Blustery bigot Archie Bunker fundamentally changed American television just sitting in his living room in Astoria, Queens.
When Norman Lear's All in the Family premiered in 1971, TV sitcom dads tended to be absent-minded, apolitical sorts bemused by their families' shenanigans and gentle dramas.
Archie (Carroll O'Connor) was none of that. The world may have been awash in social change, but he was going to stand firm against the tide. He wore his prejudices on his sleeve (if you weren't white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, he had a problem) and he never minced words or slurs when it came to race, gender or politics.
His family was at ground zero for his vitriol and a source of conflict. His wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton), was as sweet as he was acerbic, and though he called her "dingbat" she was kind, usually supportive and sometimes smarter than given credit for. He frequently called daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) "little girl" even though she's grown with a mind of her own. But he saved most of ire for his argumentative, radical college student son-in-law, Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner), whom he called "Meathead," unless he could think of something more insulting.
America found humor in his often wrongheaded rants, and the show was No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings for the first five years it was on the air. In dealing with a wide range of controversial topics, it altered the perception of what was appropriate for TV, opened the door for a slew of other edgy sitcoms and kept its live studio audience in stitches, never needing a canned laugh track.
The 28-disc All in the Family: The Complete Series (1968-1979, Shout! Factory, not rated, $200) collects all 208 episodes of the groundbreaking show. It includes two unaired pilots — And Justice for All and Those Were the Days — that were made in 1968 and 1969 for ABC, but were rejected. The series aired on CBS from 1971 to 1979.
The set comes with a 40-page book with essays, a new interview with Norman Lear, documentaries about the show's creation and impact, and pilot episodes for spinoffs Gloria, Archie Bunker's Place and 704 Hauser.
Lear created the show based on the British comedy Till Death Us Do Part. During its run, such issues as abortion, women's liberation, Vietnam, rape, homosexuality and civil rights were addressed. And although he was crude in expressing his ultra-conservative views, O'Connor still managed to make Archie a decent guy who really did care about his family. Those Were the Days, the theme song that Archie and Edith sang as she banged on the piano (in front the live audience) before each episode, finds them longing wistfully for simpler times when "guys likes us we had it made."
The show's run at the top of the ratings was matched in television history only by The Cosby Show (1986-90) and bested by American Idol (2004-2011). It produced several spinoffs, some of which had spinoffs of their own: Maude (1972-78), starring Bea Arthur as Edith's liberal cousin; The Jeffersons (1975-85), starring Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford as a black couple, moved from next door to their "deluxe apartment in the sky"; Archie Bunker's Place (1979-83), which picked up where Family left off with Archie as a tavern owner; 704 Hauser (1994), which featured the Cumberbatch family, headed by John Amos, who moved in years later to Archie's old address.
Maude successfully spun off Good Times (1974-79), which starred Esther Rolle as Maude's former maid, Florida Evans, and Amos as husband James Evans, who lived with their family in Chicago. The Jeffersons begat the very short-lived Checking In (1981) featuring their housekeeper Florence (Marla Gibbs) and Archie Bunker's Place spawned Gloria (1982-83) with Struthers reprising her old role, but divorced from Michael and back in New York after living in California.