UPDATED WITH DGA STATEMENT
Bud Yorkin, a film and TV director, producer and writer who partnered with Norman Lear on the groundbreaking television comedies All In The Family, Maude, Good Times and Sanford and Son, died today of natural causes at his home in Bel-Air. He was 89.
“As one of television’s most influential director-producers, Bud was a driving creative force behind some of most memorable and innovative sitcoms and variety shows on television, including The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son and An Evening With Fred Astaire,” said DGA president Paris Barclay in a statement. “Through his work on All in the Family, including directing one of the original pilots, Bud helped usher in a new era of topical television with a groundbreaking mix of comedy and social commentary, making the show one of the most influential in TV history. During his 40-year career, Bud received multiple Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, as well as a DGA Award nomination for his television special Danny Goes It Alone (1961). A DGA member since 1955, Bud served for 14 years on the Guild’s Western Directors Council beginning in 1981. The DGA extends its condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.”
Yorkin won writing and directing Emmys for the special An Evening With Fred Astaire (1959) and another for directing The Jack Benny Program in 1960. But it was as director and co-producer of many of the 1970s shows that broke the sitcom mold that Yorkin helped write pop-culture history by introducing topical, real-world elements of class, race, politics and social change, as well as previously unseen settings into comic situations.
“In 1959, Bud produced and directed The Fred Astaire Show, which won nine Emmys,” Lear said tonight in a statement. “We then became partners. His was the horse we rode in on, and I couldn’t love or appreciate him more.”
Yorkin and Lear met while working on The Colgate Comedy Hour, and they formed Tandem Production in 1959. The pair teamed on TV productions throughout the 1960s, but everything changed when Yorkin saw, and Lear first read about, a British TV comedy Till Death Us Do Part. Together they set about transforming its basic premise of an urban show about a working-class family into a Queens, NY-based comedy called All In The Family.
Lear and Yorkin had their star, Carroll O’Connor, as the bigoted, blustering family patriarch Archie Bunker. They sent the show to ABC — where it went nowhere. After recasting the younger roles with Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers, Yorkin directed the pilot and took it to CBS.
“ABC passed on [All In The Family] — it was too controversial,” Yorkin told the Archive of American Television in 2007. “Now we’re watching the second pilot … and Fred Silverman’s walking by and he’s says, “This is going on CBS.” I must say they had some bravery. We never changed three words from the first show that went on the air.”
Silverman picked it up for 13 episodes on the spot. It took, however, a long series of battles with CBS’ standards-and-practices suits before the first show was broadcast. All In The Family was an an instant sensation when it bowed in January 1971, reigning as the No. 1 primetime program for its first five seasons and remaining in the top 12 throughout the decade. A product of the tumultuous times, it would become one of the most controversial and culturally influential half-hour comedies in TV history, winning the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy in each of its first three seasons and being nominated every year of its run.
That show’s success also helped extinguish CBS’ fixation on rural comedies — read Green Acres, Petticoat Junction and the mother of them all, The Beverly Hillbillies — and usher in a new era of urban-based, socially conscious and relevant comedies during a time when the country was in the throes of the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements. Yorkin and Lear would go on to own 1970s TV comedy, teaming in rapid succession on Sanford And Son, which bowed in 1972; the All In The Family spinoff Maude (1972); the Maude spinoff Good Times (1974). Sanford and Maude also were out-of-the-box commercial and critical hits, among the top four primetime shows in their freshman year and staying among the top 10 for several seasons. The Jeffersons (1975), another All In The Family spinoff, starring Sherman Hemsley as the Bunker’s former neighbor, an African-American entrepreneur who makes it out of Queens and “moves on up” to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, would run for 11 seasons under Lear’s TAT banner.
Yorkin and Lear split up Tandem in 1975, and Yorkin later formed TOY, a partnership with Saul Turtletaub and Bernie Orenstein that was acquired by Columbia Pictures Television. In 1976, Yorkin was the exec producer of another urban comedy, this time on ABC. What’s Happening!! lasted through the decade.
Born Alan Yorkin on February 22, 1926, in the coal mining town of Washington, PA, he discovered a passion for writing comedy sketches while serving in the Navy during World War II. After earning a degree in electrical engineering from Carnegie Mellon (then Carnegie Tech) on a football scholarship, he started his television career as a camera engineer for NBC. He soon switched to working as a stage manager, then a writer, for NBC’s variety showcase, The Colgate Comedy Hour. Hosts Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis eventually tapped Yorkin to work as a director on that show, which led to other helming gigs for such variety series as The Spike Jones Show and Light’s Diamond Jubilee.
He went on to direct The Dinah Shore Show, The Tony Martin Show, The George Gobel Show and The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show. In 1957, he wrote, directed and produced the wildly popular special An Evening With Fred Astaire and its follow-up Another Evening With Fred Astaire.
Yorkin also directed a number of features as well, including Come Blow Your Horn (1963), Never Too Late (1965), Divorce American Style (1967), The Thief Who Came To Dinner (1973), Arthur 2: On The Rocks (1988) and his final project Love Hurts (1990).
Yorkin is survived by his wife Cynthia Sikes Yorkin; sons David and Michael; daughters Nicole and Jessica; and four grandchildren. A private funeral is planned.