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Television ratings do not yet measure such imponderables as national sorrow—but there must have been something like a collective catch in America's throat last Sunday night. "I feel the way you do after you've been to a friend's funeral," gulped Sally Struthers, after taping the show. "The weeping has stopped, but you're not adjusted to the loss. I have to get used to not seeing these people who were my friends—my best friends—the last eight years."

She was surely speaking as well for a predicted 50 million viewers who had just watched CBS's extended Bunker family break up after 183 bellowing, bickering, but always tender half hours. Creator Norman Lear's landmark All in the Family series was succumbing to a very contemporary malady: career mobility. Sally (Gloria Bunker Stivic) Struthers and Rob (son-in-law Meathead) Reiner were taking their tearful leave of the show for their own projects (the scripted reason was a new teaching job for Mike Stivic in Santa Barbara).

Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton have pledged one last season as arch-bigot Archie and the Dingbat. But will it play without the liberal counterbalance of their heirs? Would King Lear have worked without his offspring? Norman, by the way, traces his lineage not to the British monarch but to a vacuum cleaner salesman of Russian origin who told his wife to "stifle yourself." Producer Lear's own kin served as the, well, Archie-types of the series, and even before word was out that Norman was himself deserting TV for movies, no less an arbiter of the national treasure than the Smithsonian Institution formally requested Archie's and Edith's chairs for its archives. All in the Family was not only TV's most popular entertainment series (with an unequaled five straight years as No. 1); it was also the most important.

O'Connor may be slightly hyperbolic in claiming that "Archie is probably the greatest indigenous folk character in the history of our country." But Bunker has become, arguably, the best known, and certainly his show has changed the history of the medium that made it possible. From the premiere in January 1971 popular TV would never again be so safely Establishmentarian or mindlessly escapist. Step by step, Lear forced past network censors daring explorations of America's racism and sexism, and shattered prime-time taboos against discussing realities like homosexuality and rape and, yes, even menopause. He also spun off Maude and The Jeffersons, and was emboldened to try the more socially satirical Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood 2-Night.

All that creativity came from a producer-writer who back in Connecticut was called "the laziest white kid I ever saw"—another of his father's lines that Norman put in Archie's mouth. Obviously, Lear was so affected by last week's finale that he found himself unable to exit the series with anything but an admitted "shameless tearjerker." "The last week of shooting was hard on Norman and the kids," recounts O'Connor. "I had doubts that we could get through it. Jean and I were hurting, too, because the people we loved were leaving." Watching the final rehearsals so upset Lear that he left the set, self-consciously returning with dark glasses over his reddened eyes. To blot out her feelings, Struthers repeatedly played Bette Midler's Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. Reiner contained himself on the set but remembers crying while driving home on the freeway.

No sob track was required for the final taping before an invitations-only studio audience of 300, which included the president of CBS Entertainment, columnist Abigail Van Buren and 50 schoolteachers. "You could hear them on tape, sobbing, sniffling, rustling hankies," reports Lear. If the show itself was spiked with vintage Bunkerisms, the curtain fell on an emotional ending with all the actors embracing tearfully. "I cried, everybody cried," says Allen Melvin, who plays Archie's lodge brother Harry and showed up in the audience for the end. "It was very sad. It was more than acting."

The cast wasn't always one happy family. Twice O'Connor threatened angrily to walk off the series in salary hassles. "I do not make nearly as much as stars of some other, less highly rated shows," he still huffs at estimates that he makes $2 million. "If a movie star asked for $1 million or $3 million, it would not be considered out of line." He even contemplated backing out of the 1978-79 finale before deciding "I didn't want to be the one to kill the show—my image has never been that good in the press." In fact, O'Connor has jousted all along with the show's early print critics, who came to appreciate the series much later than the public at large. To O'Connor, TV reviewers are "the sorriest journalists in America, writing their pseudoscholarly bullshit. I'd like to include in that group my cousin John J. O'Connor [of the New York Times]," he adds. "He's a fathead."

The show's most memorable blowup erupted between O'Connor and the then insecure Struthers after she sued unsuccessfully to break her contract in 1975. "I was terrible," she admits. "I was not happy at the time and dumped all my anxieties, hostilities and frustrations on everyone else." When O'Connor finally exploded, "He told her off like only he can," recalls director Paul Bogart. "She fled the set, weeping. When we found her, she asked, 'Did you hear what he said? I thought of him like my father.' "

That storm forgotten ("Now we laugh about it," she says), O'Connor, 53, has become a surrogate parent to Struthers, 29, whose own father died in 1968. "My wife, Nancy, and I think of Sally as a daughter," he says. Struthers, in turn, affectionately calls him "Daddy" and leaned on him during what she now writes off as a prima donna period. "He saw me go through an engagement, dates, boyfriends," Sally says. "He always disapproved of them because he thought none of them was good enough for me. Just like my own father would have." Appropriately, it was O'Connor who introduced Sally to Dr. William Rader, 40, the writer-psychiatrist she married last December.

What is more surprising than the disputes is that the 48-hour weekly rehearsal and taping sessions produced so little abrasion. "We were like a really good repertory company where everyone comes in and works like hell to make a memorable evening in the theater," says O'Connor. "The show was a total collaborative effort," agrees Reiner, recalling "the time the janitor walked through the story conference and contributed a joke. We used it, too." After each run-through of the script, the cast would critique it. "The creative input from all the actors was marvelous," says Lear. "They psychoanalyzed themselves and each other and the scripts so much that I often worried we would never get anything on tape."

So whither Lear's fab four?

Reiner, 31, is following his father Carl's creative path, writing and producing a prospective history-as-comedy called Free Country for ABC. He also stars in it as an 89-year-old immigrant on the Lower East Side, playing the character as a young man in flashbacks. "We started taping those shows right after the last All in the Family," exults Rob. "Ain't no flies on me."

Struthers and Rader (who helped write a couple of Family episodes about the problem of amphetamines) are now working on a two-hour TV movie, First Do No Harm. Sally stars as feminist heroine Kathryn Stuart Huffman, who launched the campaign for warnings on birth control pills. Before that, though, the Raders left last weekend for an Israeli kibbutz where the oldest of his three children from his first marriage lives. "We will get to Jerusalem before Frank Sinatra," she cracks. Struthers is also a board member of the Christian Children's Fund. She is now mulling scripts and ideas for a new starring series on CBS and says a guest shot on Family in the fall would be fine, "if I'm free and can get the right money." (She was up to an estimated $10,000 a week this past season.)

Such a reappearance, incidentally, could bring a reprise for two temporarily unemployed actors—Jason and Justin Draeger, the 2½-year-old twins who play little Joey Stivic. The children of LAPD officer Steve Draeger and his wife, Dara, they were cast jointly when only nine days old to avoid slowdowns caused by child-labor laws—infants under six months are limited to working 20 minutes at a stretch under the lights. Their salary has gone up to $225 for each appearance, and as a result of suing the production company, they can now collect a share of the Joey Stivic doll, the "first physically correct male doll." Small wonder Justin once referred to O'Connor as "Santa Claus."

This summer Stapleton, 55, returns to star at director husband Bill Putch's Totem Pole Playhouse, his 25th season at the Pennsylvania summer theater. Though downtrodden on the tube, Jean continues her outspoken support of ERA and is making a half-hour documentary on the Houston Women's Conference called A Simple Matter of Justice. Stapleton already has a TV movie bio of Eleanor Roosevelt in the works, but the part she most dreams of playing is, of all people, feminist nemesis Phyllis Schlafly. "She has such specific definition," says Jean seriously. "And the voice inflections alone would make it a terrific part."

O'Connor, because of the indelibility of his characterization, may have a harder challenge. "On live TV, he is the best," says director Bogart, "but now being so universally known as Archie could limit his roles." Yet already this past season, his own production company developed properties for him like NBC's The Last Hurrah. As for All in the Family (the title will remain), Carroll says, "I hope people approve of what Jean and I do in our last year. Knowing that this is the absolute last season adds a certain edge."

Bogart speculates about writing in another Maude-like antagonist or even having Archie and Edith separate while she pursues a career and he chases flippy young women. ("One can trace eight years of what's been happening to women in the character of Edith Bunker," Lear maintains.) "Anything can happen," agrees Jason Wingreen, who plays Archie's bartender partner, Harry. "Archie and Edith could take a round-the-world trip. Could you imagine Archie in Africa?"

Lear, 55, is himself planning a twice-postponed April junket to mainland China with Rob's parents, Carl and Estelle Reiner, and Grant Tinker and Mary Tyler Moore, among others. "I've done 700 hours of television in 16 series over the last eight years," he confides of his planned shift into movies. "But I feel reasonably afraid. It's always easier to leave an old room than to enter a new one." As Archie and Edith might play it on the piano in America's favorite TV living room, "Those were the nights." "What we had the last eight years," says Reiner, "was more important than fame or money. They were like a family to me. We loved each other."