“Persuasive” was a word that came up often on Monday night at the Television Academy in North Hollywood, where Norman Lear spoke at an event that honored his past and continued contributions to TV.
As the father of “Television That Says Something,” Lear has waged some legendary creative battles. One of the most memorable resulted in a historic two-part television storyline that would arguably have a bumpy road to air even now.
The episode was called “Maude’s Dilemma” and featured Bea Arthur’s titular character getting an abortion.
“[The head of CBS standards and practices] called me when he got the [outline] and said, ‘You’re out of your mind. You’re kidding,’” Lear remembered during the panel, which doubled as a celebration of “The Interviews: An Oral History of Television,” a collection of archive interviews with TV legends.
The person on the other end of the phone was William Tankersley, the head of CBS standards at the time and a “great guy,” by Lear’s account.
Tankersley, who was among the people who spoke fondly of Lear in clips shown ahead of the panel, was in disbelief and a back and forth ensued.
As a compromise, Lear recalled, they wrote a character who was a friend of Maude’s that could in a way act as a moral center.
“She was pregnant. She couldn’t afford the four children she had and she was pregnant again, and she would no more think of an abortion than anything in the world,” Lear said.
The move made the episode “better,” Lear admitted, but added that the hierarchy of network standards “can drive you crazy.”
The two-part episode aired in November 1972, two months before the Supreme Court would issue a decision in Roe v Wade.
The aftermath of story is well chronicled. CBS received thousands of letters and religious groups staged protests (Lear said they “laid down” in front of his car in Los Angeles and did the same to CBS Television founder William S. Paley.) But Lear recalled the whole battle to get the episode on television with – naturally – humor.
“No state succeeded from the union.”
Lear was joined on stage by the cast and producers from Netflix’s “One Day at a Time,” a show that continues Lear’s legacy of timely, topical fiction, with storylines about PTSD in veterans, immigration and LGBTQ youth.