‘All in the Family’: Norman Lear Bought Rights to Produce Show in U.S. Without Watching Original

by Joe Rutland

Norman Lear will go down in history as one of television’s great pioneers. He apparently had a hunch about “All in the Family” that worked out.

See, Lear bought the rights to produce the show without even watching its British original. “All in the Family” is based upon the UK show “Till Death Do Us Part.”

Johnny Speight, who created “Till Death Do Us Part,” had his main character, Alf Garnett, gain popularity for his language and political stances.

Writer Emily Nussbaum picked up the story in her 2014 article for “The New Yorker.”

Norman Lear Uses Own Family For ‘All in the Family’

“When Lear read about ‘Till Death’ in ‘Variety,’ he felt a stab of identification,” Nussbaum writes. “His father, Herman Lear, a Jewish salesman from Connecticut, was a ‘rascal,’ in Norman’s words, who went to prison when Norman was nine, convicted of shady dealings; like Alf Garnett, he was at once loving and bigoted.”

Upon picking up the basic story around “Till Death Do Us Part,” Lear, according to Nussbaum, wrote out a rough treatment that would turn into “All in the Family.”

“He gave Archie one of his own father’s favorite insults for him—’you meathead, dead from the neck up’—and Archie, like Herman Lear, called his wife a ‘dingbat’ and demanded that she ‘stifle,'” Nussbaum writes.

In taking the story about “Till Death Do Us Part” to his own heart, Lear transposed the UK show’s elements into his triumphant show.

Famed Hollywood Actor Almost Played Archie Bunker

When Lear started thinking about who would play what parts, one name that came to his mind for Archie was Mickey Rooney.

People of the modern-day generation might not be too familiar with Rooney. Back in the 1940s, Rooney appeared in popular movies as the character Andy Hardy. He usually played Hardy alongside Judy Garland. Yes, the same Garland who played Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” and brought audiences to their feet around the world with her singing.

Lear actually called Rooney’s agent who, it just so happened, had his star client in his New York office. Now Lear was calling in 1970 and Rooney had aged in time, too.

Lear ended up chatting with Rooney himself about “All in the Family.” It didn’t go as planned. Lear said Rooney kept chatting in the third person. Rooney told Lear, “If you got something for the Mick, just tell ’em.”

Rooney wanted nothing to do with Lear’s show. So Lear left New York and headed out to Los Angeles. He met with O’Connor and the rest is TV history.