ALL IN THE FAMILY – 10 Unforgettable Characters

ALL IN THE FAMILY on getTV

When a new sitcom debuted on CBS on Tuesday, January 12, 1971, it was accompanied by the following disclaimer: “The program you are about to see is All In The Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show – in a mature fashion – just how absurd they are.”

“CBS was nervous about it,” co-star Rob Reiner told PBS American Masters in 2016. “[They were] saying, essentially, ‘We don’t have anything to do with this show.’”

It wasn’t the first time All In The Family scared a TV network. Creator Norman Lear shot two different pilots with Carroll O’Connor as loveable bigot Archie Bunker and Jean Stapleton as his wife Edith: Justice For All in 1968 and Those Were The Days in 1969. ABC passed on both.

“They were afraid,” Lear told the TV Academy in 1998. “We were going to make [the audience] feel, or die in the attempt.”

At first, it looked like the Bunkers were dead on arrival. The 13-episode first season aired in the winter of 1971 to terrible ratings. Then, on May 9, All In The Family won three Emmys — Best Comedy, Best New Series and Best Actress for Stapleton. In his acceptance speech, Lear referenced the “three long years” it took to get the show on the air. But his persistence paid off. CBS re-aired the first 13 episodes over the summer and All In The Family became a phenomenon.

As you probably know if you’ve ever owned a TV, the Bunkers are a working-class family in Queens, New York. Loading dock worker Archie is the opinionated patriarch, Edith is his patient wife, Gloria (Sally Struthers) is his liberated “little girl,” and Mike (Reiner) is his argumentative son-in-law. Lear loosely based All In The Family on the British sitcom Til Death Us Do Part, but the series is really autobiographical. “Meathead,” “Dingbat,” and “Stifle yourself” were all direct quotes from Lear’s father.

All In The Family went on to be the top-rated TV show for five years, won 22 Emmy Awards, and is #9 on Rolling Stone’s list of Greatest TV Shows. But it wouldn’t have been as successful or enduring without its deep bench of supporting characters. Whether you enjoyed the series back in the 1970s or are just discovering it today, here are ten episodes that will introduce you to “The BunkerVerse.” And best of all, you can catch All In The Family every weeknight on getTV!  

1. Lionel Jefferson (Mike Evans) — Meet The Bunkers (Season 1, Episode 1)

Lionel Jefferson was the first All In The Family supporting player. He’s in all three versions of the pilot (played by D’Urville Martin in the first two) and is often pictured with the cast in promotional photos from season one. Mike Evans’s Lionel enjoys exposing Archie’s flaws, but he does it with affection and friendship. Evans appears in 33 episodes over the first five seasons, more than anyone other than the four series stars. He makes his final appearance in March of 1975, eight weeks after the premiere of The Jeffersons. Evans was also the co-creator of Lear’s Good Times.

2. Louise Jefferson (Isabel Sanford) — Lionel Moves Into The Neighborhood (Season 1, Episode 8)

We meet Lionel’s mother Louise (Isabel Sanford) in episode 8 when the Jeffersons move in next door. Over five seasons, Louise becomes one of Edith’s best friends and her relationship with Archie evolves from mutual distrust to begrudging respect. Sanford makes her last appearance on All in The Family in season nine when she and George sell their house to another African-American family. Including the spin-off, Sanford played Louise Jefferson for 14 years — longer than Carroll O’Connor played Archie.

3. Jim Bowman/Curtis Rempley/Frank Lorenzo (Vincent Gardenia) — Lionel Moves Into The Neighborhood (Season 1, Episode 8)

Vincent Gardenia plays three different characters, each important to the All In The Family mythos. The first is Jim Bowman, a racist who reluctantly sells his house to the Jeffersons. His next appearance is in The Bunkers and The Swingers, where he and Rue McClanahan play a polyamorous couple with designs on Archie and Edith. Gardenia’s third role is Italian-American salesman Frank Lorenzo, who moves in next door with his wife Irene (Betty Garrett) in season four. He ended up leaving the show after just eight appearances as Frank to pursue a film career. Gardenia received Oscar nominations for Bang The Drum Slowly (1973) and Moonstruck (1987).

4. Irene Lorenzo (Betty Garrett) — We’re Having A Heat Wave (Season 4, Episode 1)

Irene is a liberal who doesn’t follow gender-appropriate modes of behavior, at least in Archie’s eyes. She carries a set of tools in her purse, beats Archie at pool, and briefly becomes his boss. In real life, Garrett was a singer and dancer who starred on Broadway and in musicals like On The Town (1949). Garrett was actually the second choice for Irene. Sada Thompson (Family) played the role for one episode before she quit (with Lear’s blessing). Her scenes were reshot with Garrett, who won a Golden Globe for the series in 1975. She appears in 24 episodes over three seasons.

5. Henry Jefferson (Mel Stewart) — The First And Last Supper (Season 1, Episode 13) and George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) — Henry’s Farewell (Season 4, Episode 6)

When the actor he wanted to cast as George Jefferson was committed to the Broadway musical Purlie, Norman Lear made an unusual decision: he waited for Sherman Hemsley for more than two years and used Mel Stewart in the interim. Although they were essentially playing the same guy, Stewart’s character was actually George’s brother. When George finally showed up, Henry left and was never heard from again. Stewart did 8 episodes as Henry and Hemsley did 15 as George, including two after he spun off to his own show in 1975. All In The Family was his TV debut.  

6. Stephanie Mills (Danielle Brisebois) — Little Miss Bunker (Season 9, Episode 1)

When Struthers and Reiner announced they were leaving at the end of season eight, Lear decided to end All In The Family. But CBS and O’Connor wanted more, and Stapleton was willing, so the show continued for another year. In season nine we meet Stephanie (Danielle Brisebois) — often called Archie and Edith’s niece, but actually the daughter of Edith’s step-cousin. (Got that?) Stephanie’s mother has died in a car accident and her alcoholic father Floyd (Marty Brill) is incapable of caring for her, so Archie and Edith take her in. Stephanie is a textbook example of “Cousin Oliver Syndrome” (Google it), but Brisebois is adorable and her presence in Archie’s life inspires personal growth (particularly regarding her Judiasm). Brisebois has been a singer, songwriter and producer since All In The Family. She scored an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for “Lost Stars” from Begin Again (2013).

7. Barney Hefner (Allan Melvin) — Sammy’s Visit (Season 2, Episode 21)

Archie’s buddy Barney (Allan Melvin) is introduced in the season two episode where Sammy Davis Jr. visits the Bunkers. (Melvin had appeared earlier as a cop.) Later, Barney’s wife dies, and Archie and Edith set him up with Edith’s friend Blanche (Estelle Parsons), who eventually divorces him. Classic TV fans will recognize Melvin as Sam the Butcher on The Brady Bunch, the voice of Magilla Gorilla, and for tons of other roles in a 40-year career.

8. Teresa Betancourt (Liz Torres) — Archie’s Operation: Part 1 (Season 7, Episode 6)

Teresa is a Puerto Rican hospital admissions clerk who meets Archie in season seven when he has surgery. Three episodes later, she shows up at the Bunker house to rent Mike and Gloria’s old room while studying to be an x-ray technician. Liz Torres is hilarious in the role and has adorable chemistry with O’Connor. (Teresa calls him “Poppy.”) Four years later, Lear cast her on The Jeffersons spin-off Checking In.

9. Harry Snowden (Jason Wingreen) — Edith’s Night Out (Season 6, Episode 24)

Harry (Jason Wingreen) is introduced in season six as the bartender at Kelsey’s. When Tommy Kelsey (Frank Maxwell) decides to sell the bar, Harry and Archie compete to buy it. Archie wins and Harry becomes his business partner. Wingreen had a 40-year career as a character actor, with roles on The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and as the voice of Boba Fett in The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

10. Maude (Bea Arthur) — Cousin Maude’s Visit (Season 2, Episode 12)

Although she’s in only two episodes, Bea Arthur is one of the most memorable guest stars in All In The Family’s history. She’s introduced in season two as Edith’s liberal cousin Maude Findlay, visiting to help Edith take care of a flu-ridden Archie and Mike. When she returns just four months later, it’s for a “back-door pilot” for her own series. Maude, the first of many All In The Family spin-offs was, at times, even more controversial than All In The Family.

All In The Family airs Monday through Friday on getTV – four back-to-back episodes starting at 7pm ET and two more back-to-back episodes starting at 11pm ET. For a complete schedule, visit the getTV website.

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