It’s been more than 40 years since an episode of the hit network sitcom “All In The Family” broke new ground in the depiction of gay people and, in the process, ticked off the sitting president of the United States.
Now, in a clip from a documentary project provided exclusively to TPM, the show’s creator Norman Lear is giving his own take on why the episode — in which the show’s bigoted patriarch Archie Bunker discovers a longtime friend is gay — hit such a nerve with President Nixon, who slammed it for “glorifying homosexuality.”
“I wonder if the president didn’t have a problem with his own sexuality, the way he described those two guys as ‘handsome’ and ‘virile,’” Lear remarks in the clip.
Lear, 93 and still working, elaborated in an interview with TPM this week: “One hears in the culture so often of people taking great exception who turn out to have a problem with their own physical or sexual identity.”
The clip is part of a work-in-progress documentary called “Playing Gay: How America Came Out on Television,” that examines television’s role in bringing LGBT people mainstream acceptance. It was filmed a few years ago when director David Bender began working on the film, but only now is the clip being publicly released. (Nixon’s comments — made to his aides in the Oval Office — surfaced some years ago with the release of his White House tapes.)
“I remember being delighted,” Lear told TPM of hearing Nixon’s reaction. “I thought it was delicious that in the Oval Office — I didn’t care for what he was saying, I didn’t care for that particular president in any shape, way or form — but to hear the president and his confederates talking about that show and at some length, reasoning about it and comparing it to the Greek civilization, that could not have been more interesting.”
The episode, titled “Judging Books By Their Covers,” culminated in Archie’s friend — a strong, masculine former football player — telling him he was gay before beating him in an arm wrestling match. It has been praised for not only bringing a gay character into America’s living rooms, but presenting him in a way the defied stereotypes at the time and highlighted Archie’s own ignorance.
In the full cut of his comments, Nixon said he does not have any moral objections to gay people but that he doesn’t think “you glorify on public television homosexuality.” He suggested that “homosexuality destroyed” the Ancient Greeks, as well as the Ancient Romans and, for a period, the Catholic popes.
Bender said that hearing the Nixon tape — which he said “viscerally demonstrated the contrast between what was starting to appear on television and audiences who weren’t ready for it” — convinced him that he needed to make the film rather than write a book as he initially planned.
“Nixon was speaking for a lot of people of his time. This was the problem, there had been no positive gay images,” Bender told TPM. “What is fascinating is how much time he spent talking about a situational comedy with his two top deputies [H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman] in the Oval Office while we have troops in Vietnam — that it took him 11 minutes to tell you the impact it had on him.”
Nixon’s comments were widely covered in 2013, with their inclusion in the documentary “Our Nixon.” Lear had also heard them before being approached by Bender for the documentary, but he said that “when David brought it to me I was able to hear it again, and hear it again, and hear it again.”
“I didn’t think that there was anything in the episode that wasn’t of the moment,” Lear said.
It has been hailed by TV critics and the gay community alike as a monumental moment in television. It was one of many groundbreaking turns for the show, which Lear used as a vehicle to tackle the most controversial issues of the day: racism, feminism, abortion, among many others.
The iconic Archie, played by Carroll O’Connor, was a working class stiff who confronted the sweeping cultural changes of the ’70s with a scowl and a cigar from his ratty living room armchair. The episode on homosexuality came early in the show’s 1971-79 run. The series would soon go on to dominate Nielsen ratings for five years.
Work on “Playing Gay: How America Came Out on Television” is still underway and Bender has launched a Kickstarter to raise funds to continue its production. The film will also explore the impact of shows like “My So Called Life,” “Ellen” and “Modern Family.”
Bender said growing up before those shows, he wasn’t sure that as a gay man he was going to be able to pursue his dreams to work in politics. (He began working on political campaigns at the age of 12.)
“The first thing I saw that began to plant that seed of possibility and hope for me was that episode of ‘All In The Family’ in 1971,” Bender said. “I had no idea that Richard Nixon was watching it, too.”