It was called, simply, An American Family, and nothing like It had ever been seen on television. Every Thursday night for 12 weeks, the Loud family of Santa Barbara, Calif., had their lives stripped bare In messy, sometimes painful one-hour episodes on PBS. The series, which aired in 1973, was a national event, even as critics railed at what they saw as the family’s vapid, suburban existence. “These nice-looking people act like affluent zombies,” said one. “Their shopping carts overflow, but their minds an’ empty.”
Viewers, though, were riveted by the real-life drama. In the ninth episode, 10 million watched as Pat told Bill, her husband of 23 years, to pack up and get out. They never did get back together. Meanwhile their son Lance shocked viewers of the ’70s by publicly proclaiming his homosexuality; younger siblings squabbled; and the entire family seemed to unravel as the cameras rolled. What Initially looked like an Intriguing opportunity to Immortalize themselves In America’s longest home video turned out to be a Faustian bargain. The Lauds became part of the pop-culture vocabulary and an enduring symbol of the dysfunctional family. When the series ended, they were left to try to put their lives back together. Now, 20 years later, we take a look at how far they’ve come.
The parents: living separate lives while sharing a common history
Pat Loud, the family matriarch, who received the most attention and criticism, still finds it hard to discuss the series, which marked not only the end of her already crumbling marriage, but the end of her personal vision of the American Dream. “I had to rebuild my life at age 47,” she says in Hollywood, where today, at 66, she shares a small duplex with the documentary’s other star, Lance, 41. “If not for the strength of the family, we would have been destroyed.”
Before the series aired, she moved to New York City—joined eventually by four of her children—and soon began work on a successful book about her experiences titled Pat Loud: A Woman’s Story. A onetime history major who minored in English at Stanford. where she first met Bill, she became a struggling literary agent and began to mix with Andy Warhol, Paddy Chayevsky and others in the city’s cultural whirl. She stayed for nearly 14 years, but eventually, she says, “I was mugged, the apartment was robbed, it was time to leave.” After buying antiques for a dealer while living in England for three years, she began to spend part of her time in Los Angeles. In 1990 she finally settled in L.A., where she now works for a small graphic arts studio. Never remarried, she still shares Sunday dinners with Lance, daughter Delilah, 36, and son Grant, 38, and maintains a civil relationship with her ex-husband.
Bill, meanwhile, who often came across during the series as glib and shallow, suffered no bouts of introspection after the ordeal. Indeed, he reveled in his celebrity and claims that “when I left the family, I was never so relieved in all my life.” He began dating almost immediately and in 1977 decided to marry art teacher Carol Lee Sutherland, then in her 30s. “I was having a great lime, but felt I wasn’t being responsible,” says Bill, now 72, trying to explain why he married again. “Carol was a very attractive girl. We had two or three good years.” They were, however, married for nine before they divorced in 1986.
Alter selling his mining equipment company in 1985, Bill moved to Houston to be near son Kevin (who recently relocated to Denver). “I came to find a new way of life,” says Bill, who now sells real estate. He sees his kids once or twice a year and keeps in regular touch by phone. But he admits he hasn’t changed. “I’ve finally figured out I just have an adolescent situation going on here, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I have kind of a Jack Kennedy complex, I guess.” Bill also admits that he agreed to do the series because of ego and because lie thought it would bring the family together. “I’m sure I would do it again,” he says without hesitation.
The children: a sometimes-rocky road to normalcy after the TV fame
With blue lipstick, dyed rooster-red hair, red eye shadow and wildly exaggerated swish, Lance Loud used An American Family to tell the world he was gay. “I thought I was being incredibly unique,” Lance says, “but afterward I thought, ‘Oh. God, I’m going to be forever known as a famous fag.’ ” After he moved to New York City in 1971, Lance worked briefly as a magazine writer, formed a short-lived band called Mumps, then returned to California, where he earned a degree in English from Santa Monica College. Since 1984, he has had a column in a gay magazine called The Advocate, and he has recently become a contributing editor to Details, a young men’s fashion magazine. “We touched people,” he says, “and I still receive letters from kids who’ve seen reruns and who, like me, didn’t think anyone else like them was out there.”
Delilah is the family member who was least touched by the documentary. “The television critics called us a dysfunctional family,” she says in L.A., where she has lived since 1979. “Well, show me a family that isn’t.” Director of advertising for King World, a leading syndicator of television programs, Delilah is engaged to Wesley Haynes, 36, a graphic artist she has lived with for the past five years. “The series gave us exposure to a bigger, broader world,” she says. “We were always a very tight-knit family, and once we got up against the media we became even more united than ever.”
Though Grant felt the series was a humiliating invasion of his privacy, time has enabled him to find something good about it. “I hated my father, and he didn’t like me. I was scared of him,” he says at his home in Hollywood, which is practically within shouting distance of both Delilah’s apartment and his mother’s. “Now I have a really good relationship with him, and it’s because the series forced me to think about the relationship.” Grant, who filled the role of angry teenager in the series, now acts and does voice-overs in TV commercials. Though he has no immediate plans to marry, he’d like to settle down at some point. While he is still reluctant to talk about the TV program, he appears to have no regrets. “The show was an affirmation of fate, because what has happened to all of us seems correct.”
Michele, 35, the baby of the family and the one most affected by her parents’ divorce, is a children’s wear designer who lives in a sparsely furnished studio apartment in New York City. Though she has been married for five years to artist Gordon Voisey, 37, they currently live separately. “I wonder if I’m playing out my mother and father’s experience,” she says, adding that though she likes the idea of marriage and family, “I guess the idea is much bettor than the reality.”
Brother Kevin, 40, is the one Loud who seems happy with a conventional family life. He and his wife, Judy, 35, were sweethearts at UCLA in the ’70s, but when Kevin went off to William and Mary for his M.B.A., Judy married someone else. They kept in touch through friends, and when her marriage broke up after nine years, she and Kevin started seeing each other again. They have been married for 2½ years and have an 11-month-old son, Kevin Jr., plus Judy’s 12-year-old daughter, Kristin, from her first marriage. A communications specialist, Kevin, like his father, is not given to anguished self-examination, though he admits that seeing some of the episodes makes him sad. “I got my 15 minutes and I enjoyed it,” he says. “Life is a collection of experiences, and the more you have, the richer you are.”
JOYCE WAGNER in Los Angeles, JOAN JENKINS in Houston, MARY HUZINEC in New York City