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Bill Loud, patriarch of ‘An American Family,’ TV’s first reality show, dies at 97

Bill and Pat Loud on the “Dick Cavett Show” in 1974. (ABC Photo Archives/ABC photo archives/Getty Images)

Bill Loud, the beleaguered father whose family life was turned inside out and examined by millions during a 12-part 1973 documentary series, “An American Family,” that is considered television’s first reality show, died July 26 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 97.

The death was confirmed by his former wife, Pat Loud, who said doctors told her they did not know the exact cause of death.

“An American Family,” a PBS series created by filmmaker Craig Gilbert, chronicled the Loud family of Santa Barbara, Calif. — Bill, Pat and their five children — for seven tumultuous months.

They were an affluent, good-looking family living the California dream, as cameras followed the Louds from May 1971 to Jan. 1, 1972, in what Time magazine called “the ultimate soap opera.”

In the course of the series, the family home almost burned down in a wildfire, the children, ranging in age from 13 to 20, tested their freedom, and Bill and Pat struggled with a marriage that unraveled to the breaking point — all in full view and judgment of the world.

At a time when “The Brady Bunch” was still in production, the real-life dramas of the Loud family played out in full view on the small screen, with more than 10 million people watching each week.

Some admired the family’s courage and openness, and anthropologist Margaret Mead said the series “may be as important for our time as were the invention of drama and the novel for earlier generations: a new way to help people understand themselves.”

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Other armchair analysts dissected the family’s every move — afternoons by the pool, the kids’ long hair and loud rock music, the parents’ tipsy cocktail parties — and were all too eager to portray the Louds as superficial symbols of the fraying social fabric of America.

During the series, the Louds’ oldest son, Lance, moved to New York to join the gay underworld and became the first openly gay person on television. (Bill Loud showed a genuine warmth and sensitivity toward Lance in the series.)

The ruggedly handsome Bill Loud, who was 50 at the time the documentary was made, said he did not regret inviting cameras into his family’s most intimate moments, even if he was often cast in a bad light.

He owned a struggling business that sold replacement equipment to mining companies, and he often returned home to face a lively, somewhat out-of-control household.

Suspecting her husband of infidelity, Pat Loud revealed in one episode that she “went down to the office one night when he was gone and went through all his credit cards, and saw all these fantastic places that I had been, only I hadn’t been there.”

In one emotionally searing scene, Pat Loud tells her husband, “I’ve spoken to a lawyer, and this is his card. . . . And I’d like to have you move out.”

“Well, that’s a fair deal,” Bill Loud said, without raising his voice. Then he added, “Pat, I think it’s shortsighted on your part.”

Displaying no anger beyond a haunted expression, he reserved a room at a motel, collected an extra suit and tie, then drove away in his white Jaguar.

By the time the episode was shown on PBS, the Louds were divorced.

“I was having a kind of second childhood,” Bill Loud said in 1982. “I was a completely irresponsible person, but if you could see yourself as others see you, you probably wouldn’t do half the things you do.”

William Carberry Loud was born Jan. 22, 1921, in Eugene, Ore. His father sold supplies to logging companies and owned a dance hall, among other business activities.

During World War II, Mr. Loud was a PT boat commander and participated in the Allied invasion of Normandy of D-Day in 1944. He also served in the Korean War and was awarded the Bronze Star.

He was a graduate of the University of Oregon and married a fellow native of Eugene, Patricia Russell, in 1950. The family settled in Santa Barbara in 1962.

After “An American Family” aired in 1973, Pat Loud moved to New York and wrote a memoir. Bill Loud stayed in Santa Barbara for several years and remarried. That marriage, to Carol Lee Sutherland, ended in divorce. He later settled in Houston and sold real estate.

A later generation of reality TV shows, such as “The Osbournes,” “Real World” and “The Jersey Shore,” reminded viewers that the Louds had been the first to allow their unscripted lives to be shown to the world as entertainment.

Despite the public scrutiny and second-guessing, most members of the Loud family had few regrets, at least at first. Years later, Bill Loud said, “We weren’t ready for the shock of it being presented as a picture of a declining family. We thought we were going to become the all-American, California family and we came out as the super tragedy.”

In addition to his former wife, survivors include four children, Kevin Loud of Phoenix and Grant Loud, Delilah Loud and Mechele Loud, all of Los Angeles; and two grandchildren.

In Episode 11 of “An American Family,” Bill Loud read a letter to his son Lance, in which he wrote about his marriage.

“Your mother,” he wrote, “is truly the only person I ever really loved with my entire heart and soul. She is a completely honest woman, with an honesty that makes her very beautiful to me.”

In 2001, as Lance Loud was dying of hepatitis C and HIV-related illnesses, he voiced a deathbed wish that his parents would reunite. The Louds’ daughters drove to Houston, picked up their father and brought him back to California.

Bill and Pat Loud did not remarry, but they began sharing a house in Los Angeles in 2002 and never parted.

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