“And it was so well done. It is a helluva show,” Lear told Variety.
Lear was the creator of “Maude,” which in 1972 featured a two-part episode in which Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur) decides to go through with an abortion.
The episode, he said, initially didn’t get much of a reaction at all. It wasn’t until the show was rerun that the religious right took notice.
“And then they laid down in front of Mr. Paley’s car in New York,” he said, referring to William S. Paley, the founder of CBS. “They laid down in front of my car in L.A., because they were ready. They knew it was coming.” Still, about 65 million people tuned in to the rebroadcast.
“The important thing to me is the American people are far wiser of heart and spirit than they are given credit for,” he said. “Because when it went on the air, maybe there were a few letters that complained, but there was no organized effort to make a crime of it.”
When an effort was launched to sell the show into syndication, some stations balked. But Lear asked Betty Ford, who called herself “Maude’s Number One Fan,” to attend a party to woo station executives. She did, and the show began selling much better.
“For me, the question of abortion was proved when we did that episode,” Lear said. “Before the religious right had a chance to organize a protest or complaint, America swallowed it. It was not that big of a deal. It was nothing they didn’t hear about or talk about. Or you didn’t learn in any neighborhood in America.”
While there has been harsh criticism coming from the religious right over the “Scandal” episode, advertisers didn’t pull their spots and the network didn’t apologize. He called creator Shonda Rhimes brilliant” and Washington a “sensational actress.”
Asked whether there were still any issues, like abortion, that are the third rail for primetime TV, Lear suggested that the reaction was telling. If the response to criticism is, “You have the right to feel that way, bless you, but we’re moving on,” he says, “it’s a further sign we’re growing up.”