Starting out as a comedy writer, then a film director (he wrote and produced the 1969 film Divorce, American Style and directed the 1971 film Cold Turkey, both starring Dick Van Dyke), he tried to sell an idea about a blue collar American family to ABC. They rejected the show after two pilots were filmed. After a third pilot was shot, CBS picked up the show, known as All in the Family. It premiered January 12, 1971 to disappointing ratings, but it took home several Emmy Awards that year, including Outstanding Comedy Series. The show did very well in summer reruns, and it flourished in the 1971-1972 season, becoming the #1 show on TV.
Lear's second big hit in TV was Sanford and Son, based on a British sitcom about a cockney junk dealer and his son. The principals here were now African-American, and the NBC show was an instant hit.
What most of the Lear sitcoms had in common are that they werere character-driven, had a flat, theatrical look similar to soap operas, and very often dealt with social issues of the day.
Lear's longtime producing partner was Bud Yorkin, who served as executive producer of Sanford and Son, but split with Lear in 1975. He started a production company with writer/producers Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein, but they had only one show that ran more than a year: What's Happening. The Lear/Yorkin company was known as Tandem Productions. Lear and talent agent Jerry Parenchio founded T.A.T. Communications in 1975, which co-existed with Tandem Productions and was often referred to in periodicals as Tandem/TAT. The Lear organization was one of the most successful independent TV producers of the 1970s.
In 1982, the company bought out Avco Embassy Pictures from Avco Financial Corporation, and the Avco part of its name was dropped. In 1985, Lear sold all his television holdings to The Coca-Cola Company, who then owned Columbia Pictures. He was no longer involved with the productions in any way.
The brand Tandem Productions was abandoned in 1986 with the cancellation of Diff'rent Strokes, and Embassy ceased to exist as a separate entity in 1987. Shows from Embassy that were still running were copyrighted to ELP Communications but featured Columbia Pictures insignia on them.
Lear's attempts to return to TV production in the 1990s with the shows Sunday Dinner, The Powers that Be, and 704 Hauser, the last one putting a different family in the house from All in the Family, were all flops.
Though their topicality dates them somewhat, many Lear's most popular shows continue to be shown to new generations today in reruns and even released on DVD.
In addition to his success as a TV producer and businessman, Lear is an outspoken supporter of liberal and left-wing causes. Taking a less active role in his TV productions in 1978, he soon turned his eyes to political activism, founding People for the American Way in 1981. He recently worked with Arianna Huffington to produce TV ads alleging the dangers of sport utility vehicles. Currently, Lear resides in Shaftsbury, Vermont in a house where poet Robert Frost once lived.
Notable TV productions
T.A.T. COMMUNICATIONS/EMBASSY TELEVISION/ELP COMMUNICATIONS: