A Look Back at 1970s TV
All About '70s TV
The 1970s brought some interesting changes to television. Sitcoms were prevalent, but in many instances, they stepped well beyond the somewhat mindless hilarity that was common in earlier shows. Social issues of the day began to emerge and to be addressed in primetime programming in a way it never had before.
Cops and detectives, as well as doctors and paramedics, filled TV screens too. Of course, that's not to say that there weren't some very frivolous topics filling the airwaves. Stick around and re-live some of the '70s TV that left its mark on our lives and on television today. Don't forget to take the test to see if you really know your stuff!
Social Issues and Diversity in the 1970's
One of the shows that received critical acclaim from '70s TV was Norman Lear's All in the Family. Although it was a sitcom, it covered some controversial topics and highlighted some talented actors. Carroll O'Connor starred as Archie Bunker and Jean Stapleton as his wife Edith. Also living with them was Gloria (Sally Struthers) their daughter and her husband, Mike (Rob Reiner). The conflicting philosophies between the generations and even between neighbors of different ethnic backgrounds provided a fertile ground for debates on politics, religion, racial stereotypes, and much more.
Ethnic diversity seemed to expand in the 1970's. Shows like Good Times and Sanford and Son presented a point of view from one segment of the African American population, the urban poor.
Good Times followed a poor family living in a Chicago housing project and struggling to get by. Esther Rolle was Florida, the mother, James Amos played her husband, and JJ Walker played the eldest son JJ. A very young Janet Jackson even had a role on the show in later seasons as Penny, the daughter of a neighbor.
Sanford and Son, on the other hand, was set in LA and focused on the relationship between Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) and his adult son, Lamont (Desmond Wilson). Fred was an outspoken, crotchety old man who ran a junk business with Lamont. Unfortunately, Lamont carried most of the burden of running the business and suffering from the results of Fred's antics in his endless battles with other friends, neighbors, and family members.
On Chico and the Man, Jack Albertson played an aging white man who runs a small business in a neighborhood that has grown increasingly diverse. He's very uncomfortable with this and distrusting of his neighbors until a young Chicano man, played by Freddie Prinze, manages to get a job with him and becomes a friend. Although the show was popular for a couple of years, it faded away after Freddie Prinze committed suicide just two years into its run.
Women also began to take on stronger roles in the 1970's. Even in shows such as Mary Tyler Moore, a change was occurring. For the first time, the female lead lived on her own, had a satisfying life, and her focus wasn't a husband, children, or even a boyfriend. She wasn't just a secretary or Girl Friday, she was a professional. In shows like One Day at a Time families were also recognized as changing. With this show, a divorced woman was the single head of household raising two teenage daughters. Bonnie Tyler played the mother and her daughters were portrayed by MacKenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli.
In addition to changing lifestyles, were other issues surrounding the events of the time. MASH was a show that focused on the lives of the surgeons, nurses, and staff of a field hospital in Korea during the Korean War. Humor was a tool used by the characters to cope with the horrors of war. Although certainly a comedy, it did present a somewhat realistic view of what war is really like. From death, disability, and even mental illness, it addressed the effects not only upon the soldiers but upon those serving behind the lines and civilians as well. Despite its setting in Korea, it is generally believed to be a commentary on US participation in the Vietnam conflict.
The Lighter Side of '70s TV
Despite some of the more serious messages in sitcoms, some of the more traditional shows were still popular on '70s TV. The Brady Bunch which started its run in 1969 was still popular.
Happy Days came along in 1974 and starred Ron Howard (Richie Cunningham), Tom Bosley (Mr. Cunningham), Marion Ross (Mrs. Cunningham), and Henry Winkler (Fonzi) among others. It was a nostalgic show set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that took a look back at family life in the 1950's and early 1960's. Much of the show featured the activities of the kids at Arnold's drive in and for much of its run, saw the high school drop out, Fonzi, as the central character.
Springing from Happy Days was Laverne and Shirley" with Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams as well as their friends Lenny and Squiggy.
Mork and Mindy was popular for a couple of years and introduced Robin Williams to his first real taste of fame. He was an alien from the planet Ork who came to earth to study and better understand humans. Luckily, he quickly encountered Pam Dawber (Mindy) who befriended him.
For millions of young girls though, shows like The Partridge Family were even more memorable. The show was basically the story of a family which formed a pop group, including their mother. Shirley Jones was the mother of characters played by David Cassidy (the teenage heart-throb), Susan Dey, Danny Bonaduce, Suzanne Crough, and Brian Forster. Several popular songs sprang from the show including I Think I Love You!, I Can Feel Your Heartbeat, and I Woke Up in Love This Morning.
Taxi came along late in the decade and gave viewers a look into the lives of a group of cab drivers. Judd Hirsh, Marilu Henner, and Danny DeVito among others starred.
Three's Company was among the sillier offerings, with three young people rooming together in a somewhat unusual situation. With Jack (John Ritter) as the only male in the trilogy of roommates, he had to pretend to be gay to avoid eviction by the landlord. Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt were the female parts of the trio.
Welcome Back Kotter with Gabe Kaplan was a humorous look at a teacher who returned to his old neighborhood to work with some tough kids who needed some extra help. The "sweat hogs" included a new to the scene, John Travolta.
The Bob Newhart Show was a fun program with a storyline that focused on a psychiatrist and some of his more interesting patients. For a glimpse into the wacky goings-on and personalities at a radio station, viewers in the '70s could enjoy WKRP in Cincinnati.
Family dramas were popular and some of the most watched were period pieces like Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons (set in the depression era). Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert played primary characters on Little House while Richard Thomas found popularity on "The Waltons". Both of these shows continued their success in reruns for generations to come.
Love Boat and Love American Style were popular among those searching for a bit of romance. These shows presented a few vignettes mostly focused on the relationships of various couples or families. Fantasy Island had a similar style but focused more on people trying to attain a dream or wish which could be granted while visiting the island. The results were not always what was anticipated.
1970's TV Solved Crimes
Law enforcement was a common theme on '70s TV as well. Some of the shows were based on fantasy and superheroes such as Wonder Woman (Lynda Carter), The Six Million Dollar Man (Lee Majors; Farrah Fawcett's husband at the time), and the Bionic Woman (Lindsay Wagner). Marvel based movies are popular now, but superheroes weren't unheard of in the '70s decade.
Also on a fairly light note, was the popular series Charlie's Angels. The show ran for several years beginning in 1976. There were numerous cast changes but Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson, Cheryl Ladd, and David Doyle figured prominently. Of course, there have been a couple of movie remakes of the once popular show in the years since.
While the Angels might be the most recognizable figures in this genre from the '70s, other police and detective shows were also popular. Shows such as Columbo with Peter Falk as a very shrewd but outwardly bumbling detective, McCloud, with Dennis Weaver as a cowboy who comes to the big city to show the cops how detective work really gets done, and McMillan and Wife were Sunday night favorites.
Banacek with George Peppard, Kojak with Telly Savalas, and Cannon with William Conrad were other offerings.
Adam 12 with Martin Milner and Kent McCord took viewers on the beat with patrol officers in LA, while CHiPS took us along with Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox on the California Highway Patrol. Barney Miller was a comedy set in police headquarters with Hal Linden at the helm.
With a 12 year run, Hawaii Five-O was one of the most successful shows in the cops/detective genre. Jack Lord played the lead as Steve McGarrett who was in charge of a state police force based in Honolulu Hawaii.
Another viewer favorite at the time was The Rockford Files which followed sometimes employed detective Jim Rockford (James Garner) in his efforts to catch the bad guys without getting into any violent situations.
Other Popular Shows From the 1970's
Shows with a focus on the medical profession also did well on the television screens of the '70s. Emergency! followed paramedics on their runs, Marcus Welby, M.D. (Robert Young) in the office of his family practice, and Medical Center (Chad Everett) in a large university hospital setting.
The Muppet Show sprung onto screens in 1975. If featured Kermit the Frog as leader of a troupe of acting puppets which included, among others, Miss Piggy.
Also debuting that year was Saturday Night Live which still runs today. The original cast of "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" included Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtain, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, and later, Bill Murray as well as a claymation character named "Mr. Bill". Coneheads and Land Sharks were among the popular skits and Roseanna Roseannadanna was a hit for Gilda Radner.
Variety shows were still around to some extent. Hee Haw was a popular, long-running country version while Donny and Marie (Osmond) and Sonny and Cher were also around. Of course, a number of musicians had their own shows. Tony Orlando and Dawn and The Hudson Brothers are just two more examples.
Of course, The Carol Burnett Show showcased a talented cast of Carol Burnett, Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway, and Harvey Korman among others with outstanding comedic sketches. Comedian Flip Wilson had his own show and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In wrapped up its schedule in the early '70s.
Talk shows like The Mike Douglas Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson were still around. American Bandstand with Dick Clark was still somewhat popular and Soul Train emerged in those days before MTV and the later explosion of video services and streaming.
Popular evening soap operas started to spring up toward the end of the decade. Shows like Dallas and Knots Landing made their debut during this time. Miniseries also started to hit home TV screens. Roots, Rich Man, Poor Man, and Centennial were among some of the most successful.
The Test - Think you know '70s TV? Find out here!
See answers at the bottom of the page.
#1 In real life, Shirley Jones was David Cassidy's:
#2 Which '70s TV private investigator had been in prison?
#3 Which two Angels were sisters on the show Charlie's Angels?
#4 Who was Mary's neighbor on the Mary Tyler Moore Show?
#5 Which '70s law enforcer was famous for saying
#6 Which character was a manager/friend to the Partridge family?
#7 What was the name of the eldest son on Happy Days?
#8 What kind of car did Jim Rockford drive?
#9 On MASH, what was Hawkeye's hometown in Maine?
#10 Which show was a spin off of All In The Family?
The Answers: How Did You Do?
#1: Step mother
#3: Cheryl Ladd and Farrah Fawcett's characters
#4: Rhoda Morgenstern (played by Valerie Harper)
#6: Reuben Kincaid
#7: Chuck Cunningham (seldom seen)
#8: Pontiac Fierbird
#9: Crabapple Cove
#10: The Jefferson's
© 2009 Ruth Coffee