, believing that if he gave in now he would lose every other battle going forward, held fast, and the stand off continued until 25 minutes before the show was set to air. Eventually CBS gave in, put a brief disclaimer in at the top, and the show aired with Lear’s original script.

Some shows take a long time to perfect with drafts being edited and noted by executives. All in the Family got it right the first, second, and third time. It was just waiting for everything to come into place around it. It was a slight evolution, but when it got there, the viewers knew it.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” has a very self-explanatory title.

The Many Beginnings of ‘All in the Family’