Like a Shakespearean drama, television began the 1970s with a monarch named Lear. At the end, he was off the stage, but he and a new breed of producers, writers and performers had demonstrated TV’s potential for quality.
The monarch, of course, was Norman Lear, the producer whose programs taught us that “reality” and “television” together did not necessarily form an oxymoron. Television entertainment had all but ignored the social tumult of the ’60s; Lear forced it, better late than never, to grow up. With Archie Bunker and All in the Family, adapted from the British smash Till Death Do Us Part, TV came as close as it ever has to capturing the crosscurrents of American society; The Jeffersons showed us minorities neither subjugated by racism nor elevated onto a liberal pedestal; Maude gave human form to one of the decade’s slogans: “I am Woman, hear me roar”; and its spinoff, Good Times, made dy-no-mite out of what might have been desperation. In his most outrageous coup, Lear (and his partner, Bud Yorkin) placed a hilarious, foulmouthed, burlesque comic named Redd Foxx in a junkyard setting and landed in the Top 5 with Sanford and Son.
More than ever before, TV characters were free to be flawed. We cheered Mary Richards when she triumphed, but we understood when she, or Lou or Rhoda or Murray, missed the mark. The Mary Tyler Moore Show brought forth Rhoda, Phyllis and Lou Grant. MTM Enterprises—the brainchild of Moore and her then husband, producer Grant Tinker—continued to specialize in fallible, admirable characters through Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere to today’s Newhart.
Humanity dominated the decade, from the precinct houses of the thoughtful Columbo and the quirky Kojak to the mid-America of the hapless Mary Hartman to the battlefield of the peerless M*A*S*H. Although the homey verities of The Waltons made America feel warm without often challenging it to thought, some shows pushed the constraints of the form: Writer Alex Haley and producer David Wolper brought unprecedented power to the miniseries with 1977’s Roots, an eight-night national catharsis. It was an era of heady independence, when as mainstream an actor as Hal Holbrook could portray a gay father in That Certain Summer with dignity—and without reprisals from skittish advertisers.
Comedy-variety experienced a Renaissance with The Flip Wilson Show and the zaniness of The Carol Burnett Show. And when NBC decided to turn over a traditional ratings wasteland to producer Lorne Michaels and his young, censor-busting comedians, America rushed home for Saturday Night Live.
But breakout freedom was also vulnerable. The decade’s top programmer, Fred Silverman, had brought All in the Family and its cousins to CBS. But he’s now mostly remembered, unfairly, for jumping to ABC and then NBC and shrewdly targeting the youngsters of the Baby Boom generation for more silliness. He sent a sine wave of “jiggle” rippling through the land—Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg’s Charlie’s Angels soared to ratings heaven and led inexorably to shows like Three’s Company, which made the airwaves safe for innuendo.
The decade that began with Mary and Lou, Edith and Meathead, went out with Laverne and Shirley, Joanie and Chachi. Norman Lear decided to go on sabbatical. Dallas heralded the emergence of the prime-time soap opera as TV’s new dominant form. In the next decade, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, etc. would make heroes out of villains—and do wonders for the careers of fading movie types like Joan Collins and Jane Wyman. As television, along with the nation, retreated from confrontation in search of comfort, some viewers began to look back at the early ’70s as the medium’s second Golden Age and to agree with Archie and Edith: Those were the days…
Golfing in mine fields and bedding every nurse they could, the medicos of M*A*S*H survived 11 seasons of grand tragicomedy in Korea but were decimated by plot twists: From left, Hawkeye (Alan Alda) had a nervous breakdown in the last episode; Klinger (Jamie Farr) wore dresses for nearly a decade in a gamy attempt to look mentally unfit; Colonel Blake (McLean Stevenson) was lost at sea on his flight home; and Major Burns (Larry Linville) went AWOL when his five-year romp with Hot Lips Houlihan (Loretta Swit, inset) ended. In the art of proving war is hell, they were all heaven-sent.
It was played for laughs, but Barney Miller may have been the most accurate portrayal of cops on TV. The motley, flawed, valorous men of a Greenwich Village precinct (from left, Hal Linden, Max Gail, Steve Landesberg) handled the city’s flotsam—thieves, muggers, hookers, werewolves—but the funniest cop, Abe Vigoda, got transferred to Fish.
There was plenty of spice in Pepper Anderson (Angie Dickinson), the undercover Police Woman who took on the sort of seamy vice capers that would soon lift Charlie’s Angels to fame and glory. Sexily got-up to impersonate call girls and molls in the line of duty, Angie, of the million-dollar legs, won every case but one: She couldn’t convince her liberated sisters that this was a step forward.
The ensemble TV show featuring a large, rich array of characters has a mighty family tree that now includes Gunsmoke, All in the Family, M*A*S*H (see above) and Hill Street Blues. The form got one of its happiest additions with the arrival of The Mary Tyler Moore Show clan in 1970—from left, Murray (Gavin MacLeod), Lou (Ed Asner), Mary (MTM), Ted (Ted Knight), Sue Ann (Betty White), Georgette (Georgia Engel), Rhoda (Valerie Harper) and Phyllis (Cloris Leachman). They were long-lived too. The show ran seven years; its cast, in other roles, ran about 40 years.
Dallas was the first successful nighttime soap since Peyton Place, and for sheer, adulterated deviltry, Texas made New England look backward. Even when things got unpardonably silly—viewers were asked to believe one whole season was a dream—the oglesome olio of villainy and virtue stayed hot. Southfork’s original wrangling residents: (from left, top row) Bobby (Patrick Duffy), Pamela (Victoria Principal), Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes), J.R. (Larry Hagman) and (bottom row) Lucy (Charlene Tilton), Jock (Jim Davis) and Sue Ellen (Linda Gray). The family that preys together…
Had Bing Crosby accepted the role which originally was offered to him, Columbo would have been a lot different, kids. Peter Falk, with his lopsided squint and a badly rumpled raincoat, made a great tour de police force out of a cagey lieutenant who fooled richer, suaver killers. Columbo himself was a mystery—we never saw his wife or learned his first name—but his origins were lofty: According to co-creator William Link, Columbo was drawn from the detective in Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment who feigned awe for his quarry’s intelligence.
Having learned about Western life while growing up on Bonanza’s Ponderosa, Michael London became a patriarch. Little House on the Prairies Charles Ingalls was a kindly homesteader eking out a living for his wife (Karen Grassle) and daughters (from left, Melissa Sue Anderson, Lindsay Greenbush and Melissa Gilbert). The eight-year run of the show, based on the children’s classic, gave London a special distinction: He has spent 22 years starring in two separate, major TV hits.
“Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?” The question was posed at the beginning of The Odd Couple, starring Tony Randall as a compulsive neatnik and Jack Klugman as a compulsive slob. The answer: “No,” but it sure was fun to watch for 13 years.
You think you got car troubles? Danny DeVito (left) was Taxi’s short, mean—we mean mean—dispatcher, the late Andy Kaufman (right) a mechanic of unknown origin and unrecognizable accent, and Judd Hirsch the sanest of the hackies. Though widely hailed, Taxi never ran up the Nielsen meter.
Was anybody ever better-scrubbed? Clockwise from top, Robert Reed, Eve Plumb, Maureen McCormick, Florence Henderson, Susan Olsen, Mike Lookinland, Christopher Knight and Barry Williams were The Brady Bunch, a hyper-extended family of a widow, widower and their kids.
Some strange bedfellows snuggled on the air in the ’70s. Top to bottom: As married, jet-setting sleuths in Hart to Hart, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (Stefanie Powers) and the man from Switch (Robert Wagner) were seen under covers as often as undercover. In Norman Lear’s satirical Mary Hartman, Louise Lasser, hubby Greg Mullavey and daughter Claudia Lamb shared pillow talk about everyday life—mass murder, paralysis, impotence…On Rhoda, Valerie Harper, mom Nancy Walker and sis Julie Kavner shared a bed after Rhoda wed, then divorced, having learned a lesson: Wedding bells can sound a death knell for a sitcom.
The Waltons were hardworking rural Virginia folks during the ’30s and ’40s, and the parents (Ralph Waite and Michael Learned, left), son John Boy (Richard Thomas, leaning) and Grandpa and Grandma (Will Geer and Ellen Corby) had a tough row to hoe: Besides tribulations and poverty, they were up against the smash Flip Wilson Show. When the brave Waltons won, they spawned a whole host of family series: Eight Is Enough, Apple’s Way and Little House on the Prairie.
Laverne & Shirley was an instant hit in 1976 despite critics’ complaints of witlessness and union complaints that its brewery belles (Penny Marshall, left, and Cindy Williams) made a laughingstock of labor. Penny (whose brother Garry produced the show) and husband Rob Reiner of All in the Family tracked their two smashes until they split in 1980. Cindy, who had dated Henry “the Fonz” Winkler and David “Squiggy” Lander, quit in a series of 1983 squabbles. The show folded that year.
Slinging burgers at Mel’s Diner for 9 long years, widowed mother-waitress Alice (Linda Lavin, left) won an award for championing the female blue-collar crowd. Also counter productive were Beth Howland (center), Polly “Kiss mah grits!” Holliday and Vic Tayback, who created Mel in the movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Happy Days, born on Love, American Style, lasted 11 seasons, and its sock-hop-heads produced some estimable spinoffs of their own: Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy, Joanie Loves Chachi. Co-star Ron Howard (right) went on to direct movies. Henry Winkler’s leather jacket was enshrined at the Smithsonian.
Richard Mulligan played a blue-collar dad, Cathryn Damon (left) his wife, and Katherine Helmond her spacey, wealthy sister in Soap, the most raged-about show of the ’77 season and probably the most explicit sitcom to that point. The plots of the satire on daytime soaps twirled around adultery, homosexuality, nymphomania, senility, illegitimacy, murder, exorcism and interplanetary sex. Once the shock wore off, it was still tasteless but hilarious.
Chico and the Man, one the rare series to star a Hispanic, turned Freddie Prinze from struggling comic into TV cover boy. The spotlight’s glare proved too much: Three years after the show began, Prinze committed suicide.
For the first time, TV opened a small window on America’s racial diversity, and this is how it finally happened. In 1970 The Flip Wilson Show became the first hit variety series to be hosted by a black. Flip (opposite page, in full tilt as Geraldine) ran four years before being evicted by The Waltons. In 1972 Redd Foxx, a wily comic vet, showed up on Sanford and Son (with Demond Wilson and Mary Wickes, bottom left), a comedy about a junk dealer. It was a smash. In 1974 Good Times, a Maude spinoff, followed: It starred John Amos and Esther Rolle (below) as parents of Jimmy Walker (in gimme cap), a schemer bent on figuring a way out of their upper-ghetto neighborhood. Then, in 1977, came Roots (left and inset). A dramatization of author Alex Haley’s quest for his ancestors in Africa and America, the miniseries took the country by surprise and storm, and three of its eight episodes rank among the Top 10 entertainment programs of all time. The moral was ironic and unmistakable: After years of exclusion from TV, blacks suddenly sold. But the real breakthrough was an irreverent, mainstream-TV sort of comedy, The Jeffersons, a show too civilized to seem a pioneer. George and Louise Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford, below middle) were a dry-cleaner-grown-rich and his common-sensical wife, and the stories were mostly about George’s psychic struggles to stay ahead of the (white) Joneses. By the time they left their luxury high rise in 1985 after 11 seasons, they had quietly achieved something special: They had made black faces at home—and familiar—on TV.
Loni Anderson (right) was one smart cookie in a cheesecake body, Howard Heseman (seated), who went to the Head of the Class, was a pattermad deejay, and WKRP in Cincinnati zanily jounced in and out of 12 time slots in four years.
Herve Villechaize got his feathers ruffled on Fantasy Island, a Love Boat dream-alike, but viewers were tickled by the dramatic values: wish fulfillment, bikinis, guest stars up the creek and suave Ricardo Montalban as a surefire magic-maker.
Robert Blake’s Baretta was one of the new kind of cop: weird, really weird. He had wit, chic ethnicity, a seedy pal (Tom Ewell), a cheap hotel room, a cockatoo named Fred and a bundle of tattered disguises. Fred, repeat this: Original.
Maude (Bea Arthur, middle, with Bill Macy, Conrad Bain and future co-Golden Girl Rue McClanahan) began as Edith Bunker’s unzippable cousin and quickly got her own show. Loud, biting and the proud owner of a facelift, she helped TV’s middle-aged women grow up.
The Six Million Dollar Man smooches The Bionic Woman! Lee Majors was an astronaut who was reassembled after his spacecraft crashed, his love goddess was Lindsay Wagner, and they created one of TV’s shortest-lived genres.
The notoriously raunchy sitcom Three’s Company starred John Ritter as a faux gay living with busty Suzanne Somers (right) and cute Joyce DeWitt. Also starring were leers and scanty costumes. It was roundly condemned and wildly popular.
Bonnie Franklin (right) was a divorcée with two pesky daughters (Valerie Bertinelli is shown) and a super (Pat Harrington Jr.) who figured himself for Cary Grant, but, taking things One Day at a Time in Indiana, they had eight good years.
As alien Mork, Robin Williams one-upped writers with his Mork & Mindy ad-libs. Yet the hit embarrassed him so much he did stand-up comedy gratis by night, and when Mork wed Mindy (Pam Dawber), the fun—and show—went pfffft.
The first to flaunt her navel and one of the first to badmouth her man in public, Cher used flesh, gaudy wisps of costume, vocal chords and sarcasm to drive herself and hubby Sonny, now the real Mayor of Palm Springs, to a three-year run and a 1975 divorce. In 1977 a Sonny and Cher revival was an augmented bust: Ridiculing an ex-hubby just didn’t seem so funny.
Telly Savalas shaved his head to play Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told, but his dome got its shining moment atop tough, kind Theo Kojak. “Who loves ya, baby?” the “loo-tent” asked for four-plus years, and still asks in reruns.