It was the final breakup of an American home, and it happened before 300 weepy onlookers in a little corner of Queens just footsteps away from Sunset Boulevard.
People sniffled and dabbed at their eyes throughout Friday night's taping of the season's last episode of "All in the Family." The waterworks inside nearly matched the Biblical rains outside the studio when Gloria and Mike said their goodbyes to Archie and Edith.
The goodbyes were for real, and everybody in the invited audience -- from CBS Network President Gene F. Jankowski of the mother of series creator Norman Lear -- knew it. Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers, who play Mike and Gloria Stivic, are leaving the show for separate projects of their own. Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton as Archie and Edith Bunker will stay on for at least one more season.
So when Edith hugged Mike and Archie hugged Gloria and Gloria hugged Edith and Mike even brought himself to hug Archie -- and tell him, "I know you always thought I hated you, but I love you" -- it was art hugging life as it rarely does for television or anything else.
Except that about an hour later, everybody was hugging everybody else again during a party at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
It could have been worse. Lear, who knocked television for a loop with "Family" in 1971 and went on to produce 15 other series, some of them "Family" spinoffs, had been declaring all year that the eighth season of "All in the Family" would be the last and that production would stop even though the show remains a hit.
CBS has anything but a surplus of hits, however, and Robert A. Daly, president of the entertainment division, spent long hours talking Lear into another season with just O'Connor and Stapleton, who were both willing to continue in roles that have made them the kind of national figures that only television can create.
There were plenty of misty eyes anyway because Lear announced last week that he is leaving too -- not only "All in the Family" but the Tandem Productions empire ("Maude," "Good Times," "Mary Hartman" and many others) that grew out of it.
Lear, something of a multi-emotional exhibitionist anyway, was also having a hard time keeping the old cheeks dry during the week of rehearsals and rewrites.
"During one run-through I had to go off for 10 or 15 minutes to compose myself," said Lear, in his trademark white pork-pie hat and baggy sweater. "I was running around in dark glasses much of the time." Tears and More Tears
Struthers had to turn her back to the audience when introduced to them by Lear prior to the final taping because "I was weeping," she said later. Reiner recalled, "I'd be driving down the freeway on the way to work and suddenly break into tears. It hasn't been an easy week."
The viewing nation will be able to see the source of all this trauma on March 19, when the last episode, No. 824, the 186th show, is televised on CBS. It's the third part of a trilogy that began last night when Mike learned he'd won a teaching job in Santa Barbara, Calif., and he and Gloria prepared for the move west.
To underscore the momentousness of this milestone and further complicate it.Carl Scheele, a Smithsonian curator, had arrived from Washington to claim the chairs in which Archie and Edith have sat for eight years for the Institution's Museum of History and Technology, where one day they will go on permanent exhibit.
Lear had said yes to this request when he thought "Family" would be folding completely. Now the Smithsonian will have to wait at least a year to take possession of the chairs, but the bearded Scheele was there for a brief ceremony after the show anyway.
The first telecast was on Jan. 12, 1971. The program, adapted by Lear from a British version, introduced America to the most unlikely hero ever at the helm of a situation comedy. In that first episode, "Connor, as the bigoted Bunker, referred to members of minority groups as "spics" and "spades" and "black beauties" and "hebes." Much of the program involved arguments between Bunker and his son-in-law, Mike, whom he considered a bleeding-heart liberal responsible for "the breakdown in law and order." Sneaking on the Air
America had never seen or heard anything like this on its little television set before, at least not in the context of comedy entertainment, and CBS was so nervous about the show that it was sneaked onto the air without a peep of publicity nor even a storyline in TV Guide. Eventually it became the target of repeated and prolonged controversy, but beyond the social significance of the program lies another fact that makes it a landmark in television. Never before has the best comedy show on TV also been the best dramatic show on TV and that's why none of the weeping and wailing on Friday night seemed inappropriate.
The Bunkers and the Stivics and the country went through a lot together in the years that followed the first telecast. There was Vietnam and Watergate and Gloria's miscarriage; recession, inflation and Edith's menopause. Archie suffered hypertension; Mike, temporary impotence. Edith learned that a lump in her breast was not malignant; Gloria was sexually assaulted. An old man named Mr. Bernstein died in the Bunker's living room one night and Archie realized that he had never even learned his Jewish friend's first name.
In fact, Archie himself came closer to death than almost any viewer knows. Three years ago, when O'Connor was making one of his periodic threats to quit the series, writers had to come up with contingency scripts in which the family learned that Archie had died in a plane crash.
According to one of the show's former writers, those scripts never had to be filmed because O'Connor returned to the fold. But a couple of seasons later, the very same scripts were altered slightly and used on "Good Times" when the father on that show, played by John Amos, was written out of the series.
O'Connor seemed edgy the day of the final taping, which is not unusual for actors and especially not for him. During one afternoon rehearsal he threw the company photographer off the set even though he had previously given permission for the fellow to take pictures.
But later the whole gang did sit down obligingly and smiled for a group photo taken on the set, O'Connor in Archie's chair jauntily sporting his immortal beer can. To get serious expressions on their faces, someone called out, "Walter Lippmann."
But Struthers and Stapleton wanted a "funny face one" too, so the photographer obliged while he ensemble did facial contortions at the count of three. Alternate Joeys
The actors were also on their best behavior whenever Jason or Justin Draeger, the 2-year-old twins who alternate in the role of baby Joey, were brought onto the set by their mother to appear in a scene.
Those final tearful farewell scenes in the Bunker living room were actually done four times Friday, once because of the Draegers and something called "baby pre-tape." These are scenes taped early with the baby in case the kid acts up and ruins the scene during the taping of the actual show.
Stapleton would hold the child on her lap and talk softly to him during breaks in the shooting. "Watch for the light," she said to the squirming tot. "Later, we'll go upstairs and see the big doll."
O'Connor joined her on the set and made faces to amuse the child and keep him content. Later, during the first taping of the full-length show (each episode is taped twice"). O'Connnor said to director Paul Bogart, "Let's go before the kid asks for more money," and then he added jokingly, "Hell, that's what i always did." The crew laughed appreciatively.
During the second taping, the other twin was brought in to play Joey and when he spotted OConnor the child blurted out, "Santa Claus!
Lear came out to do the last warm-up himself; he'd done the first one of each season of "All in the Family" and all his other shows and this would be his last. In his honor, members of the crew changed from their usually sloppy-boopy jeans and T-shirts into black tie, even the women.
"Oh my goodness!" shouted Lear, who had put on a suit and tie himself. Actually he had to change clothes anyway because during a dinner break between the two tapings he had pushed his face into a cake on a dare from the cast. The cake had been inscribed, "We're not losing three people, we're gaining three parking places." "The Best Actor"
Lear was boisterous in praising the cast and staff during his sentimental warm-up. He called Struthers "glorious." Reiner "glorious," Stapleton "glorious," and O'Connor -- no, not glorious -- but quite simply "the best actor in the United States." In the exhilarating bravado of the moment, none of these points seemed remotely debateable. When the audience wasn't crying it was standing and applauding.
At the party, the band struck up the show's theme song, "Those Were the Days," and O'Connor took Struthers for a whirl around the dance floor. There was still more hugging, kissing and sniffling. Lear said, "We're a very huggy, touchy, feely company," and there really was a family ambiance to the whole affair.
Bob Schiller, who with his partner Bob Weiskopf, wrote the final episode and most of the shows this season -- including the one in which Edith was nearly raped -- watched Norman's dancing with bemusement. "You know." Schiller said, "Norman wanted the last show to flash forward 50 years. We all wanted to do a wedding. So tonight while we're watching the show he says to all, 'I told you the wedding was a great idea.' A selective memory is wonderful."
In the final show, both the Stivics and the Bunkers repeat their marital vows in a hilarious ceremony set in the living room.
"It's very hard to walk away after eight years with people you love," Reiner said at the party. "In that final scene. I didn't have to act, i just had to look in Carroll's eyes. I'm getting choked up now just talking about it again."
In two weeks, Reiner will begin work on "Free Country," a series he is developing for ABC that will comedically trace an American family from 1909 until the present. He realized, however, that he may never again have a role that becomes so much a part of the national consciousness as Meathead, Archie Bunker's son-in-law. "Let's face it," Reiner said. "This show has had the single greatest impact of all time." He said it is conceivable that he and Struthers might return for a guest appearance next sea[Text omitted from sources]